German master on display

  • 2013-08-30
  • By TBT staff

DELICIOUS: Lucas Cranach the Elder. “The Virgin and the Child under an Apple Tree”

VILNIUS - Lucas Cranach the Elder (Lucas Cranach der Altere, c. 1472-1553), was a famous Renaissance artist, one of the key figures in the 16th century German world of art. The artist was born into the family of a painter in Kronache, upper Franconia in 1472. His initial knowledge of art came from his father. The artist moved to Vienna in 1501-02. There he joined humanists rallying around the University of Vienna. Taking the name of Lukas Cranach, after his birthplace, he started signing his works with the initials LC. Upon the invitation of Frederick the Wise, the artist moved to Wittenberg in 1505. Cranach remained a court artist of Saxony’s electors, Elector Frederick the Wise and his successors, Elector John the Steadfast and Elector John Frederick, for all of his life, but was free to receive other commissions.

Cranach decorated the interior of the palace for the electors of Saxony, painted portraits, altarpieces, mythological compositions, hunting scenes, created woodcuts and copper engravings, drew coin and costume design; he was also responsible for the decoration of weddings, tournaments and festivals. In order to execute all the commissions, he set up a workshop. In the beginning, the workshop operated from the castle of Wittenberg; later, after Cranach acquired some property, it operated in town. In 1508 the Electors of Saxony conferred knighthood on Cranach with a coat of arms depicting a winged and crowned snake with a ruby ring in its mouth. From that time forward, it was his signature for his works and workshops.

The artist was a close friend of Martin Luther and worked on the publication of Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and created illustrations for it. It was this work that led Cranach to set up a printing house where he subsequently printed other books and pamphlets by Luther. The artist also had a good relationship with a collaborator of Martin Luther, Professor Philipp Melanchthon of the University of Wittenberg, and illustrated his books.
Cranach was a talented portraitist who memorialized the most famous figures of that time in his works of art. He was one of the first German artists to start painting full-length representative portraits. The artist created a large number of religious scenes – altarpieces and devotional images for personal worship. Cranach, like Martin Luther and his Saxon electors, sympathized with the Reformation at a very early stage; however, the artist also took commissions from Catholic art lovers, including Luther’s main adversary, Cardinal Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg.

Next to traditional iconographic compositions, Cranach painted pictures in which he tried to express Luther’s teaching through images. The artist created many images of the Holy Virgin and Child. At the start of Reformation images of the Madonna were popular not only with Catholics; Martin Luther himself had an image of the Virgin Mary at his home.
In his pictures with the Madonna as well as in other works of religious subject-matter, Cranach emphasized theological and instructive content, using symbols that reveal the role of Jesus and Mary in the redemption of mankind. The artist also painted compositions incorporating apples to represent the first sin and the fall of humankind.

“The Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree” from the State Hermitage Museum is ascribed to the mature stage in the arc of Lucas Cranach’s career. With this depiction of the Virgin, the artist conveyed the ideal of feminine beauty which dominated his oeuvre in the third decade of the 16th century and became an easily recognizable signature of his style. A formal composition, enhanced by the frontal position of Jesus, creates an impression of solemnity and highlights the symbolic meaning of the picture. Jesus and Mary emerge before the viewer as the new Adam and new Eve: just as through Adam and Eve sin and death came into this world, so through Mary and Jesus redemption and everlasting life came. Mary is sitting under the apple tree which represents Paradise and the sin of the first human beings. In Mary’s iconography, the garden has another meaning stemming from the medieval identification of Mary with the Bride from the Song of Solomon who invites her beloved into the enclosed garden: “Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.”

At the Vilnius Picture Gallery, Didzioji str. 4, Vilnius. Tel. +370 5 2120841. Exhibition until Sept. 8. More information is available at