In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lucas Cranach the Elder

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of the Artist and Workshop
  • Cranach Historiography
  • East German Scholarship
  • Cranach’s Reformation Art
  • Cranach the Catholic
  • Reformation History General
  • Primary Sources for Lutheran Theology
  • Patronage
  • Prints and Polemics
  • Reformation Altarpieces, General
  • Law-and-Gospel Images
  • Schneeberg Altarpiece, 1539
  • Wittenberg Altarpiece
  • Weimar Altarpiece, 1553–1555
  • Cranach’s Madonna Pictures

Renaissance and Reformation Lucas Cranach the Elder
Bonnie Noble
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0452


Lucas Cranach the Elder, painter, printmaker, politician, and confidante of the Electors of Saxony, is famously credited with inventing pictorial vocabulary suited to the theological and social changes catalyzed by the Lutheran Reformation. Approximately 1,000 images from Cranach and his enormous workshop survive. Cranach spent most of his professional life in the city of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther was professor of theology at the new university. In the course of Luther’s attempts to reform the Catholic Church starting in 1517, the artist supported the theologian personally and professionally by inventing new types of pictures with propagandistic or pedagogical rather than devotional functions. To suit the new faith, Cranach invented the quintessential Lutheran subject, Law and Gospel, which mapped out the principles of Lutheran salvation by faith alone. This subject, first painted in 1529, became the basis for subsequent Lutheran imagery by Cranach as well as other artists. Cranach’s most famous Lutheran paintings include the monumental altarpieces in Schneeberg (1539), Wittenberg (1547), and Weimar (1553–1555). Cranach and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586) found a niche for Lutheran patrons by painting epitaphs. Before going to Wittenberg to become court painter to Elector Frederick the Wise, Cranach, who is named for his Franconian home town of Kronach, served the intellectual elite in Vienna, painting what are considered two of his most accomplished paintings, a pair of portraits of the young professor Johannes Cuspinian and his wife Anna, c. 1502–1503. Compared with his later work, produced in a factory-like workshop with assistants, these early works are some of his most beautiful. Despite his association with Luther, Cranach also continued to serve other patrons, including powerful members of the Catholic clergy, such as Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg. He also produced theologically neutral pictures that were likely acceptable to believers of different confessions, for instance Madonna panels that emphasize the Virgin’s humanity rather than her role as a Catholic intercessor. In his capacity as painter to Electors Frederick the Wise, John the Constant, and John Frederick the Magnanimous, Cranach’s workshop provided mythological subjects such as Venus and Cupid, legendary subjects such as the Suicide of Lucretia, and allegorical paintings of Melancholia. Though scholars have observed a decreased quality of Cranach’s art as his workshop grew and the role of assistants increased, the efficiency of his workshop and the scale of production represented a calculated risk for this man, whose art propelled him to power and wealth.

General Overviews of the Artist and Workshop

The enormous output of the Cranach workshop has received centuries of scholarly attention. Schuchardt 1851–1871 is a magnum opus, and arguably the beginning of serious research on Cranach and his workshop. Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, Schade 1980, and Koepplin and Falk 1972–1974 are exhaustive collections of data and information, and the place to start research in Cranach. Grimm, et al. 1994 and Schuttwolf 1994 are historically based companions to exhibitions, while Poulsen 2002 is more object-driven. Heydenreich 2007 analyzes Cranach’s material processes of production. Eusterschulte, et al. 2015 honors the birthdate of Cranach the Younger and extends knowledge of the workshop to the next generation.

  • Eusterschulte, Anne, Gunnar Heydenreich, and Elke A. Werner. Lucas Cranach der Jüngere und die Reformation der Bilder. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2015.

    Handsome edited volume accompanying a conference in honor of the birth of Lucas Cranach the Younger. Essays cover the career of Cranach the Younger, from archival evidence to formal analysis and theological expression.

  • Friedländer, Max, and Jacob Rosenberg. The Paintings of Lucas Cranach. 2d ed. Translated by Heinz Norden. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

    Useful catalogue of Cranach paintings. Convoluted arrangement of pictures rather than a clear chronological or thematic order makes the book difficult to use.

  • Grimm, Claus, Johannes Erichsen, and Evemaria Brockhoff, eds. Lucas Cranach: Ein Maler-Unternehmer aus Franken. Regensburg, Germany: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 1994.

    Cranach is treated as a historical figure, a businessman, and a politician as well as an artist. His output of pictures is the focus of an inquiry that is primarily economic and historical.

  • Heydenreich, Gunnar. Lucas Cranach the Elder: Painting Materials, Techniques and Workshop Practice. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

    Heydenreich is mostly concerned with the mechanics of workshop practices. Provides transcriptions of primary source documents, does not translate them either into contemporary German or into English. Heydenreich contends that Cranach was heavily personally involved in workshop production.

  • Koepplin, Dieter, and Tilman Falk. Lukas Cranach Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik. 2 vols. Basel, Switzerland, and Stuttgart: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1972–1974.

    This exhibition catalogue assembles information on Cranach and his workshop in two chaotic tomes. Useful for the variety of information offered within one work. A staple of Cranach research. Exhibition marks the 500th anniversary of Cranach’s birth.

  • Poulsen, Hanne Kolind. Cranach. Copenhagen: Statens Museum for Kunst, 2002.

    A more traditionally art-historical exhibition, emphasizing objects rather than economics and history. Prints, paintings, and catalogue entries in Danish but summarized in English. Emphasis on Reformation art.

  • Schade, Werner. Lucas Cranach: A Family of Master Painters. Translated by Helen Sebba. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1980.

    Chronological, biographical overview of Cranach workshop. It includes useful appendix with published primary documents. Valuable first introduction, including Cranach the Younger.

  • Schuchardt, Christian. Lucas Cranach des Aeltern Leben und Werke. 3 vols. Leipzig: J. U. Brodhaus, 1851–1871.

    Still the foundation of Cranach scholarship. Three volumes of detailed formal description and reproduced primary source documents. Like much 19th- and early-20th-century scholarship, objects are sorted and organized rather than interpreted.

  • Schuttwolf, Allmuth. Gotteswort und Menschenbild: Werke von Cranach und seinen Zeitgenossen. Gotha, Germany: Schlossmuseum Gotha, 1994.

    Historically oriented exhibition that treats not only paintings but also prints, book illustrations, and medals by Cranach and his contemporaries within historical context.

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