Cranach – Royal Academy – June 2008

Where to start with such a fascinating artist? The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, in the first room of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, is a good place.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

It is an extraordinary painting, recording the moment just after the miraculous destruction of the wheel being used to torture the expectant saint, and just before the beheading that ensures her martyrdom. The canvas is divided up, each section turned over to distinct parts of the narrative. There is the massive dark blast at the top right, wrenching open a hole in the cosmos; there is the tranquil path leading to the distant monastery at the top left; there is the gigantic figure of the executioner just about to grab the chin of Catherine, who kneels in astonishment. And then there is the fantastic jumble of defeated pagans who are crammed into some indeterminate space behind the scene of Catherine and her killer.

In this strip of figures, Cranach manages to describe a sense of infernal panic. What is striking is that it is the entire area that is filled – there are no patches of grass, nor chinks of light, nor indeed any space between the figures. Demonstrating a truism about early Northern painting, Cranach has no clear idea of how to depict the gradually receding space of a three dimensional scene. Accordingly, the viewer’s sense of the characters inhabiting a realistic space is somewhat compromised. But does this affect the impact of the painting? Of course not!

Such an approach allows Cranach to release his extraordinary visual and emotive imagination, squeezing in humans and animals which enliven the narrative of the painting. Indeed, the very application of a rational sense of space could in fact diminish the effect of the canvas, providing a calming gloss to a storyline full of fear and confusion. It is precisely this confused conception of the painted arena that gives the painting its urgency; one is reminded of similar scenes painted over 400 years later.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Pablo Picasso, detail from Guernica, 1936

See how the faces are varied – Cranach conjures up numerous ways of depicting the response to the miraculous and noisy intervention, we see shock, pain, trepidation and fear, and yet each face is different, of a distinct character. Particularly in the male figures, Cranach liked to paint their features in vastly different ways; look at how the three pairs of eyes just above Catherine’s head are documented.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Facial hair is equally variegated. There is also an astonishing variety of clothes and head wear depicted. The knight behind Catherine is literally crestfallen. On the left, there are the puffed curls of the turbans of the philosopher-like figures and on the right the more simple red hat of the pickpocket. There is also the extraordinary arrangement resting on top of the executioner – it will take a knowledgeable dress historian to explain its genesis.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, 1504-05

The commitment to detail, to compressing each last drop of human emotion into the painting is incredible. Even where there is the most minute space, Cranach has inserted another individual gazing in awe at the heavens, or a pickpocket taking advantage the chaos rather than leave the canvas blank.


The Martyrdom of St. Catherine deserves a close reading. This is true in a more physical sense as well; to get to grips with the huge jumble of figures, one needs to get close to the painting and work through all its details. This is not a painting that can be swallowed whole. While the graceful form of, say, a Raphael can be appreciated instantly, Cranach produced paintings, particularly his larger ones, which need to be brought closer to the eye and then read through. Just in the way a page of text needs to be brought up to the reader and then its individual elements worked through, so one needs to approach a Cranach and perceive its individual elements before comprehending the larger whole. Cranach’s paintings are works that demand close readings.

The dimensions of Cranach’s paintings play into this as well, as the Royal Academy’s curators have observed, placing twin portraits beside each other like facing pages of a book. The open covers of the diptychs (and occasional triptych) only serve to enhance this.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Holy Family Altarpiece, 1509

But more telling of all is simply the number of characters engaged in reading or holding books or bound manuscripts in Cranach’s work. The Holy Family Altarpiece (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) shows all different types of people reading. Thus we have the Virgin Mary in the centre, temporarily distracted from her book. The bearded man with red stockings in the right hand corner rather pensively considers the outsize volume held in his long-fingered hands. And at the other end of the triptych a young boy is studiously engaged in the green book nestled between in his knees. In Cranach’s world, man, woman and child are all free to read. Note too that the grissaile saint on one wing of the manuscript is also clutching a bound book.


Lucas Cranach the Elder, detail from St Valentine, date unknown

Never has an artist been so concerned with ugliness. Cranach has perhaps painted some of the least flattering images in western portraiture. He was concerned with beauty too (witness the numerous nude Eves, twirling their tresses in the garden of Eden), but he was much better at ugliness. The portrait of Saint Valentine (nowadays the patron saint of lovers) is an essay in grumpiness – the bloated nose, the triple chin, the close set eyes.


So passion, detail, beauty and ugliness – what more could you need? Surely, if Cranach can produce paintings like the Martyrdom of St Catherine, he touches greatness? Well, not quite. Save for the startling twin portrait of Jesus and Mary Magdalen (who may actually possibly the Virgin Mary) where all of Cranach’s deficits seem to have been shed in a painting which advertises an ambiguous similarity between the two figures, there is a lack of confidence in some of Cranach’s portraits that reduces their dramatic power.

From a distance they seem to have that steely precision which illuminates Holbein’s meticulous portraits; closer up, however, they lose that precision and have a lifelessness about them. What can appear as an exacting portrait of heavy jowls and fattened cheeks can actually descend into a bland concoction of paint as if the painter did not have quite the conviction in his talents. It may not matter so much when looking at an individual portrait, but when one sees it repeated over several in a single exhibition, the tendency to blur and fudge becomes manifest and ultimately disappointing.

Similarly, his many renditions of Adam and Eve become repetitive, and the insistence on that round headed, doe-eyed version of female beauty, with golden tresses pulled back to reveal a rather prominent forehand is a little cloying.

Cranach is at his best when forced to engage complex narratives or is inspired to add seemingly unnecessary detail to standard narratives – true for paintings such as the Catherine martyrdom but also to the prints and drawings. An insistence on imagination, ugliness and confusion does not detract from great art; rather it makes it.


Note on exhibition space at Royal Academy

The Royal Academy, despite being typically busy, was an excellent forum for the exhibition. Cranach’s pictures are usually so small in dimension that the four rooms of the Sackler Wing were sufficient.

Although more label information would have been appreciated for an artist whose work was particularly sensitive to the social context – I suppose dump all that contextual stuff on the audio guides these days

1 Comment

Filed under Renaissance, Royal Academy

One response to “Cranach – Royal Academy – June 2008

  1. I love this! Cranach is one of my favorite painters and I am so happy to read such insightful critiques online.
    I am making a blog page with some Cranach images and will love to make a link with your article send people over. I don’t have a huge following on my blog yet, but I am working hard on it. I will bookmark this site and keep track of what you are doing.
    Thanks so much,
    Arlene deWinter

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