Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder

One of the most important sources of income for Lucas Cranach the Elder, as well as his entire workshop, was the production of portraits. Commissioning one’s own image was an extremely important element in demonstrating one’s position and sometimes provided testimony to social promotion. Cranach’s portraits were commissioned both by members of aristocratic families and the highest clergy and burgher classes. This was reflected in the portrait formulas.

Cranach was the court painter at the Saxon court in Wittenberg from 1505. Therefore his workshop produced numerous images of members of the Wettin family, related to Frederick III the Wise, the painter’s first patron. Successive electors supported Cranach’s workshop.



Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Frederick III the Wise, Saxon elector, ca. 1515-1520 © Kunstsammlungen und Museen Augsburg

Frederick III the Wise (1465-1525) was a complex figure. He belonged to the Wettin family, ruled Saxony as elector, but in 1519 rejected the imperial crown and contributed to the election of Charles V Habsburg as emperor. Frederick never renounced Catholicism, and at the same time gave protection and support to the reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. He was a protector of science (in 1502 he founded the University of Wittenberg) and a patron of the arts.


Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Johann the Steadfast elector of Saxony (from 1525), 1526, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Johann the Steadfast was the younger brother of Frederick III and Elector of Saxony from 1525. He converted to Lutheranism, which he also recognized as the state religion. Cranach’s workshop produced many portraits of the two brothers, which not only served to show their appearance but were also of representational importance. They were placed in the official rooms of the ducal residences and served as a reminder of the rulers’ authority over the place.

Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Diptych: Johann the Steadfast and Johann Friedrich, 1509, National Gallery, London

The most important for the aristocratic families was to preserve the succession of generations. Frederick III died childless, but his brother lived to see his successor. Therefore in the diptych from London we can see two future electors of Saxony: Johann the Steadfast and his son, Johann Frederick the Magnificent. Identification is possible not only through the faithful rendering of the features of both figures, but also through the coats of arms on the reverse of the right wing.

The portraits have complementary colors: the green of the background in the father’s portrait is echoed by the green of the son’s clothing, and the black background in the son’s portrait matches the father’s clothing. The boy dominates the composition more than his father and faces the viewer. This is unusual because the convention called for a half-profile position, so that the sitters would be facing each other.


He was the eldest son of John the Steadfast, and was schooled by Georg Spalatin, an advisor to the Electors of Saxony, as well as Martin Luther’s friend and collaborator (more on that later). Thus, the young Wettin was well educated and prepared to accept Luther’s reformation theses.

He and his father were supporters of the Reformation, and expressed support for the Augsburg Confession at the Diet of the Reich in Augsburg in 1530. The text, prepared by Philip Melanchthon, was quickly recognized as the official summary of Lutheran teachings. This prepared the ground for the founding of the Schmalkaldic Union, whose members pledged to help each other in case of military action against Lutherans. The association was headed by John Frederick, already Elector of Saxony after the death of his father in 1532.

Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Johann Friedrich, future elector of Saxony, 1526, Klassik Stiftung Weimar

Cranach painted the portrait of Johann Friedrich in 1526 on the occasion of his engagement to Sybille of Cleves, who was the heiress of quite a fortune. The bridegroom is portrayed in a sumptuous red robe with a fur coat put on top. Around his neck hang two engagement rings. On his head he wears a pearl-covered headpiece with a single feather.

Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder Sybille of Cleve
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Sybille of Cleve, 1526, Klassik Stiftung Weimar

The portrait of Sybille of Cleve complements the image of John Frederick. The bride wears a similar headdress, with her wreath seemingly made by a jeweler, but she also has an ornamental feather. Like the prince, she is dressed in red robes with a collar embroidered with pearls. Her breast is adorned with a cross necklace and chain, probably gold.

On the occasion of the wedding of Sybille and Johann Friedrich in 1526, a lavish celebration was organised at the castle of Torgau. A series of knightly tournaments in honour of the young couple took place in which representatives of the most distinguished German families took part.


Portraits of Henry IV of Saxony and Catherine of Mecklenburg - Wikipedia; Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Henry the Pious and Catherine of Mecklenburg, 1514, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

The Wettins formed an extensive family network. One of the cousins of the Saxon Electors was Henry the Pious, the younger son of the Saxon Prince Albert the Bold. He traveled to the Holy Land in 1498 and later also went to Santiago de Compostela. Unlike his older brother George, who remained a devout Catholic, Henry favored the Reformation. He allowed his subjects to convert to Lutheranism, and in 1537 he himself converted and joined the Schmalkaldic Union. After his brother’s death, he inherited the duchy of Saxony with its seat in Dresden, where he established Lutheranism as the state religion.

The couple portraits painted by Cranach are among the earliest northern full-figure depictions. The spouses are wearing richly decorated clothes and jewelry. However, Henry is portrayed as a man practised in manly virtues, accompanied by a powerful hunting dog and drawing his sword. His wife is accompanied by a smaller dog, more of a lapdog than a hunting dog.


Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Duke of Saxony, ca. 1517, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Cranach’s workshop also produced many children’s portraits that show the youngest members of the House of Wettin. In many cases it is difficult to identify them. However, the artist managed to capture childlike innocence and gentle dignity, for example, in this pair of images from Washington. These paintings are among Cranach’s most endearing child portraits.

The boy is wearing a doublet (a kind of kaftan) richly embroidered in gold and white with a high collar, decorated with images of flowers, a rabbit and a fox. The sleeves of a red damask robe emerge from the slits of the brown robe. On her head is a garland not of flowers, but of gold, pearls, and leaves of green enamel.

Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Saxon princess, ca. 1517, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The girl’s costume is equally magnificent. Her dress is made of a heavy red material, perhaps velvet or matte satin with slits on the sleeves from which the under layer can be seen. An intricate gold chain is arranged around her shoulders and her neckline is adorned with a gold necklace finished with white enamel flowers, perhaps daisies. The unusually expensive outfits of both children indicate their high birth.


Cranach created portraits commissioned by the Electors of Saxony not only as independent images, but also placed them within religious scenes. In accordance with the principles of Catholic devotion, showing one’s own figure while adoring a sacred scene was supposed to express individual piety and at the same time facilitate the path to salvation. Before Luther’s speech in 1517 condemned such use of sacred images, the rulers of Wittenberg funded several works of this type.


Lucas Cranach starszy, Altarpiece of the Virgin so called Princes’ Altarpiece, ca. 1510, Anhaltische Gemälde-Galerie, Dessau ©online

The purpose of the so-called Princes’ Altarpiece is unknown, but the presence of portraits of the brothers Frederick and John and the theme of the main scene, the Adoration of the Child, point to a commission for the Chapel of the Virgin Mary in the castle church in Wittenberg. Between 1504 and 1509, the construction of the castle church was nearing completion, and its furnishing became an important task at this time.

The black background of the central panel extends to both wings, where Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast are kneeling. They are accompanied by St. Bartholomew (left) and James the Elder (right). As a special distinction, Saint Bartholomew rests his hand on the arm of Frederick, who was then Elector of Saxony.


Portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder Holy Kinship
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Holy Kinship, 1509, Städel Museum, Frankfurt

The triptych from Frankfurt is one of the most important works in Cranach’s oeuvre and, at the same time, his earliest commission as court painter in Wittenberg. He was inspired by a journey to the Netherlands and the works of Quentin Massys, and he drew on the then popular theme of Holy Kinship. Medieval legends traced the lineage between Mary and the mothers of some of the apostles through the three husbands that Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, was supposed to have.

Maximilian I portraits

Behind this sacred motif lies the political involvement of the rulers, whose features can be recognized in the two men on the wings of the altar, the spouses of Maria’s half-sisters. Friedrich the Wise and John the Steadfast thus demonstrate their loyalty to Emperor Maximilian, who in the central gallery of the painting plays the role of one of Anne’s husbands.


The Saxon electors supported the development of humanism at the University of Wittenberg, and Cranach received commissions for portraits from many scholars with whom he also became friends. His strongest bond, however, was with the initiator of the Reformation movement, Martin Luther, whose portraits he painted until the end of his life. Moreover, Cranach created several types of “official” images of the reformer, which were later reproduced in his workshop.


Luther, portraits, monk

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk, 1520, engraving

Martin Luther began his theological career as a member of the Augustinian eremite order with the strictest rule. In 1508, he was transferred to the monastery in Wittenberg, where he became a lecturer in moral philosophy at the newly established university. At the same time he continued his theological studies. There he developed his theses on the necessity of the reformation of the Roman Church.

Lucas Cranach became his close friend (he was even godfather to Luther’s first son) and a staunch supporter of the reformer’s views. The portrait of Luther as a monk was created in 1520, when the reformer published a series of pamphlets in which he questioned the legitimacy of the church’s sale of indulgences and denied the supreme role of the pope. Cranach was involved in printing these pamphlets. In the engraving he expresses his sympathies through a Latin inscription beneath the image. In it he declares that although both this engraving and its author will fade away, Luther’s thoughts will last forever. The following year, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and sentenced to banishment by Emperor Charles V for his heretical views.


Luter, portrety, junker jorg
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther as Knight George (Junker Jörg), 1521, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig

To save Luther’s life, Frederick the Wise (though himself a Catholic) faked his kidnapping. Then he hid him in Wartburg Castle under an altered identity – as Knight George (Junker Jörg). The period of 10 months that the reformer spent in hiding served him to study Hebrew and Greek and to prepare a translation of the New Testament into German, based on the Greek version (Septuagint). He was assisted in this by a team of linguists, including Philip Melanchthon. During Luther’s absence, there was a growing popular belief that he was dead, while his publications and ideas were rapidly gaining popularity. The portrait by Cranach above was intended to dispel rumors of the reformer’s death. It functioned in many copies; Cranach’s portraits of Junker Jörg are also known as woodcuts.


portrety; Luter, Katarzyna von Bora

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther and his Wife Catherine von Bora, 1526, Wartburg-Stiftung, Eisenach

One consequence of the Reformation was Luther’s return to the secular state. It resulted both from his excommunication, but also because Lutheranism questioned the legitimacy of celibacy. In 1525 Martin Luther married a former nun, Catherine von Bora. She was one of the nuns who, influenced by his teachings, had fled the convent at Nimbschen. Luther helped them find a roof over their heads and suitable husbands, which would also secure them materially. Catherine von Bora, however, decided to marry Luther. The couple had numerous offspring, with Lucas Cranach the Elder as godfather to their first son.


Melanchton, portrety

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Philip Melanchtona, 1532, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The second important figure in the development of the Reformation was Philip Melanchthon. He was a professor of classical languages (including Hebrew) and ancient literature at the University of Wittenberg. A friend of Luther, he supported him in the translation of the Bible. Also he took the burden of writing the principles of the new religion, the Augsburg Confession mentioned above. Cranach’s workshop was involved in the serial production of portraits of the two reformers, which often functioned as pendants or pairs. They were produced in numerous varieties, examples of which could be found in the home of every good Lutheran. Cranach’s portraits thus became the official images of the Lutheran reformers.

PORTRETY CRANACHA; Luter; Melanchton;
Collage of portraits of Melanchton and Luther form Cranach’s workshop; based on CDA


Cranach the Elder produced portraits not only for the representational needs of the Saxon court and to promote the figures of the Reformers. One of the main commissioners from the Catholic camp was Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg Hohenzollern (1490-1545). He was one of the most interesting and controversial figures of 16th century Germany. A patron of the humanists (which would included Luther), yet he supported Pope Leo X and continued to sell indulgences after Luther’s outcry. He sent half of the proceeds to Rome and used the other half to pay off debts to the banker Jacob Fugger.

Albert of Brandenburg came from an aristocratic family; together with his brother, the Elector of Brandenburg, he founded the University of Frankfurt (Oder) in 1506. He was well educated, became archbishop of Magdeburg at the age of 23, and cardinal five years later. He had a residence at Moritzburg Castle in Halle.

Lucas Cranach d.Ä. - Kardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg als Hl. Hieronymus, 1527 (Gemäldegalerie, Bln.).jpg; PORTRETY
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg (1490-1545) as St. Jerome, 1527, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Cardinal Albert was one of the most powerful princes of the Church at the time of the Reformation, not only because of his high birth but also because of the offices he held – Archbishop of Magdeburg and Cardinal of Mainz. In a portrait from Berlin, Cranach depicted him as St. Jerome, who was customarily called a cardinal (although this office came into being more than a century after the saint’s death). Jerome’s greatest popularity, however, concerned his importance as a hermit and translator of the Bible into Latin. In the portrait, Albert has, in a way, taken on his attributes – despite his expensive robes, he poses as a hermit working in a forest retreat and at a rough desk made of crude materials. Like Jerome, he is accompanied by a tamed lion.

DIDASKALIA: Altar of St. Magdalene

The expansion of the collegiate church in Halle took place at Albrecht’s initiative, where, for the sake of his eternal life (he was to be buried there), the cardinal also collected approx. 20,000 relics. He commissioned leading German artists to prepare the decoration of the church around 1523. Among others, he turned to Lucas Cranach the Elder with an order for sixteen altars, including the Altar of St. Magdalene. The total order included 142 paintings, commissioned from artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald (altarpiece with Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice) and Hans Baldung Grien. It is the largest commission in the entire history of German art.

Having been expelled by the Protestants from the castle of Moritzburg in Halle, the cardinal was led to support the emperor in his fight against the Reformation, and in 1540 he was the first to admit the Jesuits, the order established to fight the Reformation, to Mainz. After leaving his residence, he moved to Aschaffenburg, where he brought wagons full of works of art. Among them were the panels of the St. Magdalene Altarpiece. They are now on display in the Church of Sts. Peter and Alexander in Aschaffenburg.


Cranach’s portraits are also images of scholars and humanists. I have mentioned Luther and Melanchthon, who were themselves lecturers at the University of Wittenberg. Among the clients were also burghers, usually resourceful businessmen whose status allowed them to use the services of the court painter of the Dukes of Saxony.

Johannes Cuspinianus

Lucas Cranach d.Ä. - Johannes und Anna Cuspinian (Sammlung Oskar Reinhart).jpg; PORTRETY;
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Johannes and Anna Cuspinian, 1502, Oskar Reinhart Collection Zurich

Before Cranach arrived at the Saxon court in Wittenberg, he traveled to Vienna around 1502. Due to the presence of the court of Maximilian I, the city was the cultural center of the time. There it was possible to establish contacts with numerous princes as potential contractors and employers.

Johannes Cuspinianus was a professor of medicine and, from 1500, rector at the University of Vienna. He also served as royal superintendent. As the author of the work De Caesaribus et Imperatoribus, he received the laurel wreath of poet from Emperor Maximilian I. He earned his reputation as a discoverer and editor of classical and medieval historical texts.

The portraits show the spouses against a backdrop of wild northern nature. The such inclusion of the native northern landscape as a backdrop for portraits was a new trend, referred to as the Danube School. Cranach, by creating these portraits, also contributed to the development of this new trend.

Georg Spalatin

Georg Spalatin, mentioned above, was a German clergyman, preacher, as well as secretary and librarian to the Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise and teacher to his nephew. Born Georg Burkhardt, he adopted the Latin version of the surname formed from his birthplace, Spalt. As the most trusted associate of the Elector Prince and his successors, he protected humanists and poets from various repercussions. His acquaintance with Martin Luther irrevocably changed his life and influenced his later conversion. It was probably thanks to his intercession that Frederick III strongly supported Luther, even though he himself remained a Catholic to the end of his life.

The Büchner couple

As a successful merchant and city councillor in Leipzig, Moritz Büchner was a representative of the newly enriched middle class that arose from the rise of capitalism in sixteenth-century Germany. Here Cranach captures the man’s confidence, pride, and ambition that often accompany newly acquired wealth and improved social status. Cranach’s signature, a winged serpent, and the date of the painting appear on the left side of Moritz’s portrait. Anna Buchner, unlike her husband, is not looking directly at the viewer, which would be considered immodest. Her body – hidden under expensive robes, with a tiara set with pearls, a golden hair net, a heavy gold chain and many rings with rubies and emeralds – was a manifestation of the family’s wealth.

The von Wiedebach couple

In this pair of portrayed spouses, Apollonia is the more interesting character. She came from a wealthy patrician family. Her first husband was Jacob von Blasbalg, the treasurer of the Duchy of Saxony. After his death in 1490, Apollonia was appointed by the duke to manage the financial affairs of the duchy. She was thus the first woman in Ernestine Saxony to be allowed to hold such a position.

In 1491 she married the ducal bailiff and administrator of rents Georg von Wiedebach, one of the richest men in Saxony. In the portrait he is shown wearing a coat trimmed with fur. On his left thumb is a signet ring with a figure of a deer. After Wiedebach’s death in 1524 his fortune passed to Apollonia, who in her will donated it to charity. These included the needs of hospitals and the poor, as well as improving the streets in Leipzig. She also funded a Lutheran post for a preacher at one of the city’s churches. For she was a supporter and advocate of the Reformation, even though her husband, as a government official, was a Catholic.


Lucas Cranach the Elder completed portrait commissions from anyone who could afford his services. However, he did not do them exclusively himself, relying on the help of his sons Hans (1513- 1537) and Lucas (1515-1586) as well as the employees of the numerous workshop he ran in Wittenberg.

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