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Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach presented in the USA

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The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) dedicated a major exhibition to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This period (1460−1580) was characterized by profound changes in thought, philosophy, science and religion. They were reflected in the works of many artists of the day such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger, Hans Holbein, Mathias Grünwald, and others. Their works are the key exhibits in the exposition Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach.
This period was marked by conflicts, civil wars, and complex relationships with neighboring countries. At the same time it also witnessed a flourishing of many states and cities. The exhibition comprises over 100 objects, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, decorative arts, as well as arms and armor.
Martin Luther (1483−1536) had planned to become an ordinary lawyer, as his father wished him to. Instead, he broke Europe in two. As the legend says, on October 31st, 1517, renegade Augustinian monk has nailed his famous "95 Theses" to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany. In such a way he challenged the Catholic Church for the practice of selling "indulgences," or vouchers for remission of sins and reduced time in Purgatory granted on behalf of the Pope.
The last day of October, 1517 is considered the beginning of the Reformation, one of the most significant periods in European history.
LACMA organized the exhibition, marking the 500th anniversary of this event, with the three major institutions in Germany: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München. The exhibition opens with two large, magnificent lime wood carvings by the great Tilman Riemenschneider: Saint Mathias and Standing Virgin and Child.
  • Tillman Riemenschneider, Standing Virgin and Child (ca. 1520)
  • Tilman Riemenschneider, Saint Mathias (ca. 1500-1505).
Opposite Riemenschneider’s sculpture The Holy Trinity, one of eight paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, is placed. The artist painted it just before he left the Catholic Church and embraced Protestantism.
Lucas Cranach the Elder. Portrait Of Martin Luther

Among portraits there is a famous little picture of Luther, Cranach’s friend and neighbor in Wittenberg. The portrait is a private devotional image barely 7 inches high. Luther is shown as a scholar defiantly holding a book with his both hands.

Inspite of the decline in demand for religious paintings in Protestant Germany, and portraiture’s rose in prominence as well as moderate emancipation for women advocated by Luther, there is only one female portrait exhibited. It is a depiction of upper-class wife painted by Batholomäus Bruyn the Elder. Her dependent status in relation to her husband, depicted on the adjacent portrait, is signaled by the carnation she holds in her hands — a symbol of marital affection. The male, though, holds a pair of gloves only, which is a sign of a gentleman.

Left: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther, 1532. (LACMA)

The most riveting portrait, unsurprisingly, belongs to Albrecht Dürer, Germany’s greatest Renaissance artist. The painting was created just before its sitter, Jakob Muffel, died. Its every detail embodies material world and tactile beauty — soft fur, crepuscular skin, crisp linen, silken hair…
This profoundly humanist manner of portraiture eventually crossed German borders. Hans Holbein the Younger exported it to the court of England’s Henry VIII. As an example, there is a double portrait of a ruddy notary and his prosperous son.
Lucas Cranach the Elder. Lucrezia

Of two dozen paintings at the exhibition all female images are biblical, the Virgin Mary or Eve. Except the above mentioned portrait of an upper-class wife, there is one more exemption. Cranach’s exquisite panel Lucretia casts an ancient Roman heroine as a secular Venus. The artist modified the willowy nude from an earlier painting of the mythological goddess. But here Cranach slipped a long dagger into her hand, the tip of its blade pressed beneath her breast as she prepares to commit suicide.

Lucretia had been raped by the son of an enemy king. The dreadful (but popular) historical legend explains her suicide as the ritual restoration of her honor. Cranach’s painting is brilliant, but it depicts the cruelty of the social creed at the same time, where raped Lucretia appears dishonored. Such was the norm.

Left: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucretia, 1533. (LACMA)

Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach is on at Los Angeles County Museum of Art through March 26, 2017.
Written by Vlad Maslow on materials from official cites of LACMA and Main illustration: Ludger tom Ring the Younger, Portrait of Hermann Huddaeus with View of the City of Minden, 1568 and Hans Maler, Portrait of Wolfgang Ronner, 1529.
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