IV. CRANACH AND THE GERMANS

German ecclesiastical architecture went in hiding during the Reformation. No new churches were raised to art as well as piety; many churches were left unfinished; many were pulled down, and princely castles were put together with their stones. Protestant churches dedicated themselves to a stern simplicity; Catholic churches, as if in defiance, ran to excessive ornament while the Renaissance moved into the baroque.

Civic and palace architecture replaced cathedrals as dukes replaced bishops and the state enveloped the Church. Some picturesque civic structures of this period were casualties of the second World War: the Althaus in Brunswick, the House of the Butchers’ Guild at Hildesheim, the Renaissance-style Rathaus or Town Hall of Nymegen. The most pretentious architecture of this and the next age took the form of immense castles for the territorial princes: Dresden Castle, which cost the people 100,000 florins ($2,500,000?); the palace of Duke Christopher at Stuttgart, so lavish in fixtures and furniture that the city magistrates warned the Duke that the luxury of his court was scandalously in contrast with the poverty of his people; and the vast Heidelberg Castle, begun in the thirteenth century, rebuilt in Renaissance fashion in 1556–63, and partly destroyed in the second World War.

The art crafts retained their excellence in the service of princes, nobles, merchants, and financiers. Cabinetmakers, woodcutters, ivory-cutters, engravers, miniaturists, textile workers, ironworkers, potters, goldsmiths, armorers, jewelers—all had the old medieval skills, though they tended to sacrifice taste and form to complexity of ornament. Many painters drew designs for woodcuts as carefully as if they were making portraits of kings; and woodcutters like Hans Lützeburger of Basel labored with the devotion of a Dürer. The goldsmiths of Nuremberg, Munich, and Vienna were at the top of their line; Wenzel Jamnitzer might have challenged Cellini. About 1547 German artists began to paint glass with enamel colors; in this way vessels and windows took on crude but rich designs, and the prosperous bourgeois could have his likeness fused into the windowpanes of his home.

German sculptors kept their preference for metal statuary and reliefs. The sons of Peter Vise her carried on his craft: Peter the Younger cast a bronze plaque of Orpheus and Eurydice; Hans designed a handsome Apollo Fountain for the court of the Nuremberg town hall; Paul is usually credited with a pretty figure in wood, known as The Nuremberg Madonna. Peter Flötner of Nuremberg cast excellent reliefs of Envy, Justice, Saturn, and the Muse of Dance. One of the most delightful objects in the Louvre is a bust, by Joachim Deschler, of Otto Heinrich, Count Palatine, six and a half inches high, and nearly as wide in its corpulence, with a face formed by years of bon appétit; this is German humor at its broadest.

The glory of German art continued to be in painting. Holbein equaled Dürer, Cranach followed on their heels, and Baldung Grien, Altdorfer, and Amberger formed a creditable second line. Hans Baldung Grien made his fame with an altarpiece for the cathedral of Freiburg-im-Breisgau; but more attractive is The Madonna with the Parrot—a buxom Teuton with golden hair, and a parrot pecking at her cheeks. Christopher Amberger painted some elegant portraits; the Lille Museum has his Charles V, sincere, intelligent, incipiently fanatical; the Chicago Art Institute’s Portrait of a Man is a finely chiseled, gentle face. Albrecht Altdorfer stands out in this minor group by the richness of his landscapes. In his St. George the knight and the dragon are almost unseen in an entourage of crowding trees; even The Battle of Arbela loses the warring hosts in an abundance of towers, mountains, waters, clouds, and sun. These, and the Rest on the Flight to Egypt, are among the first true landscapes in modern painting.

Lucas Cranach the Elder took his name from his native town, Kronach, in Upper Franconia. We know almost nothing further of him till his appointment, at the age of thirty-two, as court painter to Elector Frederick the Wise at Wittenberg (1504). He kept his position at the Saxon court, there or a Weimar, for nearly fifty years. He met Luther, liked him, pictured him again and again, and illustrated some of the Reformer’s writings with caricatures of the popes; however, he made portraits also of Catholic notables like the Duke of Alva and Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. He had a good business head, turned his studio into a factory of portraits and religious paintings, sold books and drugs on the side, became burgomaster of Wittenberg in 1565, and died full of money and years.

The Italian influence had by this time reached Wittenberg. It appears in the grace of Cranach’s religious pictures, more visibly in his mythologies, most in his nudes. Now, as in Italy, the pagan pantheon competes with Mary, Christ, and the saints, but German humor enlivens the traditional by making fun of safely dead gods. In Cranach’s Judgment of Paris the Trojan seducer goes to sleep while the shivering beauties wait for him to wake and judge. In Venus and Cupid the goddess of love is shown in her usual nudity, except for an enormous hat—as if Cranach were slyly suggesting that desire is so formed by custom that it can be stilled by an unwonted accessory. Nevertheless Venus proved popular, and Cranach, with help, issued her in a dozen forms to shine in Frankfurt, Leningrad, the Borghese Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.... In Frankfurt she hides her charms revealingly behind a dozen gossamer threads; these serve again for the Lucretia in Berlin, who cheerfully prepares to redeem her honor with a bare bodkin. The same lady posed for The Nymph of the Spring (New York), lying on a bed of green leaves beside a pool. In the Geneva Museum she becomes Judith, no longer nude, but dressed to kill, holding her sword over Holofernes’ severed head, which winks humorously at its mischance. Finally the lady, re-bared, becomes Eve in Das Paradies at Vienna, in Adam and Eve at Dresden, in Eve and the Serpent in Chicago, where a handsome stag joins and names her party. Nearly all these nudes have some quality that saves them from eroticism—an impish humor, a warmth of color, an Italian finesse of line, or an unpatriotic slenderness in the female figures; here was a brave attempt to reduce the Frau.

The portraits that poured from Cranach’s hand or aides are more interesting than his stereotyped nudes, and some rival Holbein’s. Anna Cuspinian is realism tempered with delicacy, gorgeous robes, and a balloon hat; the husband, Johannes Cuspinian, sat for a still finer portrait—all the idealism of a young humanist reflected in the meditative eyes and symbolized in the book fondly clasped. A hundred dignitaries were preserved in paint or chalk in this popular atelier, but none so well deserves survival as the childPrince of Saxony (Washington), all innocence and gentleness and golden curls. At the other side of life is the portrait of Dr. Johannes Schöner, terrible in features, noble in artistry. And here and there, in Cranach’s work, are magnificent animals, all pedigreed, and stags so natural that—claimed a friend—“dogs barked when they saw them.”18

Cranach might have been greater had he not succeeded so soon and well. The multiplication of his patrons divided his genius; he had no time to give all of it to any one task. Inevitably, as his eighty-one years rolled by, he tired and slacked down; the drawing, once as fine as Dürer’s, became careless, details were shirked, the same faces, nudes, and trees were repeated to lifelessness. In the end we have to agree with the judgment passed on the early Cranach by the aging Dürer—that Lucas could depict the features but not the soul.19

In 1550, when he was seventy-eight, he painted his own portrait: a stout councilor and merchant rather than painter and engraver, with powerful square head, stately white beard, expansive nose, eyes full of pride and character. Three years later he surrendered his flesh to time. He left behind him three sons, all artists: John Lucas, Hans, and Lucas the Younger, whose Sleeping Hercules transmitted a theme from Rabelais to Swift by showing the giant peacefully ignoring the darts with which the pigmies around him barely pierce his ectoderm. Perhaps Lucas the Elder ignored as serenely the pricks of those who condemned him for bourgeois ideals and unconscientious haste; and under the tombstone that bears the ambiguous compliment Celerrimus pictor—fastest painter—he sleeps well.

With him the great age of German painting passed. The basic cause of the decline was more probably the intensity of religious dispute than the Protestant repudiation of religious imagery. Possibly a moral letdown coarsened German painting after 1520; nudes began to play a leading role; and even in Biblical pictures painters ran to themes like Suzanna and the Elders, Potiphar’s wife tempting Joseph, or Bathsheba in her bath. For two centuries after the death of Cranach German art receded in the backwash of theology and war.

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