Martin Luther and Lucas Cranach

by Jill Knuth

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472—1553) was a prominent citizen of the city of Wittenberg in the state of Saxony. His reputation as a painter and print maker was secured in 1504 when he was appointed court painter by the Elector of Saxony, Duke Friedrich III.

Both the Duke and the painter were enthusiastic supporters of Martin Luther and the protestant reformation. In 1520, Cranach made an engraved portrait of Luther as a Friar. It was the first of many portraits of Luther and other reformers that would be produced in Cranach’s large workshop.

After Luther helped 12 nuns to escape from their convent in 1523, he found homes, occupations, or husbands for 11 of them. The one remaining, Katharine von Bora, lived for a time with Cranach and his wife, Barbara. Katharine refused the advances of several potential husbands, saying she would only marry Martin Luther. In 1525 Martin and Katharine were married, and Lucas and Barbara Cranach were among the official witnesses of the ceremony. Later, Lucas was god-father to the Luthers’ first son, Johannes “Hans” Luther, and Martin, in turn, was god-father to the Cranachs’ daughter Anna.

Fifteen portraits of Luther by Cranach survive today, and it is interesting to compare them. It’s clear that many are copies or variations of the same pose. Cranach or his apprentices probably made sketches of Luther from life, then produced a finished painting. Later if another portrait was ordered, they pulled out the original sketches and produced another similar painting. A few portraits of Luther were produced after his death, some of them by Lucas Cranach’s son, Lucas Cranach the Younger.

Most of the portraits have strong outlines, and the figure is placed on a plain background. This made it easy to reproduce multiple copies of the portraits as wood cuts and engravings which could be sold cheaply. Cranach’s skill as a print maker is also illustrated in the woodcuts he made to illustrate Luther’s Bible.