This portrait of the great Renaissance humanist, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 - 1536) is one of a number of such small scale likenesses of famous historical figures that were produced in the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder after 1525. In addition to images of Erasmus, Cranach and the artists working for him also produced images of Martin Luther, Philipp Melancthon and Katarina von Bora, among others. Such portraits were quite popular among Cranach's contemporaries and serve as important historical documents that testify to the significant roles these figures held in the religious, cultural and political climate of the times and demonstrate to what extent they captivated the public's imagination.
Although Lucas Cranach the Elder was a contemporary of Erasmus, this portrait is not done from life. Rather, it is based on a famous depiction of the philosopher by Hans Holbein the Younger. One of the leading portraitists of his day, Holbein created numerous portraits of Erasmus, both autograph and in collaboration with his studio. Many of these were then engraved and thus the image enjoyed a large circulation. The present portrait is remarkably similar to the autograph work by Holbein that is in the Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 1975.1.138). In fact, a recent confrontation of the two works has revealed that they are not only almost identical in size, but that there is an almost exact alignment between the two figures: the only difference is a slight change in the boundaries of the figures' left and right arms. Although the Lehman picture could not have served directly as the model for the present portrait, it seems clear that the two must share a common source or pattern.
Recent examination of the panel has revealed further evidence of the working techniques of Cranach and his studio. For example, the incised lines that run around all four edges of the image are characteristic of pieces produced in Cranach's atelier and were used to block out the edges of the painted image. Additionally, although the top edge of the present panel has apparently been cut down, the bottom edge still shows evidence of two small clips marks. These would have been used at both top and bottom to hold the panel in place as it was worked up. A portrait of John the Steadfast, Elector of Saxony in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 46.179.2), which is nearly identical to this Erasmus in size and which has the same pale blue background, reveals the same incised demarcations and clip marks at the upper and lower edges.
We are grateful to Dr. Dieter Koepplin, Dr. Werner Schade and Dr. Ingo Sandner for independently confirming the attribution of the present work on the basis of photographs. We are also grateful to Dr. Maryan Ainsworth of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for her assistance confronting this work with the Lehman Collection portrait.