Luther is shown by Cranach in three-quarter profile, the black of his robes and hat set against a deep olive green background. The costume in which he is depicted combines the habit of a monk of the closed Order of Augustinian Friars, which he had joined in Erfurt in July 1505, with the doctoral hat which marked his being made Doctor of Theology at Wittenberg University in 1512. Cranach had very recently showed Luther separately in both guises, the former in front of a recess in an engraving of 1520 (fig. 1),1 and the latter in an engraved profile portrait of 1521 (fig. 2).2 Another engraved portrait, closely related to the first of these and showing the thirty-seven year old Luther in head and shoulders format, again dressed as an Augustinian monk but without the niche, also dates from 1520 (fig. 3).3 The date of 1517 which appears in the upper left corner of the present painted panel is a later addition and thus unreliable, and in any case would not fit with what we know of Cranach’s style at that date. Unfortunately the traces of the original date which accompanied Cranach’s serpent device beside the sitter’s shoulder are now too indistinct to shed any further light, but even without a clear date, the close relationship between the three engravings and the painted portrait, together with Luther’s relatively youthful features, all clearly suggest that they were executed within a very short time of each other.
Despite this short time period, in these early likenesses we can clearly sense a development in Cranach’s depiction of Luther’s features. The painting is closest to the engraved portrait in a recess in terms of its general design, but the features are more rounded and full, the hair longer and the eyebrows more closely defined, with the striking gaunt ascetism and the piercing gaze of the engraving replaced by a more confident demeanour. The features in the painting are in turn leaner and less rounded than those apparent in the engraved profile portrait of 1521, and this suggests it was painted before it. As Koepplin was first to observe, it is more than likely that all of these early likenesses evolved from an original drawing from the life. While any such drawing has since been lost, some idea of its appearance may be gauged from the elaborate and detailed under-drawing that appears on this panel (fig. 4). This is very reminiscent of a life study in its own right and may well have been taken during a portrait sitting. Certainly Cranach does not flinch from a highly objective portrayal of his friend, whose stubble is carefully realised in some detail. As Werner Schade has remarked, ‘In the earliest of the surviving paintings we feel the rawness of the early Luther’.4
A dating for this panel to around 1520 has generally been agreed by scholars. Schade has suggested a date of 1520, while the compilers of the London exhibition catalogue of 2007 propound a similar or slightly earlier dating around 1519–1520. Earlier, at the time of the Basel exhibition in 1974, Koepplin remarked that on purely stylistic grounds a date as late as 1524 – at which point Luther gave up his Augustinian habit – was technically feasible, but he also preferred a date around 1520 or a little later. The present portrait would therefore pre-date Cranach’s next likeness of Luther, the portrait of the reformer in the disguise of Junker Jorg, painted during Luther’s years of refuge in late 1521 or early 1522. As Koepplin observes, the purely bust-length format, omitting the hands, was relatively rare in Cranach’s œuvre, repeated at this date only by the Portrait of the Margrave Kasimir of Brandenburg-Ansbach of 1522 now in Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum,5 and seemingly not taken up again with other sitters until his Portrait of Sigmunt Kingsfelt from the end of the decade now at Compton Verney.6 By the latter date, however, Cranach had re-visited this bust length pattern for a later portrait type of Luther paired with his wife Katharina von Bora, in which the sitters head is turned more toward the viewer; good examples, dating from 1528, are in the Schlossmuseum in Weimar.7 By contrast with Cranach’s later portraits of Luther, however, this first painted likeness was not engraved nor much repeated, suggesting a more private or personal commission. An early version of this portrait, unsigned and undated, is preserved in the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg and a later workshop copy was sold in these rooms 7 July 1993, lot 245.8
It is quite conceivable that the date of 1517 that appears on this panel was added simply because it is the most famous date in Luther’s life, the year when he nailed his Theses to the church doors in Wittenberg, a date now generally declared to represent the start of the Protestant Reformation. Even if this date is unreliable, there can be no doubt that this portrait was painted during the most important moments of Luther’s life. On the 31 October 1517, Luther had sent his Ninety-five Theses in a letter to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz (see lot 27 in this sale). The same day he affixed them to the doors of All Saints Church (and other churches in the city) in accordance with university custom, for by this time Luther was Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Wittenberg.9 The Ninety-five Theses were written in protest against the contemporary practice of the Church for selling indulgences, by which the faithful might purchase a temporal remission of sin and thus avoid time in purgatory for their souls. More recently, that same year Pope Leo X had sanctioned indulgences to be sold to raise money for the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther would also have been especially aware of those then being sold by Albrecht of Brandenburg in order to pay for his elevation to the Archbishopric, not to mention his encouragement of the local practice, whereby an indulgence might be ‘earned’ by ‘veneration’ of the large collection of relics in All Saints Church itself.10 Luther had already preached several times on the subject of indulgences, advancing the case that true repentance of the individual outweighed any purchase of an indulgence. Nevertheless even he must have been surprised at the speed with which his theses were printed and distributed throughout Germany, and the extraordinary swell of popular support that followed.
Over the next two years, the dangers that Luther’s preaching represented to the authority of established Church became clear. Albrecht of Brandenburg did not reply to his letter but immediately passed it on to his superiors in Rome on suspicion of possible heresy. The Dominican preacher and Inquisitor Johann Tetzel, whose own notorious sales of indulgences were carried out under the authority of the archbishop, called for Luther to be burnt at the stake. Luther was summoned by the authority of the Pope to defend himself against charges of heresy at Augsburg in October 1518 before the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan. Luther in turn sought the protection of the Elector Frederick the Wise. At the meeting, Luther refused to recant and appealed directly to the Pope. A further debate in 1519 with the theologian Johann Eck dangerously compared Luther to the heretic Jan Hus. At this point the Emperor Charles V (who needed the Elector Frederick’s support) intervened and persuaded the Pope to summon Luther to a further hearing at the next Imperial Diet. The Pope agreed but in June 1520 he issued his Papal Bull Exsurge Domini rejecting Luther’s Theses and threatening him with excommunication. Luther publicly set fire to the bull and decretals at Wittenberg on 10 December that same year. The inevitable followed and Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo on 3 January 1521.
Given the situation in which Luther found himself at this date, Cranach’s portrait still exudes a remarkable air of quiet confidence. Although his actions on All Saints Day were only ever intended to provoke an academic debate, not a popular revolution, by this date Luther can hardly have been unaware of the popularity of his views, and of the religious storm to which they were bound to lead him. He was duly summoned by the Emperor Charles V to attend the Imperial Diet of Worms, held in his presence between 28 January and 26 May 1521, and ordered again and for the last time to repudiate his Theses. Luther chose to attend under guarantee of safe conduct, but once at Worms, he refused to withdraw his attacks on the abuses of the Church. ‘If I recant these’, he stated, ‘then I would be doing nothing but strengthening the tyranny’.11 On the 26 May 1521, the Emperor pronounced the Edict of Worms, banning reading or possession of Luther’s writings and commanding him ‘to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic’.
Luther’s life was now in grave danger, and without waiting to hear his fate, he fled the city. During his return to Wittenberg, he was helped to ‘disappear’ in a faked highway robbery arranged by the Elector Frederick the Wise, and hidden in seclusion at Wartburg castle, where he began his translation of the New Testament into German. Cranach did not abandon his friend or his cause, and indeed this portrait is witness to the start of long and enduring relationship between the two men. They became close friends and godparents to each other’s children. Cranach painted Luther again perhaps as early as December 1521, showing him in the guise of the ‘Junker Jorg’ given to him by the Elector at this time to conceal his identity and used later to deny his rumoured death. Although now fully bearded in the court fashion, the stress and defiance on Luther’s face seems clear. Luther finally returned to Wittenberg in March 1522 and his translation of the New Testament appeared in print in September of the same year. It is clear that he and his supporters understood the importance of Cranach’s painted and printed images of the reformer, and a successful woodcut appeared that same year based on the new portrait.12 Thereafter Cranach painted Martin Luther both in his own right, and then paired with his wife and then his friend and fellow reformer Lucas Melanchthon. So great was the popular demand for these portraits that from the 1530s onwards the Cranach workshop evolved a highly efficient studio practice in order to accommodate the demand. It might be argued that Cranach never quite regained the intensity so evident in this portrait, and indeed his later images of the reformer were inevitably diluted by the sheer weight of repetitions. Cranach and Luther also worked closely together on numerous propaganda pieces against the Church, and Cranach was to devise a series of paintings depicting representations of emerging Protestant themes – Christ summoning the children, for example, or Christ and the woman taken in adultery – which slowly evolved into a pictorial programme of images for the Reformation movement. Cranach did not, however, work exclusively for the Protestant cause, and even numbered Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg among his Catholic patrons.
It is hard for us today to fully comprehend the courage that Luther showed at Worms in the full knowledge of the dire penalties – including possible death by burning at the stake – that would face him. His powerful testimony of faith at the Diet made a deep impression on all those who heard it, most notably George ‘The Pious’, Margave of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1484–1543), who later corresponded with and then met Luther, and was one of the first important nobles to go over to the new Protestant faith. Ultimately, however, the Edict of Worms was never really enforced in Germany because of the protection of many German princes on the one hand (who hoped that by this means the political power of the Papacy would be lessened), and on the other by Luther’s undeniably widespread support among the populace as a whole. Luther himself remained in Saxony, where the Elector Frederick had obtained an exemption from the Edict of Worms. By now the debate about indulgences had developed into altogether more serious issues. On a theological level, Luther had successfully challenged the absolute authority of the Pope himself. He had in addition denounced all doctrine and dogma of the church that was not to be found in scripture as invalid. Most importantly of all, perhaps, he had maintained that Salvation was to be obtained by faith alone (‘sola fide’), without references to alms, penance or the Church’s sacraments. What was initially a genuine effort to reform the Catholic faith eventually transformed into a major schism within Christianity itself.
1. Schade 2003, no. 46.
2. Schade 2003, no. 47.
3. Schade 2003, no. 35.
4. Cited in Frankfurt and London 2007–08, no. 38.
5. Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, no. 152.
6. Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, no. 353.
7. Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, nos 312–13. The authors tentatively suggest that a later portrait of Luther’s future wife, Katharina von Bora, painted around 1525–26 and of similar size (39 x 23 cm.) now in a private collection, may have been intended to serve as a pendant to the present work.
8. Panel, 24.5 x 17.5 cm. See G. Schuchardt (ed.), Cranach, Luther und die Bildnisse, exhibition catalogue, Eisenach 2015, no. 11.
9. Although this action has been much sensationalised by Protestant apologists from Melanchton onwards, in reality this was routine practice.
10. All Saints Day was also the most important day of the year for this.
11. The tradition that Luther exclaimed, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. Lord help me. Amen.’, is, in fact, almost certainly fictitious.
12. Koepplin and Falk 1974, no. 42, reproduced fig. 38.
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