Lucas Cranach the Elder and Reformation illustrations

This guest post is an accompaniment to the Flickr set “Seeing the Reformation: Religion and the Printed Image in Early Modern Europe” and was written by Jarkko Tanninen, Junior Honours in History of Art on Student Placement in Archives and Special Collections between January and March 2018.

Lucas von Kronach was born in 1472 at Kronach in Upper Frankonia. He was given a Christian name that derived from the Apostle Luke, a regional patron saint of artists around the Franconian town that gave him his surname. He was most likely taught to draw and paint by his father who was a painter himself. After touring southern German cities along the Danube River and spending a significant amount of time in Vienna, Cranach settled down in Wittenberg in 1505. Cranach was called to be the court painter of electoral Saxony due to his talent and style that was closest to Albrecht Dürer out of all candidates[1]. Besides his work for Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Cranach was also given artistic freedom and commissions outside of his stately duties. His position introduced him to the wealthy and the powerful, thus allowing him to gain recognition and financial success. Before Cranach and Luther met around 1520, Luther had been a person of interest to Cranach due to the increasing iconoclastic ideology in the Protestant movement, which threatened the livelihood of painters. Besides forming a professional relationship with Martin Luther, Cranach was also “bound to him by bands of intimate friendship and sponsorship”[2] to the extent that both became godfathers to each other’s children[3].

Das Gantz New Testament

Luther and Cranach’s collaboration can be seen in Luther’s German translations of the Bible, for which Cranach illustrated the book of the Apocalypse. In Special Collections the illustrations can be found in a copy of Das Gantz New Testament from 1529 (Sp Coll Euing Dp-c.8)


Some of Cranach’s most famous woodcuts were printed in Luther’s German translations of the scriptures, also found in the Special Collections as a copy of Das Gantz New Testament from 1529 (Sp Coll Euing Dp-c.8). The translation made it easier for a wider audience from all classes to engage with the text. The only part of the translation that was illustrated was The Revelation of John (a.k.a. The Apocalypse), depicting the prophecies of the last days before Christ returns to gather up his saints. An important part of Cranach’s work and Lutheran art in general is the restriction of subject matters to only those deriving straight from the Bible. Luther aimed to redirect worship and attention back to Christ and away from the late-medieval saints.[4] In Cranach’s woodcuts the renderings of the scenes are straightforward and lack unnecessary embellishment. Although Cranach’s work is loosely based on those of Dürer in appearance, in the 21 designs for The Apocalypse Cranach insists on the precise interpretation of the Revelation of St John and that images should always remain faithful to the text. According to Luther, art should clarify the meaning to benefit the illiterate[5]. Cranach’s goal was to improve upon existing imagery as well the clarity of the storyline, which can be seen in the frontispiece of The Revelation of St John, illustrating the Vision of the Seven Candlesticks. The image is an example of a more literal interpretation of a biblical scene: “and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead” (Rev. 1:16-17). Compared to Dürer ‘s woodcut, the face of God has turned into the sun, the sword comes out of the mouth rather than next to it and John is shown prostrate rather than kneeling.


Vision of the Seven Candlesticks

Vision of the Seven Candlesticks by Dürer, from The Apocalypse, German Edition 1498. From a copy held by Metropolitan Museum of Art made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. (Bequest of Grace M. Pugh, 1985)



Vision of the Seven Candlesticks by Cranach (Sp Coll Euing Dp-c.8)

Vision of the Seven Candlesticks by Cranach (Sp Coll Euing Dp-c.8)


These two illustrations both show the Vision of the Seven Candlesticks, one on the left created by Dürer, and on the right by Cranach. In Reformation imagery emphasis was put on more literal interpretations of biblical scenes as seen in Cranach’s woodcut (Sp Coll Euing Dp-c.8)










The purpose of art shifted under Lutheran influence as it instructed believers in their faith and grace. The Lutheran illustrations highlight the importance of didacticism in Reformation imagery; they instruct the believers in the Lutheran doctrine of salvation by faith. The new emphasis on the instructional purpose required that visual imagery was to become ”less visually seductive, less emotionally charged, less semantically rich.”[6]  This can be seen in Cranach’s depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Andrew in his book Das symbolum oder gemeine Bekentnis der zwelff Aposteln […] from 1539 (Sp Coll S.M. 1839). In spite of the violent subject matter, the image shows young children in the crowd. The later reproduction of the 1539 edition, with a commentary by Martin Luther, intended to instruct young people in their Protestant faith. Woodcuts were a powerful tool of evangelism, guiding Christians both young and old towards Christ and the biblical messages. Pictures of martyrdom also educated the believers about the violent history of the ‘new’ Protestant religion.

Martyrdom of St. Andrew

Cranach’s book Das symbolum […], with this woodcut depicting the martyrdom of St. Andrew, was first published in 1512 and later reprinted by the Protestant printer Georg Rhau in 1537. The inclusion of young children in the crowd highlights how Reformation imagery was used to guide all Christians in their faith. (Sp Coll S.M.1839).

Although Cranach was a supporter of Luther and his Reformation ideas, Cranach continued to take commissions from Catholic patrons, including Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg[7]. Cranach’s prestige and position of power allowed him to choose his own patrons as he was a businessman as well as an artist. Still, Cranach’s illustrations for Luther’s translation of the Bible functioned as a tool for spreading Lutheran propaganda as the scenes of the Apocalypse were considered fitting to represent the “damaging influence” of Catholic doctrines[8]. Cranach was highly influenced by Durer in his creative practice but he moulded the already existing imagery to support the cause of Luther’s Reformist ideas. Cranach played a significant role in making the Reformation’s complex ideas intelligible to a wider audience.



[1] Steven Ozment, The Serpent & the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of Reformation (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011), 10.

[2] Christian Schuchardt, Lukas Cranach (Leipzig, 1851), 20.

[3] Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 77.

[4] Bonnie Noble, Lucas Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2009), 10.

[5] Frances Carey, ed., The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things To Come (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 102.

[6] Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 28.

[7] Dagmar Eichberger and Charles Zika, ed., Dürer and his Culture (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), xviii.

[8] Bodo Brinkmann et al., Cranach (New York: Royal Academy of Arts, 2007), 200.

Related Items:

Seeing the Reformation: Religion and the Printed Image in Early Modern Europe: blog post and Flickr album




Categories: Archives and Special Collections

Tags: , , , , ,

1 reply


  1. Vate Fitter I Bodo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: