Painting the Face of Martin Luther

At first glance, being a sixteenth-century lord doesn’t sound half bad—live in a castle, commission vast paintings and sculptures, and occasionally cast a vote to elect a Holy Roman Emperor. Easy, right?

Wrong. In The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation, historian Steven Ozment makes it clear that, for the Elector Fredrick the Wise of Saxony, being a lord was anything but easy, mainly due to the fact that, by 1520, his court at Wittenberg had become the eye of a firestorm of controversy surrounding two of the most controversial men in European history: Lucas Cranach, a court painter distinguished by both his political savvy and talents with a brush, and, of course, Martin Luther, the famed religious reformer who set the Protestant Reformation in motion.

Although it was not until three years after Luther’s famous posting of the Ninety-five Theses that the two men came into contact, by this time Fredrick was exceedingly aware of the growing force of Luther’s Reformation amidst the politically uneasy climate of the Holy Roman Empire. The elector knew that in order to maintain his position, he must both protect the increasingly popular Luther and pacify Rome.

It was in this tricky political climate, Ozment explains, that Fredrick rejected Cranach’s first portrait of Luther, which portrayed a defiant reformer that would have brought all the elector’s attempts at negotiating with the Holy Roman Emperor crashing down around his head. Cranach’s second attempt gave Europe a contemplative Luther, a traditional holy man with an open Bible and a will obedient to God, and, even more importantly, marked the beginning of many years of painting that shaped the Lutheran cause.

Over the years, Cranach painted a huge variety of Luthers, protecting him from his enemies by depicting him as a learned university professor, and adapting his image “for all seasons and social classes.” Meanwhile, in Rome, others were hard at work on their own brands of propaganda: Luther appeared in a painting by Catholic artist Hans Brosmer as a seven-headed false prophet wearing—among other head-coverings—a doctor’s beret, Turkish turban, and swarm of hornets.

To learn more about Cranach, the “serpent” of Ozment’s title and his relation to Luther’s “lamb,” read an excerpt from the book on History News Network, which introduces both men and begins to reveal the way in which their nuanced partnership of art and theology enabled the Reformation as it progressed through Germany and beyond.

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