Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) was one of the leading German painters and printmakers of the early sixteenth century.
A close friend of Martin Luther, he was the chief artist of the Reformation, producing powerful woodcut illustrations for Luther’s translation of the Bible. Cranach’s innovations included new types of religious images, portraits, and the development of distinctive, stylised female nudes, often depicting Venus and themes of temptation and its consequences.
Featuring some of his most beguiling paintings and illustrations the exhibition also showcases modern and contemporary works, by artists including Pablo Picasso, Ishbel Myerscough and Michael Landy, all demonstrating Cranach’s enduring artistic influence and legacy over the last five centuries.
Cranach: Artist & Innovator also has the first public display, in more than 450 years, of a sixteenth century armorial manuscript, attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger, after its discovery in the archives of the John Rylands Library in Manchester, by Dr Ben Pope.
Born in the Bavarian town of Kronach, from which he took his name, Cranach the Elder became court painter to the Electors of Saxony in his early thirties. His reputation was forged by his innovative approach to his art, demonstrated in works such as Compton Verney
’s own Venus and Cupid (c.1525).
Inspired by this and other works in the Warwickshire art gallery and park’s renowned collection; including Portrait of Sigmund Kingsfelt (c.1530), Lot and His Daughters (c. 1530) and the dramatic Hercules and Antaeus (c.1530), the exhibition - in association with The National Gallery, London - opens by exploring the artist’s historic oeuvre through key loans from leading British institutions, including Waddesdon Manor (Portrait of an unknown lady, 1515), the Ashmolean Museum (The Stag Hunt, 1506) and The Royal Collection (An Electress and her Son, c.1510-40, and Apollo and Diana, c.1526).
Cranach’s aesthetic reached down the centuries to inspire a wealth of modern and contemporary artists. This is wonderfully demonstrated through works by world-renowned painters and sculptors, including Pablo Picasso (Portrait of a Woman after Cranach the Younger, 1958, on loan from the Tate) and Venus et l’amour voleur de miel,1957, courtesy of the Bhandari Collection), Michael Landy (Saint Apollonia, 2013, in private ownership), and John Currin (Honeymoon Nude, 1998, also from the Tate).
The exhibition also includes new works by Raqib Shaw, Claire Partington (Venus and Cupid and Judith with the Head of the Artist) and Wolfe von Lenkiewicz (Adam and Eve), which engage with Cranach’s relevance to contemporary audiences and the status of his paintings as ‘icons’ of Western art history.
Over forty artworks and objects make up this landmark review of Cranach’s hugely influential career, which not only offers a comprehensive introduction to the artist and his family, but also casts light on idiosyncratic treatment of the human form.
“Today, Cranach is known for his distinctive, idealised treatment of the female body, which is exemplified in our own ‘Venus and Cupid’ and the Royal Collection’s ‘Apollo and Diana’,” says Dr Amy Orrock, Curator at Compton Verney.
“He developed his nudes from a range of sources. For example, Diana's pose – in which she crosses her right leg over her outstretched left leg - appears to echo that of the boy pulling a thorn from his foot in the ancient bronze known as the ‘Spinario’. We know that Cranach also took ideas from prints of this subject by that other giant of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). The two artists were in dialogue with each other, so it is likely that they compared artistic notes.”
Cranach also used his artistic flair to provide woodcut illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the Bible, of which there are several examples - dating from the 1520s - on display in the exhibition, demonstrating the important contribution he made to the German Reformation.
In 1565, Elector August of Saxony (1526–86) commissioned Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–86) to produce a copy of an ‘old armorial’, which Cranach had inherited from his father. This book of heraldry, intended for use by princes, was almost certainly used in their workshop in Wittenberg, as reference material in the production of other artworks.
August had requested a ‘true copy’ of the complete armorial, plus any further coats of arms known to Cranach. In several letters to Cranach (preserved in the Saxon state archives in Dresden) he gave detailed instructions for the making of this copy, which enabled researchers to identify the armorial discovered in the John Rylands Library archives in 2018.
“Cranach’s work was daring for the time, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the political and religious upheaval surrounding him,” observes Julie Finch, CEO-Director of Compton Verney. “But he also understood his market. Famous for working quickly, he employed a large workshop, which produced numerous versions on popular themes, such as ‘Venus and Cupid’ or ‘Adam and Eve’. Instantly recognisable today, these works have become the archetypal images of temptation and its consequences. This exhibition is a wonderful way to demonstrate that even the great court painters, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, did so much more than painting, and that their legacy remains active and relevant in our cultural psyche today.”