Saturday, May 16, 2015


 Lucas Cranach, the Elder, (1472 - 1553)
 in 1550, at age 78
(fig. 1)

Anyone who has taken a course in the history of western art, perhaps during high school or college, has come across the name Lucas Cranach, one of the towering printmakers and painters of the German Renaissance. But, which Cranach ?
Those with good memories recall that there were actually two Lucas Cranachs: Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 - 1553), and a son, Lucas Cranach the Younger ( 1515 - 1586, fig. 1).

The family name Cranach derives from the town of Kronach, in central Germany, near Nuremberg, whence the ancestors of Lucas Cranach the Elder hailed. Lucas Cranach the Elder  (Ger.: Lucas Cranach der Ältere) didn't have a last name. He was called  "Lucas, Maler der Kronach,"  i.e., "Lucas, the painter from Kronach."  

By 1504, Lucas Cranach the Elder  was working in Wittenberg,  250 km northeast of Kronach, for Duke Friedrich III, Elector of Saxony, who was also known as Frederick the Wise. Wittenberg was also the town where Martin Luther lived and preached. Luther and Cranach were friends and colleagues.

So, there were two Lucas Cranachs, an Elder and a Younger. Correct?

Well, no.

Lucas Cranach the Elder actually had two sons, the younger of whom was the aforementioned Lucas Cranach the Younger (that may sound like a tautology, but it is not). There was another son, the elder son of Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose name was Hans Cranach (the baptismal certificate reads: Johann Lucas Cranach). Hans was born in Wittenberg in 1513 and became a master painter like his younger brother and father.

I first heard about Hans Cranach when I visited the splendid  galleries  within the newly Renzo Piano-reincarnated  Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the treasures contained therein  is a noble portrait of Martin Luther by the School of Lucas Cranach the Elder (fig. 2).

(fig. 2) Martin Luther
Workshop of Lucas Cranach der Altere (Lucas Cranach the Eleder)

To the left of the Luther portrait is a most intriguing painting (fig.3). It certainly looks like a Cranach, but which one? The label for the painting states that it is a work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and that it was painted c. 1535.
(fig. 3) Hercules and Omphale and her maids
Harvard Art Museum
? Lucas Cranach the Elder c. 1535
(on loan since 1983 by Carla Rolde)
The painting does not exist in any of the Harvard online catalogues, and that is because it is on loan,through the generosity of a Ms. Carla Rolde. (It has been on loan to Harvard since 1983).
(fig.4) Detail of the Harvard
Hercules and Omphale
? Lucas Cranach the Elder c. 1535
 (on loan since 1983 by Carla Rolde)
The painting  depicts  five figures: Hercules, Omphale, her three maids, and her (Omphale's) spinning wheel. Is that Omphale or is it one of her maids, holding the famous spinning wheel?

Each figure is rendered  with fine detailing of the face (fig.4), giving each  an individual personality, as was the custom in a type of 16th century northern European genre painting. We observe a concerned Hercules looking worriedly at a strand of wool from the spindle. Hercules is surrounded by the four women, one of whom has hung a necklace around his neck and is adjusting a scarf on  him, another stares back at the viewer with a smirk as she pats Hercules' headdress (could this woman be Omphale, perhaps?),  another looks at the enslaved hero adoringly, and the fourth stares out into space.
Each of the  faces in the painting is individualized, some in the moment, others searching or deep in thought. To my eye, they are distinguishable from  faces painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder by a certain je ne sais quoi, call it a  youthful softness.  Is this truly a work by Lucas the Elder? Or could it be by his son Hans? Apparently, the attestations of authorship of a good number of paintings said to be by Lucas Cranach the Elder have now been thought to be by one or the other of his sons.
The label next to the Hercules and Omphale painting at the Harvard Art Museums is shown here:

The label states that the Hercules and Omphale painting belongs to a secular genre in German Renaissance art known as the Weibermacht, images illustrating the power of women, making this painting quite modern in meaning.

There is another version of Hercules and Omphale in the  Herzog-Anton-Ulrich Museum, in Braunschweig, Germany, which resembles the Harvard painting, with  differences in the heads of the figures and in the morphology of the wool on the spindle (fig. 5). The woman on the far right is wearing an ornate hat with furry pompoms in the Braunschweig version, whereas she is hatless in the painting at Harvard.
(fig.5) Hercules and Omphale
Lucas Cranach der Altere (1537)
Herzog-Anton-Ulrich Museum
Another version of the Hercules and Omphale story is  in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.  This painting (fig. 6), however, is signed by Hans Cranach and also contains his insignia. The Madrid painting is similar to the one in the Harvard Art Museum,  but only depicts two maids attending Hercules. Here  a certain serenity permeates the women's faces; Hercules himself looks almost sedated.
(Fig. 6) Hercules, Omphale and her Maids
signed by Hans Cranach (1537)
Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
The story of Hercules and Omphale is not discoverable from original Greek sources. One must seek it out in the magnum opus of the Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BCE - 18 CE), the Metamorphoses.

To atone for his accidental murder of Iphitus, Hercules (Herakles) was remanded by the Delphic Oracle to be a slave of the Lydian princess Omphale for three years.   Omphale (Attic:   Ὀμφάλη) was a daughter of King Dardanus of Lydia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia, in what is now western Turkey.

During the period of Hercules'
 incarceration, Omphale and her maids had their way with him, among other things dressing him in women's clothes, and forcing him to do their labors, as  per  the story in the Metamorphoses.

At the top edge of both the Harvard version and the version in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, there is this Latin inscription:

Herculeis manibus dant Lydae, pensa puella imperium dominae fert deus ille suae, sic capit ingentis animos damnosa voluptas fortiaque enervat pectora mollis amor."

"The Lydian girls gave the daily task (of spinning wool) to the hands of Hercules, that god who bears the authority of his mistress; thus her (Omphale's) damaging pleasure  takes possession of his great spirit, and her soft love weakens his power and courage."  
(my translation from the Latin).

Not much is known about Hans Cranach’s  life. Like his brother, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Hans began painting as a young boy in the Wittenberg workshop of their father. Hans Cranach’s work, the little that is extant,  is barely distinguishable from that of his father's, except, in my view, for that youthful softness.

We possess a few tantalizing tidbits  from Hans Cranach's life:

1) He received a payment for a bill for a painting by his father at the Michaelis Market in 1534.
2) He is mentioned in a bill for a work done at Torgau Castle in 1536.
3) The art historian Christian Schuchardt, who first discovered  Hans Cranach's  existence, credits him with an altarpiece at Weimar, signed with the monogram "H.C." and dated, 1537.
4) There  exists a sketchbook, dated 1537, which Hans Cranach used while in Italy. Later that year, in Bologna, he died of unknown causes.
5) Martin Luther mentions Hans Cranach’s death in his Colloquia Mensalia ("Table Talk")
6)Johann Stigel, a contemporary poet, celebrates him as a painter and draftsman (Maler und Zeichner). Stigel, in his euology, In immaturus obitum Johannis Lucas F. (filius) Cranachii, ("The premature death  of Johann Lucas, son of Cranach),recognizes Hans Cranach as a " "talented and fertile" painter, who must have had a significant role within the Cranach workshop."

Only two extant paintings, both at the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, contain both Hans Cranach's   signature and his insignia, a winged serpent between the initials "H" and "C." One painting is of a bearded man, from 1534  (fig. 7), and the other is the previously discussed painting of Hercules and Omphale of 1537.

(Fig. 7) Portrait of a bearded man
Hans Cranach (1534)
Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
 In 1900, the art historian Eduard Flechsig attributed a number of works from the Cranach workshop to Hans Cranach. However, he later revoked these attributions. There are paintings in Oslo, Paris, San Francisco and Linkoping that have been attributed to Hans Cranach, but none of these has been fully attested.
There are a  number of Hercules and Omphale paintings in Cranach's oeuvre: twenty-six are catalogued in the Corpus Cranach  
The version loaned to Harvard by Rolde since 1983 may have been purchased at auction at Sotheby's on 27 March 1963 (fig.8).

(fig. 8) Hercules and Omphale
(photo from Sotheby's sale 27 March 1963)
There are yet other versions. For example, the painting below, at the Fondation Bemberg in Toulose,  Hercules and Omphale, is said to be by Lucas the Elder (fig.9).

Evidently, the story of Hercules and Omphale was an archetype for the Cranachs. They all got in the act of painting it. Here, presumably in father Lucas' hand, all is joyous (and that delightful hat makes its appearance again on the  woman on the far right):

(fig 6) Hercules and Omphale
Lucas Cranach the Elder ? 1537
 The insignia of the Cranach workshop changed in 1537, perhaps in association with the death of Hans Cranach (fig. 7). The previously erect wings of the snake (see below) became stretched and horizontal. This may have been a decision made by the father's now closest collaborator, Hans’ younger brother, Lucas Cranach the Younger.

(Fig. 7) Insignia of Cranach family

Sic transit Gloria mundi.

Vincent P. de Luise MD @ 2015.

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