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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Lucan Cranach the Elder was a Renaissance painter that was not only an active painter who also created prints but also worked tirelessly as a politician and a businessman.

Information about the earliest days of his life is scarce except to say that he was born in Kronach, as one of the painter Hans Maler's four children. It is also known that Hübner was his mother's maiden name. Even the exact year of his birth is uncertain but he was most likely born in 1472. This comes from the fact that a portrait from 1550 bore an inscription claiming that the sitter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, was 77 at the time of painting. The evidence is further backed up by accounts from Cranach's cousin Matthias Gunderman in 1556, the man who was also Lucas Cranach's first biographer.

Cranach's early artistic training is as obscure as his birth. What is known is that he acted as apprentice to his father Hans who taught him ars graphica and, it is presumed, how to paint. Due to a lack of reliable documentation, not much is known about the years Cranach spent travelling and concrete evidence on his whereabouts and activities did not appear until 1502 in Vienna. This was when Lucas Cranach assumed his name, taking it from his birthplace, and began to use the initials 'LC' in his work. While he spent fewer than two years in Venice, Cranach became a close associate of various humanist writers, Johannes Cuspinian in particular, and it was a formative time for the artist.

In 1505, Lucas Cranach was appointed to the position of court painter to the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich III the Wise. Cranach would maintain this position almost continuously until he died. During his time as court painter, Cranach moved to Wittenberg where he was tasked with producing paintings, engraving and woodcuts and was also required to design and supervise the execution of decorative schemes. He also oversaw craftsmen, weddings, tournaments and other forms of celebration. In total, Lucas Cranach was effectively responsible for the court's entire aesthetic ambience.

To meet all of the demands placed upon him, Cranach established a workshop in Wittenberg castle before later relocating to the local city. In 1508 he was awarded the heraldic letter which bore a winged serpent by the elector. It was in the early days of this career that Cranach started to use his insignia as a stamp of approval for painting not just produced by him, but by others who worked for him from his ever-expanding workshop. It was also in 1508 when Cranach went to the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen as part of a diplomatic service. During this trip, he met the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I as well an Charles V, an Archduke who was eight-year-old at the time. Maximilian I would later commission Cranach along with Albrecht Dürer to create illustrations for his prayer book.

Within Wittenberg city, Cranach quickly became a man of high-status thanks both to his skills as an artist and as a businessman. His activities expanded by the 1520s included the acquisition of a license to sell wine, he has repeatedly been elected to a seat on the town council of Wittenberg and owned a printing press and multiple properties including an apothecary. His status grew such that in 1523 he was able to host Denmark' king, King Christian II in his own home and in 1524, he journeyed with the elector to the Nuremberg's Reichstag where he once again encountered Albrecht Dürer.

During his time as an artist, Cranach became known for his various portraits of German nobility as well as leading figures from the Protestant Reformation. A cause of which he was an enthusiastic supporter. He became one of Martin Luther's closest friends and even served as best man at his wedding and as godfather to his son. This is known thanks to the many surviving portraits of Martin Luther and his wife Katharina von Bora. Cranach even printed reformation texts as well as Luther's New Testament translation in his workshop. Later in his life, Cranach would be inspired to find new ways of conveying the Lutheran doctrine by Melanchthon, a man who served as both a friend and a mentor. Cranach's art would go on to have a strong influence on the Reformation as it evolved within Germany. However, Cranach did not paint exclusively on behalf of the protestants. He also created numerous paintings according to catholic tradition and had several notable catholic patrons such as Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg.

Cranach's workshop grew in both size and productivity from the mid-1520s. He found new painting techniques that allowed him to work more quickly while also developing standardisation procedures for easy delegation within the workshop. As a result, there are different versions of many of his works. In the 1530s, Cranach's taste for mythological figures and religious subjects grew and would continue for the remainder of his career. By the point, both his sons Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) and Hans Cranach (1513-1537) were active members of his enterprise.

Cranach would eventually lose his position at court painter when Elector Johan Friedrich I was defeated in 1547 at the Battle of Mühlberg. Then in 1550, his master was imprisoned by Emporer Charles V and Cranach followed him into captivity in Augsburg and Innsbruck. Friedrich was liberated two years later and reinstated as the Duke of Thuringia. The Duke and Cranach returned north and settled in Weimar. It was only a year after that, on the 16th of October that Cranach died. His gravestone is now installed in the chancel of the church of Saints Peter and Paul located in Weimer and it declares him to be 'pictor celerrimus' or 'the fastest painter'. Cranach's workshop lived beyond his death and his work was carried on by his son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, and others for decades after he died. Today, there are over 1500 surviving paintings which stand as a testament to the quality of his work.