Portraits as a weapon of propaganda?

The MIR has recently received two remarkable paired portraits by Lucas Cranach the Younger, dated 1546, on permanent loan. The first depicts Martin Luther in three-quarter profile from the waist up, holding a Bible, set against a turquoise background. The second is a symmetrical portrait of Philipp Melanchthon. The idea of associating the two reformers originated with Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553).

To the left: Lucas Cranach le Jeune, Martin Luther, [Wittenberg], 1546. ©MIR, Geneva To the right: Lucas Cranach le Jeune, P. Melanchthon, [Wittenberg], 1546. ©MIR, Geneva

Cranach left the Habsburg court in Vienna to enter the service of Frederick the Wise, in Wittenberg, where he soon became acquainted with Martin Luther. From the early 1520s onward, he gave visual form to many of the reformer’s ideas and played a central role in the spread of Protestant propaganda, as illustrated by his Passional Christi und Antichristi, published in Wittenberg in 1521, which contrasts the exemplary life of Christ with that of the pope, inspired by the Devil. In parallel with his activities as a printer and engraver, Cranach shaped the reformer’s official image, which was widely circulated through copies, similarly to images of the emperor or the pope. His workshop produced a large number of portraits of Luther based on several prototypes. These prototypes included the 1528 portrait (Veste Coburg) in the MIR’s permanent collection, which shows Luther gazing straight at us, set against a turquoise background. The framing of the figure varies (some of the portraits are cropped at the chest, others above the waist), and the reformer was occasionally paired with a portrait of his wife, Katharina von Bora, in a traditional arrangement with the man on the left and the woman on the right. As his model aged, Lucas Cranach the Elder updated his prototypes. During the 1530s, he developed facing portraits of Luther and Melanchthon. The increasing popularity of this highly original new pairing led the workshop to produce several variations on the same theme, such as this one, created in 1546 by the painter’s son, Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586).

Among these prototypes, the portrait of 1528 (Veste Coburg), of which the MIR exhibits a copy, shows Luther in front of a turquoise background, which stares at us. It can be declined by the workshop with different corpses and can be accompanied by a pendant representing the wife of the reformer, Katharina von Bora, according to a traditional scheme placing the man on the left and the woman on the right. As the model gets older, Lucas Cranach the Elder has to update his prototypes. It was during the 1530s that he thus conceived a double portrait of Luther and Melanchthon. This new formula, quite original, has been increasingly successful and leads to the manufacture of different versions, such as that proposed in 1546 the son of the painter, Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586).

Frédéric Elsig

Professor of Art History, University of Geneva