How a little-known Reformation-era painter calls us to excellence today

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How a little-known Reformation-era painter calls us to excellence today

May 10, 2022 - Ryan Denison, PhD

A man looks at two portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony, left, and Catherine of Mecklenburg, right, part of the High Society exhibit at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. High Society includes life-size, standing full-length masterpieces by some great painters like Rembrandt, Velasquez, Frans Hals, Reynolds, Manet, Sargent, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Lucas Granach the Elder, and Munch among others. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

A man looks at two portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony, left, and Catherine of Mecklenburg, right, part of the High Society exhibit at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. High Society includes life-size, standing full-length masterpieces by some great painters like Rembrandt, Velasquez, Frans Hals, Reynolds, Manet, Sargent, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Lucas Granach the Elder, and Munch among others. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

One of my favorite parts about studying history is the way that, no matter how much time you invest in it, there is always something else to learn.

Take the Protestant Reformation, for example.

As someone who grew up in church and has spent the majority of my post-high school life studying religion (including the better part of a decade on church history), I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the important figures from one of the most important eras of the Christian faith.

So, imagine my surprise—and, if I’m being honest, embarrassment—when I was asked about Lucas Cranach.

The only response I could offer was “Who?”

Perhaps you’ve just had the same reaction.

As I dug into his story, though, that uncomfortable combination of surprise and embarrassment quickly turned into gratitude for the opportunity to be blessed by the story of someone who allowed God to use their gifts in a way that often transcended the hostilities that marred much of that period of history.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s take a closer look at Cranach’s life and what his legacy can teach us about allowing God to use our gifts today.

Who was Lucas Cranach?

Lucas Cranach was born Lucas Maler in 1472 in Kronach, Germany. His father, Hans Maler, was an artist and became Cranach’s first teacher.

Around the age of thirty, Lucas moved to Vienna and changed his last name to Cranach as an homage to his hometown. While in Vienna, he made a name for himself as an artist after having painted portraits for several humanist scholars like Stephan Reuss and Johannes Cuspinian.

His time in Austria was relatively short, however, as his reputation quickly grew to the point that Frederick the Wise of Saxony appointed him court painter at Wittenberg in 1505.

If Frederick or Wittenberg ring a bell, it’s most likely because a few years later a troublesome priest named Martin Luther would join Cranach and Frederick there.

Cranach’s influence on the Protestant Reformation

For the first nine years of their shared residency, however, Cranach was easily the more renowned figure. By 1508, Frederick had come to respect and trust Lucas enough that he appointed the artist as a diplomat to the elector of the Netherlands. While there, Lucas met the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who quickly came to share Frederick’s high opinion of Cranach and appointed him to work alongside Albrecht Dürer to illustrate the Emperor’s prayer book.

During this same period, Cranach also came to know and be known by Maximilian’s successor, Charles V, who would go on to provide the military and political assistance needed for the Roman Catholic Church’s excommunication of Martin Luther and condemnation of the Protestant Reformation.

However, Cranach’s stay in the Netherlands ended before most of the drama surrounding Luther began, and his influence in Wittenberg grew quickly upon his return.

He served on the Town Council during the increasingly tumultuous years of 1519–1520 and was the city’s mayor on three separate occasions between 1537 and 1544. He also became a prominent entrepreneur, owning several businesses and properties in the area, including the printing press that helped Luther extend the influence of his books and pamphlets beyond the reach of the Catholic Church’s censors. During this time, Cranach also designed many of the book covers, images, and illustrations that helped Luther’s work stand out.

Some have called Cranach “the chief pictorial propagandist of the Protestant cause in Germany.” But his work was of such quality that, despite his close ties to the Reformation, he was also a popular choice by Roman Catholic patrons.

For example, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenberg hired Lucas to portray him as Saint Jerome on two separate occasions after Luther had been officially excommunicated and declared a heretic by the Pope. While Albrecht was not among the most combative of Catholics, he was the one who first employed Johann Tetzel to sell the indulgences that led to Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses and, in many ways, sparked the Protestant Reformation. Despite that history, however, Albrecht respected Cranach and his artistry enough to employ the reformer at a time when doing so was risky, to say the least.

Ultimately, what I find most inspiring about Lucas Cranach’s life is that his excellence inspired appreciation across the political and social divides that defined his era.

He did not hide his protestant sympathies: Martin Luther respected him so much that he and his wife Katharina named Cranach godfather of their first child. But Cranach was still able to appear in the court of Charles V and speak with the Holy Roman Emperor as a respected guest.

Called to pursue excellence

As we wrestle more and more with what it looks like to live out our calling in the midst of a culture that appears increasingly willing to define people by political and cultural categories, there is much we can learn from Cranach’s example.

While you may not be a world-renowned artist or well-known entrepreneur, God has given each one of us a specific set of gifts and talents through which he can further his kingdom.

However, the degree to which he is able to use us in the accomplishment of that task is often related directly to the degree to which we make the most of those gifts.

We see this pattern play out on multiple occasions throughout church history, but especially in the first centuries after Christ. For example, at a time when the culture was, at best, ambivalent toward the Christian faith, Clement of Alexandria established a philosophical academy that drew both Christian and pagan students from around the Empire.

Two centuries later, when Christianity was legal but still a minority religion within the Roman world, Ambrose of Milan became such a gifted orator that men like Augustine frequently attended his services despite having no interest in the Jesus about whom he preached. In fact, it was in part through Ambrose’s preaching that Augustine eventually opened himself up to the gospel and was saved.

The world doesn’t have to like our faith or agree with our morals to respect our abilities and talents. And when we develop our gifts to the point that we earn that respect, it can open the door to share God’s love and truth with people who might otherwise never consider either.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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