Cranach at the Royal Academy

Now this is my kind of exhibition. I don’t what it is I find so appealing about the Northern Renaissance; obviously, artists like Dürer, Van Eyck and Breugel are among the all-time greats of European art, but I love it all: van der Weyden, Memling, Bosch, Holbein, and indeed the star of this show, Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I like the Italian stuff as well, but there’s something about these northern painters I can’t get enough of. Maybe, as someone with a soft spot for the medieval, it’s because the continuity with the medieval is in some ways more obvious in the north. Maybe it’s because I am myself northern European; maybe there really is a northern sensibility — a gothic sensibility, if you like — which runs a great deal deeper than one might imagine. Or not.

portrait of a Saxon Princess, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Whatever the reason for them, it’s amazing how much difference these preferences can make. The other day I went up to see the Cranach, but the ‘From Russia‘ exhibition was still running at the Royal Academy and the queues were horrendous, so I popped in to the Pompeo Batoni at the National instead. Batoni was an C18th Italian artist who did history paintings and portraits, many of them English aristos doing the Grand Tour. I didn’t bother to blog about it because I just found it so boring. In the Cranach, on the other hand, I liked every single work, even the ones were it didn’t seem like he was really trying.

And there are a few like that; apparently he was famous at the time as a quick man with a brush, the person to go to if you’d just built a new castle and needed a dozen paintings on assorted themes to brighten up the place. He had a big workshop and churned out lots and lots of work, including many repetitions of the same themes. Compare, for example, these portraits of Martin Luther, all in different galleries: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Cranach was a friend of Luther’s, and as well as portraits of Luther he painted biblical scenes illustrating Protestant themes, illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the bible, and other Protestant propaganda material; yet that didn’t stop him taking commissions for prominent Catholics. There was a marvellous portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg who was working on a Catholic version of the bible in German, painted as St Jerome, the man who translated the bible into Latin. He’s sitting in his suitably German-looking study, wearing his red cardinal’s robes, surrounded by animals, including a lion, a parrot, a squirrel and a family of pheasants.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

And I don’t suppose Luther would have approved of the sexy pictures of naked, pot-bellied, weaselly-faced blonde girls, who all look the same whether they are supposed to be Lucretia, Eve or Venus. One of these features on the posters for the exhibition, and the National managed to gain a bit of free publicity when it was initially rejected by London Underground as being too racy for them.

As you can tell, I give the show a big thumbs-up. I just don’t understand why it should be so much less popular than ‘From Russia’. It’s just as well it was, though, because these are the kind of paintings you want to get right up to, and take in the details.

» The RA’s exhibition website is pretty rubbish, as usual. Both the paintings above featured in the exhibition but I got the images from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of a Saxon princess (they know she’s a princess by what she’s wearing, but don’t know which one) is from the National Gallery in Washington. Adam and Eve are in the Courtauld in London.

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