Puffy Eyes and Double Chins

German Renaissance

Lucas Cranach the Elder, „Das ungleiche Paar “ (1)

15h and 16th Centuries

German Renaissance – and Cranach Paints for the Reformation

The Renaissance era held Europe in its grip for nearly two hundred years, but the return to philosophies of the classical era and society’s intensive introspection called the existing worldview into question. Copernicus places the sun at the center of the universe, Columbus discovers America, Gutenberg invents letterpress printing and Martin Luther reforms the church.

The search for knowledge and truth leaves traces on canvases as well; in the studios of German painters like Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach and Hans Baldung, new techniques for life-like portrayals of their motifs emerged. Realistic portraits, true-to-life proportions and a central perspective characterize the works of the German Renaissance.

Wolfgang Beltracchi in his studio in Montpellier, March 2017. After studying in detail how Lucas Cranach the Elder composed and created his works, he paints using the master’s artistic voice.

A memorial stone in Sotternheim near Erfurt commemorates the crucial turning point in Martin Luther’s life. It was here that the young law student, in his terror at being caught in a thunderstorm, promised himself to the Church on July 2, 1505 (left)

In studies for the painting using the artistic voice of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Wolfgang Beltracchi sketches the pleading gesture that Lucas Cranach the Elder could have used to paint the future religious reformer (right)

Fast, faster, Cranach

The Cranach studio was in effect a picture factory for the Reformation, but they never turned Martin Luther’s legendary thunderstorm experience into a picture. Wolfgang Beltracchi shows how it could have looked. The “speed painter” Cranach developed a highly efficient process. For fields and forests he used a dark prime coat and created form-shaping contours with a maximum of one to three colors. Flesh was primed with a very light color, painted over with skin tones and then modeled with lights and shadows. Use of various brushes, applied using dabs or strokes, helped him portray different types of surfaces. Cranach normally started from the center of the picture, working his way to the periphery, and his final step was to apply lights and shadows to faces. He usually completed his more elaborate-looking paintings in only a few weeks.

Five Facts

German Renaissance
Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder are figureheads of the German Renaissance. Additionally, Hans Balding and the Danube School influenced German painting in the 15th and 16th centuries.

True-to-life portrayal of people was central to German Renaissance painting. Nothing is glossed over: sagging breasts, idiotic expressions, sallow skin. What mattered most was adhering to reality.

In his relentless pursuit of the most realistic portrayal possible, Albrecht Dürer set new standards for the proportionality of forms. In his main written work about proportion theory “Four Books on Human Proportion” he presents his naturalistic, systematical studies of the human body. Published using the relatively new printing press method, they quickly spread throughout the European art scene.

The German Renaissance was still very rooted in symbolism, as was common in the Gothic period. A cloak stands for protection, cloves for the Passion of Christ, fruit for overcoming the original sin, squirrels and foxes, as companions of the Devil, for evil – the list of the symbols used goes on and on.

Use of the vanishing point for perspective was widespread during the German Renaissance. Introduced by Dutch and Italian painters, it was soon commonly used by artists throughout Germany.

Renaissance painters are quite productive. Dürer alone created around 90 paintings, 100 engravings, 300 woodcuts and 400 book illustrations. Lucas Cranach the Elder was unbeatable during his time; around 5,000 works were produced in his studio – with the help of apprentices, who used an easily acquired dabbing technique, thus leaving no traces of their own styles behind.

Hans Baldung „Die sieben Lebensalter des Weibes“ (2)

Albrecht Dürer “Proportionsstudie einer nackten Frau mit Schild” (3)

Lucas Cranach the Elder „Martin Luther in Amtstracht des evangelischen Geistlichen“ (4)


Image sources:

1: Lucas Cranach the Elder „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
2: Hans Baldung „Die sieben Lebensalter des Weibes“. © bpk | Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig | Ursula Gerstenberger
3: Albrecht Dürer “Proportionsstudie einer nackten Frau mit Schild” ca. 1500. © bpk | Kupferstichkabinett, SMB / Jörg P. Anders
4: Lucas Cranach the Elder. „Martin Luther in Amtstracht des evangelischen Geistlichen“. © bpk / Deutsches Historisches Museum / Sebastian Ahlers
a: Lucas Cranach the Elder „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
b: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
c: Gustav Klimt „Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” 1907.  © John Baran / Alamy Stock Foto.
d: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © www.BibleLandPictures.com/Alamy Stock Foto
e: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
f: Detail from William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
g: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer im Nebelmeer, 1818. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
h: Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 © Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo