Lucas Cranach the Elder
German, 1472 (?)–1553
Oil on panel
47 3/4 x 32 1/2 in. (121.1 x 82.5 cm); painted surface: 47 x 32 1/2 in. (119.4 x 82.5 cm)
Inscribed: device of serpent with lowered wings and 153 (on cross)
Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection, 1947.62
Lucas Cranach the Elder’s depiction of Christ on the Cross is divided in half to distinguish the Blessed and the Damned. The Blessed appear on the right, symbolized by the good thief, who looks at Christ, and by Christ’s mother, Mary, John the Evangelist, and other mourners who huddle in grief below. On the left, the bad thief and a group of Roman soldiers who throw dice for Christ’s robe symbolize the Damned.
Although composed similarly to other Crucifixions commissioned for Catholic churches and chapels, Cranach’s image contains evidence of a belief in the religious doctrines of Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. (Cranach was court painter to the elector of Saxony, who was Luther’s chief patron.) Reacting to examples of corruption in the Catholic Church, Luther attacked, in particular, the Catholic doctrine that gifts to the Church and good works were essential to an individual’s salvation. The presence of a father and his son at the foot of the cross illustrates Reformation ideals that religion should be accessible to everyone, even children. The converted Roman commander, who points up toward Christ and recognizes him as a savior, illustrates the basic Lutheran principle that salvation is possible through faith in God’s grace. Absent are symbols such as angels, saints, and halos traditionally included in Catholic images.
Although he was a contemporary of Italian Renaissance artists such as Correggio, Cranach’s style is quite different from that of his peers to the south. His fondness for detail is apparent in this scene, which is modeled on a type of medieval German Crucifixion popular in the 14th century in which realistic elements, including crowds of mourners, soldiers, knights, and monks, appear. As in other Cranach works, space in this example appears cramped and irrational. However, the artist’s realist tendencies are also apparent, not only in the carefully described weapons and costumes but also in the figures’ faces, which express a range of human emotions, including grief, greed, concern, doubt, and faith.