This portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves (1512-1554) was painted when she was fourteen years old and newly betrothed to Johann Friedrich I (1503-1554), the future Elector of Saxony. The oldest daughter of Johann III, Duke of Cleves, and Maria of Jülich-Berg, Sybille grew up at court in Düsseldorf with her sister Anne, one of the future wives of Henry VIII. Her marriage into the House of Saxony placed Sybille in the middle of the greatest ideological struggle of the sixteenth century, a reformation not only of the church but also of the state. A committed friend and supporter of Martin Luther, Johann Friedrich was actively engaged in the Reformation and took dramatic political and military risks to protect the reformatory movement. Sybille conducted a correspondence of her own with Martin Luther and actively supported her husband's many campaigns, defending Wittenberg in his absence during Emperor Charles V's siege of the city in 1546.
This portrait of Sybille was painted sometime after her betrothal to Johann Friedrich in September 1526 and before their marriage on 3 June 1527. Emperor Charles V and Johann Friedrich's uncle, the Elector Friedrich III (called the Wise), had arranged a marriage between the future Elector and the Emperor's youngest sister Katharina in 1521. With no wedding having materialized by February 1524 and the marriage of Katharina to her cousin, King John III of Portugal, taking place in February 1525, the Elector began searching for another bride for his nephew. Johann Friedrich's betrothal to Sybille of Cleves took place at Burg on the Wupper on 8 September 1526 and the wedding ceremony followed on 3 June 1527 at Torgau. Lucas Cranach provided the lavish decorations.
The jeweled and feathered wreath, the object most associated with the bride in sixteenth-century Germany, is the most obvious indication that this portrait was painted after Sybille's betrothal in September 1526. The wreath was linked symbolically to the bride's virginity, and she presented it to the groom at the engagement and wedding ceremonies as both a testament to and an offering of her virtue. The procession to the church was an important part of the wedding ceremony on all societal levels and at this time the bride would wear her hair loose or uncovered apart from the wreath, as Sybille appears here. In her procession into Saxony, Sybille was accompanied by two hundred horses ridden by the nobility of Jülich and Cleves.
Apart from the wreath, symbols of her betrothal to Johann Friedrich are literally woven into the fabric of Sybille's dress. The House of Saxony is symbolized by the pattern in the gold fabric of her sleeves and around her waist and the three large interconnected chains around her chest. The pendant hanging from her neck announces the joining of the two families and suggests that this portrait was commissioned by her father. The letters on the pendant, 'i/j b c s', indicate both her lineage and the family she is soon to join - her father's full title was Duke of Iülich/Jülich, Berg and Cleves, and the dynasty she is joining is that of Saxony.
A second betrothal portrait of Sybille of Cleves by Cranach appears together with a pendant of Johann Friedrich in Weimar (fig. 1; Schlossmuseum, oil on panel, 55 x 36 cm.). Both panels, signed with the artist's mark and dated 1526, are taller and slightly narrower than the present portrait. Sybille wears the same dress with the Saxon pattern woven into the gold fabric and the three large chains around her chest. Her hair is similarly worn down and the wedding wreath likewise sits at an angle on her head. Subtle changes in her pose and appearance, however, suggest a slightly different moment and, perhaps, the passage of time.
The Weimar painting shows Sybille in a similar three-quarter-length pose against a dark background and her hands, rather than clasping one another at her waist, are held one over the other in a slightly lower position. Her hair has been pulled behind her shoulders and her face has taken on a more mature aspect. Her features and bone structure are more defined and her gaze appears to be more purposeful as she looks in the direction of her husband. Two changes in Sybille's dress are significant: her dress is red, the color of the dynasty of Cleves, and the pendant bearing her father's initials has been replaced with a jeweled cross.
While Friedländer dated the present painting to 1525 largely due to the sitter's more youthful appearance, the details of Sybille's dress confirm that both this portrait and the Weimar pendant were painted during her nine-month betrothal to Johann Friedrich. Every aspect of these portraits, from the fabrics and jewels to her hair and her pose, had some significance to the contemporary viewer and while not all of the iconography is decipherable today, the differences between the Weimar painting and the present portrait may explain something about the circumstances in which they were created. As a pendant, the Weimar portrait served as a visual record of the formal joining of the houses of Saxony and Cleves. As with the divisions of a coat of arms, she represented her family by wearing the colors of her dynasty but the replacement of the more personal pendant bearing her father's initials may be an acknowledgment of the necessary shift of her loyalties from her own family to that of her husband.
No pendant to our portrait is known and the green fabric of Sybille's dress has no connection with either house. It could have been a color that she particularly liked or carried some general association, as in previous centuries, with hope. There is no question that the pendant in this painting emphasizes her own lineage and it is possible that this portrait was made for Sybille's family in Cleves while the one in Weimar was an official portrait documenting the match. Cranach's linear style and his abstract sense of volume indicated by the concentric bands around Sybille's chest and arms lends itself to the use of the portrait medium as a way of signaling status. In court portraiture of this period the signaling of status was the goal.
The union between Sybille of Cleves and Johann Friedrich of Saxony was a successful one and seems to have been genuinely affectionate. They had four sons, three of whom lived to adulthood to become Dukes of Saxony, Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Gotha. Johann Friedrich conceded the capital city of Wittenberg to Charles V in 1547 in order to save the lives of his wife and sons and Luther's letter to Sybille of 30 March 1544 reflects her feelings of loss when he was away:
That your Electoral Princessly Grace is unhappy because Our Most Gracious Lord, Your Electoral Princessly Grace's husband, is away, I can well believe. But because it is necessary, and because his absence is in the service and for the good of Christianity and the German nation, we must bear it patiently in accordance with God's will. If the devil were able to keep the peace, then we would have more peace and less to do, and especially less unpleasantness to bear.
The present work was part of the superb collection of old master paintings formed by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred W. Erickson. Alfred Erickson (1876-1936) was of Swedish descent but was born at Farmers Mill, New York. He was educated at Brooklyn and at the age of twenty-four began a long association with the advertising business that culminated in the establishment of the Erickson Advertising Agency, later to become McCann-Erickson, Inc. In the 1920s he and his wife, Anna, began to assemble a collection of paintings that would represent the development of European art from the quattrocento to the end of the eighteenth century. His widow continued to add selectively to the collection after her husband's death in 1936. The collection was dispersed in a ground-breaking sale at Parke-Bernet Galleries on 15 November 1961 where 24 lots fetched a total of $4,679,250. The portrait of Princess Sybille of Cleves by Cranach was lot 6 in that sale and was purchased for $105,000 by Agnew's, the London dealers, on behalf of the late Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. It was the preceding lot to Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer purchased for the world record price of $2,300,000 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. held an avid interest in literature and the English language since his undergraduate years at Harvard, and he focused his early energies on the collection of manuscripts and first edition books by renowned English authors, including Milton, Pepys, Shakespeare, Spenser, Keats, and Lewis Carroll, later extending these to include landmark literary objects that eventually embraced two Gutenberg Bibles and the unparalleled Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp (folios of which were offered by Christie's in 1976 and 1988). He formed an outstanding collection of miniature books, became an experienced amateur in English Silver, which he collected into the 1950s, and acquired over time a small but exquisite number of paintings, including the Cranach offered here. Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and numerous other institutions are today the beneficiaries of donations made by Mr. Houghton from the various collections he formed during his lifetime.
We would like to thank Maike Vogt-Lüerssen for her generous help in cataloguing this note. We are further grateful to Dr. Werner Schade for confirming the attribution to Lucas Cranach the Elder on the basis of photographs (private communication, 22 February 2008).