Audio: Lucas Cranach I, Law and Grace
Lucas Cranach I (Kronach 1472-1553 Weimar) and Lucas Cranach II (Wittenberg 1515-1586 Weimar)
1 More
Lucas Cranach I (Kronach 1472-1553 Weimar) and Lucas Cranach II (Wittenberg 1515-1586 Weimar)

Law and Grace

Lucas Cranach I (Kronach 1472-1553 Weimar) and Lucas Cranach II (Wittenberg 1515-1586 Weimar)
Law and Grace
signed with the artist's serpent device and dated '1536' (lower right, on the rock), and extensively inscribed.
oil, gold and paper on panel, transferred on panel
25½ x 47½ (64.8 x 120.6 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Helbing, Munich, 20 June 1907, lot 2 (according to a file in the Witt Archive, Courtauld Institute).

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

Unknown to scholars since it appeared at auction over 100 years ago, this striking painting is among the most important images of the Protestant Reformation. Painted in 1536, the panel illustrates Martin Luther's doctrine of justification by faith with explanatory passages from a German translation of the bible written on papers affixed to its lower and upper edges. With its vivid, jewel-toned palette, deep, panoramic landscapes, and expressive figures, Law and Grace exhibits all of the stylistic hallmarks that placed Lucas Cranach at the forefront of artistic innovation in 16th-century Europe.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, his sons and their workshop created many versions of this subject in a variety of media, including paintings, drawings and prints. Each of the painted versions is unique, showing distinctive variations in composition, figural poses and physiognomies. The two earliest treatments of Law and Grace are both signed and dated 1529, and were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder with some workshop participation. Closest to the present work is that in the Schlossmuseum, Gotha, while the other panel, now in Prague's National Gallery, has a slightly different composition. Although the original patrons for these two paintings remain unknown, it is likely that their programs were formulated with the guidance of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his collaborator, the theologian Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560). Two pen and ink drawings, each also datable to 1529 (Dresden Kupferstichkabinett and Stadelmuseum, Frankfurt) and a woodcut of 1530 (British Museum, London) are clearly are based on the Gotha painting, which would become the prototype for all subsequent treatments of this theme by the Cranachs.

The message of Law and Grace is rooted in the theological principles of Martin Luther, as set forth in his Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (published in 1535, but based on lectures given as early as 1519; see J. Dillenberger, Images and Relics: Theological Perceptions and Visual Images in Sixteenth-Century Europe, Oxford, 1999, p. 96). In the tract, the German reformer asserted that Christian salvation is not dependent on human actions, i.e., "good works", but rather on undeserved divine Grace freely given by God. Charity, penance, purchasing of indulgences or any mortal acts are ultimately ineffectual: mankind's sole path to heaven is through faith and God's grace. In Luther's words: "By faith alone can we become righteous, for faith invests us with the sinlessness of Christ. The more fully we believe this, the fuller will be our joy." (M. Luther, Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, trans. T. Graebner, Grand Rapids, 1941, chapter 1, verse 13; see also B. Noble, Lucas Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation, p. 35 ff.).

Lucas Cranach's relationship with Martin Luther is well documented. As court painter in Wittenberg, Cranach found himself at the very center of the Protestant Reformation. His most important patrons, the Saxon Electors, protected Luther and championed his cause. Cranach was destined to become the de facto official portraitist of the Reformer (fig. 1) and would also provide illustrations for Luther's translation of the New Testament, the September Bible. The two were also close personal friends and godfathers to each other's children. Cranach even introduced Luther to his wife, Katharina von Bora, and later served as witness at their wedding. Like his father, Lucas Cranach the Younger was a strong supporter of the Reformation, and would eventually marry Melanchthon's niece, Magdalena Schurff.

Unlike some of his contemporary reformers, Martin Luther was not opposed to the use of images to educate the faithful and clarify scripture. While stressing that art should not be confused with idolatry, he rejected Iconoclasm. Designed to communicate Reformation ideas in clear terms accessible to all, Law and Grace is among the most significant surviving pictures conforming to Luther's vision of art as a vehicle for instruction. The left side of the panel represents the Catholic understanding of God's divine judgment and punishment for sin. The right side, by contrast, shows God's Grace extended directly to mankind without intermediaries such as the Church, indulgences, or even the sacrifice of the Mass. Documentary evidence suggests that Philipp Melanchthon (fig. 2) advised Lucas Cranach on the selection of the accompanying passages, all but one of which were taken from the New Testament, specifically Romans, Corinthians, and the Gospels of Matthew and John (see B. Noble, op. cit., pp. 40-41).

On the left, Christ appears seated on an orb surrounded by a cloud nimbus populated with cherubs. Two angels play horns, referencing the Last Judgment. Following traditional Christian iconography, Christ raises his left hand and lowers his right, simultaneously directing souls up toward Heaven and casting them down into Hell. Below, Adam takes the fruit from Eve in front of the Tree of Knowledge, signifying Original Sin. The accompanying text underscores these themes: '. 1 . Rom . 1 Es wirdt Offenbahret Gottes Zorn Vom himmel über aller Menschen Gottlos wesen und . Unrecht .' ('The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men' Romans 1: 18). Below in the foreground, a bearded man signifying Everyman, or Mankind, is chased down a stony path by a monstrous devil and a skeleton toward a fiery pit filled with tortured souls. The text beneath the flames indicates that eternal damnation is man's inevitable fate under the old religious construct: 'Sie seindt Alle zumall Sünder und manglen das sie sich Gottes nicht Röhmen Mögen Rom . 3 . Capital' ('for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' Romans 3: 23). The skeleton holds a lance, the "sting" of death alluded to in the quotation from Corinthians: 'Die Sünde ist des Todtes Spies das Gesetz ist der Sünde Kräf . 1. Cor . 15 . Das gesetz Richtet nur Zorn an. Rom. 4. Cap.' ('The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law' 1 Corinthians 15: 56; 'The law brings only wrath' Romans 4: 15). To the right, Moses - identifiable by his stone tablets - and other Old Testament prophets gather to converse: 'Drch das gezestz kompt erkentnus der Sünde . Rom . 3. Das gesetz und alle pro pheten gehen bis duff Johanni Zeit. Mathei . am. 11 . Capitel.' ('through the law we become conscious of sin' Romans 3: 20; 'all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John'; Matthew 11: 13). The panel is divided by a single central tree, its branches bare on the left side and full of leaves on the right, alluding to the distinction between Death and Life, Old and New, or Wrong and Right.

The images to the right of the tree introduce the viewer to the true path to Salvation as advocated by Luther. Once again, Mankind appears wearing only a loincloth. Here, he stands next to John the Baptist, who shows the way Salvation by pointing toward the crucified Christ. Whereas on the left, Mankind is represented as the frightened sinner, here he is the righteous believer, clasping his hands in prayer as he gazes upon Jesus. Below, the text explains: 'Der gerechte Lebet seines glaubens Rom . 1. wir halten das der Mensch ge recht werdte Durch den gläben Ohn des gesetzes wercke . Rom. 3. Cap.' ('The righteous will live by faith' Romans 1: 17; 'For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law' Romans 3: 28). Blood flows from Christ's wound directly onto Mankind's chest, carrying with it a white dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. At Jesus's feet is a lamb bearing a white banner with a red cross. This iconography is clarified in the text below: 'Sihe das ist Gottes Lamb das der Weltt sünde tregt Ioh . 1. in der heilichng des geistes und bespangng das bluets Jesu Christe in der . i . Petri . am . i . Capit .' ('Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!' John 1: 29; 'through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, [for obedience] to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood' 1 Peter 1: 2 (referencing the quote from 1 Peter).

In the background is a vignette depicting the Old Testament story of Moses and the Brazen Serpent. Often seen as a prefiguration of the Crucifixion, this event is recounted in Numbers 21: 4-9, which relates how while wandering through the desert, the Jews began to doubt God, for which he punished them with a plague of fiery, poisonous serpents. After the Jews repented, God instructed Moses to erect a bronze effigy of a serpent upon a pole and to set it ablaze. Once the afflicted cast their eyes on the bronze sculpture, they were cured. Notably, the Brazen Serpent appears on the left "Law" side in both the Gotha and Prague paintings, but in all subsequent versions it appears on the right. It was probably moved to the "Grace" side at the suggestion of Luther or Melanchthon due to its association with the notion of Salvation through Faith, despite its traditional pairing with scenes of the Last Judgment (see D. Ehresmann, 'The Brazen Serpent: A Reformation Motif in the Works of Lucas Cranach the Elder and His Workshop', Marsyas, XII, 1967, 32-47).

On the far right, Christ appears triumphant before his empty tomb following his Resurrection. He spears the devil and Death with a beautifully-rendered rock crystal staff, also bearing a flag. As the nearby text explains, with faith, Mankind no longer needs to fear death: 'Der Todt ist verschlungen in dem Sig Gott aber seij danckh der uns den sig gegeben hatt durch JESUM Christum Unsern Heren. in der ersten . Corenter . . am . 15 . Capitel .' ('Death has been swallowed up in victory' 1 Corinthians 15: 55; 'But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.' 1 Corinthians 57]. In the upper right, the Virgin Mary appears atop a verdant hill, receiving the message of Christ's Incarnation as an infant holding a cross flies toward her. Between them, shepherds are shown in a field, receiving the news of the Savior's birth. These three events are linked to the final caption, which is the only passage from the Old Testament: '. II . Esai . IIII Cap . der. Der s wirdt euch Selbs ein Zeichen geben Sihe ein Jung" frauw wirdt Schwanger Werden und einen Sohn gebehren' ('Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son' Isaiah 7: 14].

Cranach organized his figures into distinct vignettes to ensure the narrative's legibility, and also heightened their immediacy by situating them in familiar Germanic landscapes. Described with a subtle use of atmospheric perspective, the snow-covered mountains and lush greenery in the backgrounds are representative of works from the Danube River School, an artistic movement of which Cranach was a key innovator.

Dieter Koepplin (written communication, 20 September 2013) and Werner Schade (oral communication, 9 October 2013) have identified this panel, on the basis of photographs, as the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder. Both scholars have noted that some areas, such as the backgrounds in the upper sections of the composition, appear to have been painted by members of the Cranach workshop, among them, as Koepplin has suggested, Lucas Cranach the Younger, who would have been only 21 years old in 1536, the year the present picture was painted.

(fig. 1) Lucas Cranach I, Portrait of Martin Luther, half-length, in black, Christie's, London, 3 July 2012, lot 4.

(fig. 2) Workshop of Lucas Cranach I, Philipp Melanchthon, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

More from Renaissance

View All
View All