Triggering a strong emotional response in the viewer is at the heart of this interpretation of the Lamentation by Lucas Cranach the Elder. To help elicit deep empathy and spiritual responsiveness, the artist has compressed the scene so that the spectator is brought in close proximity to the wounded body of Christ and the suffering of those who mourn him. The setting, Mount Golgotha, is suggested here by means of sparse yet highly effective features such as the three crosses, of which only the bases are visible, and the dark, churning clouds. This economy of detail, combined with the landscape’s brooding palette, adds to the composition’s pathos and helps to focus the viewer’s attention on the event portrayed and its significance. John the Evangelist supports Christ’s body, which nearly spans the length of the painting, while the saint’s scarlet robe compliments the vermillion hue of Mary Magdalene’s velvet gown, these sartorial reds accenting Jesus’s blood as it trickles from his wounds. While Mary Magdalene tenderly embraces Christ’s hand, the Virgin Mary kneels beside her over her son’s body, sorrow etched on her face as she watches him and catches her tears in her wimple. Surrounding the Virgin are three other grief-stricken women, two of whom gaze directly at the spectator, inviting engagement with the scene and acting as additional models of anguish and meditation. To the right of this tight-knit group appear Nicodemus clutching the crown of thorns and Joseph of Arimathea holding an ointment jar as he contemplates Christ’s lifeless body.
A central subject in Catholic imagery, the Lamentation was frequently portrayed by Lucas Cranach the Elder throughout his career, during which he provided religious pictures to both Catholic and Protestant clients. In Cranach’s woodcut treatment of the subject, produced in 1509 as part of his Passion series (fig. 1), the mourners’ agony is particularly palpable, although certain motifs that appear in our picture are already present, such as Mary Magdalene kissing Christ’s hand and the grieving woman whose face is largely concealed by cloth. Many characteristics that define the present work, notably the horizontal format and the use of cropped crosses, occur in two other paintings, one in the Church of St. Nikolaus in Constappel and the other in Nuremberg’s Nationalmuseum. The former, made by Cranach’s workshop circa 1520-1525, features a very similar figural arrangement, including Saint John holding Christ and Mary Magdalene embracing his hand as well as the detail of a figure crying into her wimple, although in this case it is not the Virgin Mary who does so but rather one of the mourners. Moreover, while in our painting, Cranach shows only the lower portion of the crosses to which he has given grayish tint and so made them evocative of columns, in the workshop picture in Constappel, the feet of the thieves are visible, thereby placing greater emphasis on the narrative rather than the pathos of the moment. Also of note is the fact that in the Constappel picture the ointment jar is with Mary Magdalene rather than in the hands of Joseph of Arimathea as it is in our panel and others by Cranach, suggesting that the attribute and its association with the preparation of Christ’s body for burial in this context was possibly misunderstood by a workshop assistant.
As in the present painting, the “colonnade” of clipped crosses and Joseph holding an ointment jar appear in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lamentation in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 2). Although the latter is vertically oriented, both panels are closely related in terms of their composition, iconographic details, and even the pebbly gray terrain favored by the artist. The MFA painting is signed and dated 1538, and it is likely that our Lamentation dates to the same period. Indeed, Friedländer and Rosenberg include the present panel under autograph works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, dating it to after 1537, noting the presence of the signature with the dragon wings folded adopted by the artist after the death of his son, Hans.
In July 2013, Dr. Werner Schade endorsed the attribution after firsthand examination of the painting, remarking that the Lamentations produced by Cranach and his workshop have yet to be studied as a group. Brilliantly colored and steeped in spiritual drama, the present painting constitutes one of the artist’s most effective explorations of this powerful moment in the Passion of Christ.