For over seventy-five years, this arresting portrait of John Frederick the Magnanimous was presumed lost or destroyed. Its reemergence constitutes an exciting opportunity for scholars of early German Renaissance portraiture as well as a triumphant moment for the descendants of Friederich Bernhard Eugen Gutmann, from whose collection it was looted during the Second World War. The painting is, without question, one of Cranach’s most refined portrayals of the Elector John Frederick, who at the time it was executed in the 1530s was the artist’s greatest patron and close friend.
Cranach portrays John Frederick half-length and in three-quarter profile, with his arms slightly cropped along the left and right edges to heighten his monumentality. The artist had established this pictorial convention years earlier, while working as court painter in Wittenberg for the Elector’s uncle, Frederick the Wise (1463-1525). In fact, Cranach employed this pose for almost all of his elector portraits including those of the sitter’s father and predecessor, John the Steadfast (1468-1532), as can be seen in Cranach’s magnificent painting of the three rulers, The three Electors of Saxony: Frederic the Wise, John the Steadfast and John Frederick the Magnanimous in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg (fig. 1).
Exuding confidence, John Frederick gazes resolutely ahead, his commanding figure filling the picture plane. The elector’s grand stature is enhanced further by his resplendent—and voluminous—attire, which includes a doublet accented with bands of red silk fashionably slashed to allow the embroidered white fabric beneath to peek through. Adorning the doublet’s upper section are three gold collars featuring a motif of pearl “S”s interspersed with geometric designs composed of sapphires and more pearls. Four gold chains, including one with a pendant in the form of a dolphin clutching a pomander in its jaws, add further luster and weight to the elector’s imposing torso. A similar golden dolphin pendant appears in Cranach’s 1531 portrait of John Frederick in the Louvre (fig. 2). In addition to releasing a pleasant aroma, these objects may also have functioned as ear-picks, toothpicks or possibly whistles (see A. Goetz and C. Joannis, Jewels in the Louvre, Paris, 2008, p. 36). Still more intricate jewels appear on John Frederick’s hat, which matches the rich burgundy velvet of his overgown. In addition to a garland of enameled flowers, John Frederick’s stylish beret boasts a ring, a pair of entwined serpents and a hat badge with an hourglass design—perhaps intended as a vanitas symbol. The elector sports another ring on his right index finger; prominently displayed in the portrait’s central foreground, it bears what appears to be a Saxon coat-of-arms.
The earliest known portrait of John Frederick by Cranach captures him as a child, forming one half of a diptych paired with a portrait of his father, sold at Christie’s, London, 6 July 1990, lot 42 (£4,840,000) and today in the National Gallery, London (fig. 3). No other likenesses of the prince by Cranach are known until the portrait of 1526 (Weimar, Schlossmuseum), painted to commemorate his marriage to Sybille of Cleves (1512-1554). This was followed by Cranach’s portraits of John Frederick as Heir Apparent of 1528/30 and 1531 (location unknown, see Friedländer and Rosenberg, 1972, op. cit., no. 135; and Paris, Louvre). The dashing representation of John Frederick carrying the electoral sword (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin-Dahlem), necessarily dates to after he assumed the title of Elector in 1532, and likely predates the numerous smaller official portraits of him in his new role.
As court painter to the Electors at Wittenberg, Cranach was charged with portraying the Saxon princes as well as their friends and allies. These images not only documented likenesses for ancestral records, but also carried a powerful political function as they were frequently exchanged as gifts, a custom that served to strengthen ties between courts by providing a physical presence of the sitter from afar. Such was surely the function of the sixty portrait pairs of Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast that John Frederick famously commissioned from Cranach in 1532.
To produce his portraits of John Frederick, Cranach likely relied on a drawing taken from life, which was kept in his studio. The contours of the drawing would then be copied onto panels, to be painted by the artist’s assistants. In this case, however, the elevated quality of brushwork and composition suggests that the entire painting was executed by Lucas’s own hand, as Professor Dieter Koepplin has recently confirmed upon firsthand examination. Moreover, the underdrawing (visible through infrared reflectography; fig. 4.) reveals that the artist made several changes to his design, adjusting both the contour of John Frederick’s nose and the position of his eyes as he worked out his composition. Koepplin further suggests that the fanciful attire and absence of a signature indicate that the present work may not have been intended for official circulation.
Born on June 30, 1503 in Torgau, Prussia, John Frederick would become the fourth and last Elector of Saxony in the Ernestine Saxon line. Unlike his uncle, who maintained an official neutrality toward Martin Luther and his teachings up until the end of his life, John Frederick followed his father’s lead and quickly became one of the Reformer’s most ardent supporters. This fervent devotion was bolstered through study; his tutor was Luther's friend and advisor, George Spalatin (1484-1545), who had trained at the university in Wittenberg. John Frederick subsequently forged a close, personal relationship with Martin Luther, sending public letters of support as early as 1520, in response to the papal bull to excommunicate the Reformer. Luther, in turn, dedicated his “Exposition of the Magnificat” to John Frederick in 1521. John Frederick helped to promote Luther's teachings and even facilitated printing of the first complete (Wittenberg) edition of Luther’s works and in the latter years of his life promoted the compilation of the Jena edition.
John Frederick was closely involved with the theological and political clashes that defined the late 1520s, implementing policies that furthered the Lutheran agenda and defied the emperor and papacy, such as being one of the principal signatories of the Augsburg Confession of 1530. With his accession to the Electorate upon his father’s death in 1532, John Frederick became the leader of the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Lutheran territories designed to defend against military threats from Emperor Charles V. While vigilantly protecting his borders in this way, John Frederick also focused his attention on fostering the ordination of Lutheran pastors. Furthermore, to ensure that the Reformer’s message was properly spread, he implemented a complete reorganization of the University of Wittenberg, infusing it with funds necessary to expand its library, degree programs and to redefine its curriculum, favoring increased study of ancient languages, rhetoric and the Gospels according to a program devised by Philipp Melanchthon. Though John Frederick’s advocacy for the Reformation was unyielding, it is noteworthy that Luther at times chastised the prince for his overindulgence in courtly pleasures, particularly drinking.
John Frederick's strong Lutheran beliefs led him into frequent clashes with Imperial and Papal policies, which came to a head in 1546, when his cousin, Duke Maurice of Albertine, betrayed his Protestant allies and led an attack on the Saxon territories that he had always coveted. Although his allies in the Schmalkaldic League quickly came to John Frederick’s defense, Charles V sent his imperial armies to support Duke Maurice. On April 24, 1547, the Elector and his allies were soundly defeated at the Battle of Mühlberg. John Frederick was wounded on the battlefield and taken prisoner. The Emperor condemned John Frederick to death but ultimately compelled the elector to agree to the Capitulation of Wittenberg, under which the prince ceded the government of his country and his ancestral lands to Maurice, in exchange for his sentence being commuted to imprisonment for life. During his incarceration, John Frederick’s support of the Reformation never wavered, and he refused to compromise his beliefs, even when offered his freedom upon the renunciation of his Lutheran faith. His graceful conduct during this period of his life ultimately earned him his honorific title, “the Magnanimous”. After Maurice reembraced Lutheranism and marched against the Emperor, John Frederick was released from prison in 1552; he ended his days in Weimar, where he had moved both his university (it ultimately would be transferred to Jena) and government.
We are grateful to Dr. Dieter Koepplin for endorsing the attribution to Lucas Cranach the Elder upon firsthand inspection of the painting.
Please note, a pair of carved limewood Angel Statues from the circle of Veit Stoss returned to the Gutmann heirs pursuant to a settlement agreement between the parties is offered in the Old Masters Part II sale, lot 167.