The subtle refinement of Lucas Cranach the Younger’s early style is typified in this previously unpublished Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, marking a significant addition to the artist’s known oeuvre. While his early work is difficult to separate from that of his father, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Dr. Werner Schade and Dr. Dieter Koepplin independently recognise the present picture as a masterwork by Lucas Cranach the Younger, after first-hand inspection. The panel is signed with the Cranach device of a serpent with folded bird’s wings, indicating that it was painted after 1537, when the design was altered from outstretched bat wings following the death of Cranach the Younger’s older brother Hans. From this time, Cranach the Younger assumed greater responsibilities in the large Cranach workshop, taking a more direct and active role in the production of works.
In this picture, the Virgin holds the Christ Child on her knee as the Infant Saint John the Baptist offers Him a bunch of grapes, all seated before a low wall, evoking the hortus conclusus. Behind them, three angels hold aloft a dark green velvet cloth-of-honour, decorated along the edges with floral gold embroidery. Beyond, at left, a wide river crossed by a bridge leads to a distant cityscape, evoking the Holy city of Jerusalem, though conceived as a contemporary Saxon town. This composition relates closely to a group of works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop, which seemingly derived from the Elder’s Virgin with the Christ Child, Saint John and three Angels of 1536, now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid (fig. 1). In it, the Virgin and Child are similarly seated with Saint John the Baptist in a landscape, sheltered by a luxurious cloth held aloft by angels. The Elder subsequently developed this composition in another picture, painted after 1537, now in the Nivaagaards Malerisamling, Nivå (fig. 2), which appears to have provided the initial model for the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist in the present work. Indeed, Cranach the Younger appears to have amalgamated both the Prado and Nivå paintings in the present work, creating a composition altogether his own. Dr. Werner Schade dates this work to the artist’s early maturity, attributing the enlarged proportion of the Virgin’s head to a moment of youthful exaggeration. However, the abandonment of proportion does not appear to be accidental, and instead demonstrates the Younger’s experimentation with his father’s designs. Through his use of carefully refined curvilinear forms and fine details, he displays his artistry as a confident and highly skilled draughtsman, in both the painting of the figures and the landscape.
For the model of the present Christ Child, Lucas the Younger looks to the Prado picture, showing Him similarly seated, turning His back towards the Baptist, while modifying the position and treatment of the curtain and angels. He models the Virgin’s direct gaze, red mantle and billowing sleeves on the Nivå picture, however places his Virgin and Child in a landscape setting, rather than replicating the neutral background. It is through the landscape that Cranach the Younger markedly distinguishes himself from his father. Rendering it with a more painterly freedom than similar examples by the Elder, he paints the architectural details with the light, slightly opaque colouring that has become so characteristic of his practice. This landscape bears similar stylistic traits to the series of hunting scenes painted by the Cranach workshop in the mid-1540s, which have traditionally been considered the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder, but were more recently reattributed to his son (B. Brinkmann, ed., Cranach, exhibition catalogue, London, 2008, p. 384). This includes the Court Hunt at Hartenfels Castle near Torgau at the Museo del Prado, Madrid, which shows a similar lightness of touch and freedom of handling, more characteristic of the younger Cranach’s work than that of his father. The confusion between the Younger and Elder’s authorship can be traced back to an account by Matthias Gunderam, Cranach the Elder’s cousin, first biographer and tutor to his grandchildren. Gunderam reported that, during his siege of Wittenberg, Charles V summoned Cranach to his camp to enquire on whether a ‘painted panel’ he had received was by the artist’s hand or his son’s, so impressed was he by its quality. While Gunderam does not give Cranach’s response, the question itself demonstrates the high regard with which Charles V and his court held Lucas Cranach the Younger’s talents (see J.L. Koerner, The Reformation of the Image, Chicago, 2008, p. 238).
The motif of the Virgin and Christ Child with grapes had been established in the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1509, when it was included in his Holy Kinship altarpiece in Vienna (Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste). Grapes held a number of symbolic meanings, relating to both the Virgin and Christ. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary was referred to as the noble vine, which nurtured the divine grapes, symbolising Christ. Similarly, Christ Himself became the ‘true vine’ on which His followers grew as fruitful branches (John 15:1-17). Most obviously, of course, they carried obvious connotations of the Eucharistic, sacramental wine and by extension, through the analogy of the wine-press, foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The Eucharistic connotations of grapes may have been especially significant to patrons of Cranach’s work following the Reformation, which had called for more general participation in the receiving of Holy Communion. Images of the Christ Child with bunches of grapes, therefore, may have been desirable to a Protestant audience who regarded such pictures not as objects of devotion, but as didactic reminders of God’s universal mercy.