Winterthur exhibition reveals the youth of Cranach the Elder

The illustrious career of Lucas Cranach the Elder as court painter to the Saxon Electors and friend of Martin Luther has been the subject of many exhibits. But a Swiss-Austrian exhibition is the first that seeks to shed light on the first stages of his career as a young painter in Vienna.

Although there is no documentary evidence, his earliest known paintings suggest that Cranach (1472-1553) emigrated to Vienna before he reached the age of 30, around 1500, probably in the hope of winning commissions to paint portraits of the Humanist Circle of Vienna, a group of intellectuals. who demanded reform. His work seems to have been warmly welcomed there.

Johannes Cuspinian’s wife, Anna © Oskar Reinhart Am Römerholz Collection/P. Schälchli

Wild and raw

“It’s very different from the courtly refinement of Cranach’s later works,” says Kerstin Richter, curator of the exhibition and responsible for the Oskar Reinhart Am Römerholz collection in Winterthur, Switzerland. “Early Cranach is very expressive, quite wild and raw – perspective wasn’t so much his thing and it was more about color and drama and emotion.”

The exhibition Cranach: the early years in Vienna opens at the Museum of Winterthur this month before heading to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) in Vienna in June, with the addition of different works and a change in focus. Because many of the works on paper and parchment cannot be exposed to light for long, they can only be shown in one place. Thus, the Winterthur exhibition will focus on portraits while in Vienna the focus will be on early religious painting by Cranach.

The cooperation between the Oskar Reinhart Am Römerholz Collection and the KHM began with the Vienna Museum’s Pieter Bruegel the Elder exhibition in 2018. The Swiss museum lent its painting by Bruegel The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow (1563) for the first time. When Oskar Reinhart donated his collection to the museum in 1965, it was on the condition that the works would never be loaned out, Richter says. It will be necessary to wait until 2018 for the museum to be able to relax these conditions. “Now we can enter into cooperation agreements with other museums.”

About 11 paintings from the first phase of Cranach’s career have survived, six of which will be exhibited in Winterthur. Those absent from the show are either too fragile to make the trip, or national treasures who are not allowed to travel, such as Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1504) at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (which, in any case, was probably painted after Cranach’s stay in Vienna).

Ruthless Detail

The exhibition will include a wedding diptych (circa 1502), from the museum’s collection, of the Austrian humanist and scientist Johannes Cuspinian and his wife Anna.

A painting on loan from the Hessische Hausstiftung in Kronberg—Portrait of a beardless young man– remains a bit mysterious. It was previously attributed to Albrecht Dürer but is now believed to be a very early Cranach.

A particularly graphic highlight will be the KHM’s Crucifixion of Christ (circa 1500), also known as Schotten’s Crucifixion, which is universally accepted as one of the works produced by Cranach in Vienna. He is ruthless in detail, with the bloody tongue of Christ sticking out of his mouth. The KHM also loaned Cranach’s oldest dated painting still in existence. The Penance of Saint Jerome (1502) shows the agitated saint holding his beard and gesticulating wildly with one arm while a lion sits at his feet, gazing menacingly at the viewer.

The museum will also display five rare old drawings and six woodcuts, as well as some of the oldest
examples of printed books, such as the 1506 Missal Salisburgense from the Austrian National Library.

• Cranach: the first years in Vienna, Oskar Reinhart Collection Am Römerholz, WinterthurMarch 12-June 12;
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaJune 21-October 16

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