Sunday, 9 August 2009

Lucas Cranach

An Allegory of Melancholy 1528
Oil and Tempera on Panel 113 x 72 cm
Royal Academy, London
08 April 2008

I always find the Sackler Wing galleries in the Royal Academy claustrophobic and this exhibition was no exception. There appeared to be no logic to the 'hang', which was neither chronological nor thematic, and I flitted from painting to painting where space in the crowds allowed. Despite the difficulty in seeing the work properly I did gain some appreciation of the diversity of his images and the skill of his workshop.

In the corner of one of the galleries was this little known work that seems to be based on the Albrecht Dürer engraving “Melencholia I” from 14 years earlier. The painting is much more surreal, with clouds full of horses and witches riding cattle and pigs to the left of two towns perched on precipitous rocks in the background. On a balcony overlooking this mayhem sits a woman in an orange dress in a similar position to the angel of the Dürer engraving.

Cranach went on to do at least three more versions of this painting and in two of them the woman in the red dress has angel’s wings, one black wings one white. Strangely the later three also have a bizarre apocalyptic vision in the upper-left corner, a distant landscape and in each the woman whittles while children play.

In this painting there are four children on the balcony seemingly tormenting the same scrawny dog that was sleeping in the Dürer engraving. One of the children (or putti) looks slyly and knowingly at the viewer. There is also a scattering of emblematic devices from Dürer’s work. Instead of a compass her hand holds a knife that she is using to whittle a stick and although not sunk in gloom her expression is one of boredom as she stares into space ignoring the mischievous children. The other elements in the painting are a table and bench bearing two glasses, one empty, and some blackened fruit; on the bench is a puppy sleeping on a red cushion; and above the woman is a tree bearing fruit the same colour as her dress.

My interpretation would be that this is a portrayal of a woman who feels she has accomplished little and is destined to while away her time bringing up the children and that these thoughts are the devil’s work, signified by the Saturnalian ‘dreams’ in the background. Painted at a time when persecution for witchcraft was prevalent in Germany, it explains why the ride to the sabbat has found its way into the melancholic iconography. Cranach lived in Wittenberg and was a close friend of Martin Luther who shared and reinforced the witchcraft beliefs of the culture that produced him[1].

[1] Kors, Alan Charles Peters, Edward “Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700” Pennsylvania Press 2000 p261

©blackdog 2009


  1. I needed some hours in order to notice and to understand all the details in this rich, profound, and colourful painting! Yes, Lucas Cranach Sen. is very famous, highly appreciated not only in our country, and I saw some of his original paintings in Weimar/Herderkirche (even pupils were impressed with his painting), Frankfurt/Städel, in Wittenberg and in Coburg you can meet him and his big workshop,- a clever businessman, mamager, and a politician in his time, too!
    You have very well described the (two-parted, signalizing perhaps two 'worlds') composition of this painting and analysed many elements in an knowing and helpful way !
    I don't understand the last sentence- if I remember correctly- Martin Luther didn't "share and reinforce the witchcraft beliefs", on the contrary- he denied many supersititious and catholic beliefs, although he believed in the real(leibhaftig) existence of the devil! As I read Luther refused the melancholy (= "Verdüsterung der Seele") as "devil's work", and Cranach's painting should be understood in this way as a (Protestant) counterpart to Dürer's "Melencholia" -despite all references to the great master. The children are playing, activer than the often lazy dog, a symbol of melancholy, the lady is also a bit activer than Dürer's Melencholia while whittling a stick, perpaps a toy for the children, and looking not so sad, but still contemplative and serious as you said! In a later version (1532) of this painting Cranach emphasized/enhanced this new conception containing an ideology of "working is better than contemplating/Vita acitva instead of Vita contemplativa". On the ground we see some tools to work with, and the knife is also a tool in order to do something useful! Fresh fruit was taken as medicine against melancholy. Cranach himself was the incarnation of an active personality (but this might be no argument for this explanation). Dürer's graphic should soon follow or be the first one whom other artists might have followed.

  2. I just read that Cranach's painting hinted to the discussion between Luther and Melanchthon about the origin of melancholy. Luther denied the black bile- theory/"Säftelehre" (in English?) of Hippokrates which Dürer's 'Melencholia' is basing on (information by googling: www.buceriuskunstforum...).

  3. I am not a student of the Reformation, but the quote is from the book referenced and it goes on to give examples of Luther reinforcing the existence of witches/sorceresses (Die Zauberinnen) by translating hebrew texts in terms that people would understand advocating that practioners should be stoned to death.

    I agree that the painting is a "warning" against melancholia, and this equates with the medieval reading of it as a humour (black bile, saturn etc) based on Hippokrates.

    But I do think the woman is just whittling away time, and not being active/creative - that is her 'sin'. No Protestant work ehtic!

    Dürer (who depicts Type One Melancholia - melancholia imaginationis) has his angel sunk in gloom at the thought of having accomplished nothing. The bearer of the melancholia being a bat!

    The complexities of both these works are really beyond the scope of this piece, and my intention is really only to highlight the source of what we now take as melancholic motifs.

  4. I find the idea and the intention of this painting blog very good, it may be a rarity we can only appreciate! In this way classical and modern paintings, famous artists and newcomers are combined under special aspects- different methods in order to analyse the works are in 'use': art history- social.. background- painting techniques- influences- reception...- esp. interesting is for me the look/sight/ a- spect of an artist at the work of an artist! You are absolutely right the "complexities of such works " like this one can never be worked out on this blog, but I find it very impressive how many aspects and problems you mentioned in this "piece" already- and you evoked the interest to deal with a paintings like that. Yes, Luther's position is problematic for sure, I read that more differenciated research by theologians may be necessary; a word like "witches-sabbat" cannot be used by us because it were offending Jews.
    This painting analysis reminded me of my study as we together with our Prof. Ohly (influenced by the Klibansky/Panofsky-school) paintings like the above mentioned ones tried to interpret, he taught me seeing and reading, and we can enjoy some paintings quite more if we know something about the spiritual thinking/theology/ philosophy the paintings baseon! You do and you did open our eyes in this way! Many thanks for that!

  5. Thank you Philine - your feedbck is encouraging. It takes me between 2-4 hours each week to write one review, so knowing that people find it engaging makes the effort all worthwhile. I must admit it is a good discipline, it makes me think carefully about the work I have seen and consider one piece in depth. In an age when we are bombarded with images it is nice to step back and slow down the contemplation. I will certainly keep going to the end of the year, and then review my priorities ;o)

  6. Witchcraft practice maybe misinterpreted in a negative way but what others don't know is that it gives value in all complex diversity.
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