The sixteenth-century artist Lucas Cranach has become very popular in recent years, prompting a steady succession of exhibitions featuring his mysterious images. SMK owns one of his main masterpieces, Melancholy – and scholars are still discussing what it’s all about.
What on earth is going on in this painting? Many have asked themselves that question when studying Melancholy from 1532. And they still do. Particularly in recent years, where the German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder has had something of a revival within the art world. Earlier generations have thought him too strange. Not least because of his ideas about the ideal body: his women have balloon-like pot bellies, long rubbery limbs and slanted eyes.
SMK owns several works by Cranach, and many of them – including Melancholy, which is one of SMK’s ten biggest highlights – come from Gottorf Castle. The princes of Gottorf owned a large art collection which became part of the Danish royal collections in 1759; the very collections that since formed the basis of SMK.
‘This is an artist who resonates with our time. His style is very clearly painted, with crisp contours and clear, bright planes of colour, and there is something cartoonish about the visual language, like a graphic novel. There is also a lot of symbolism going on, but I don’t think that’s his main appeal to audiences today,’ says curator and senior researcher Eva de la Fuente Pedersen.
‘After all, Melancholy is super strange, and the issue of what the painting is actually about remains an open question. But his manner of painting is certainly fascinating.’
Women with balloon bellies
Melancholy shows three naked toddlers trying to pass a large ball through a hoop while a winged woman, lost in thought, is whittling away at a stick, perhaps in order to make yet another hoop.
The space is artificial and undefined, furnished only by a box and a cushion. In the background we see a beautiful landscape, but it too is highly mysterious. We see witches riding various types of animal, a very finely dressed gentleman astride a satanic-looking goat, and an entire army toppling over with no visible adversary in sight.
During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, moral philosophy served as the basis of man’s understanding of the world and how we should strive to live our lives. One possible interpretation of this painting might be that Melancholy reflects the views expressed by Martin Luther, a friend of the artist. He regarded the temperament known as melancholy as a ‘bath of Satan’ that must be fought with ‘spiritual joy’ and faith in the word of God.
Luther believed that melancholy leads to a demoralising apathy, and in this picture Cranach may be demonstrating how not to live one’s life. Instead, we should seek joy and comfort in spiritual matters.
‘When I am asked to give an old painting present-day relevance, I always turn to Svend Brinkmann, a Danish professor of philosophy, and his homespun Neo-stoic deliberations, which are also intended as words to live by: stand firm, say ‘no’, take a step back, allow scope for thought. Paintings of this kind are also highly philosophical, paving the way for an ethical and spiritual approach to life,’ says Eva de la Fuente Pedersen.
Having a large audience is nothing new for Lucas Cranach the Elder. Many Protestant kings and princes had his portraits of Martin Luther on their walls, and Cranach the Elder also created new imagery relating specifically to Martin Luther’s teachings as well as portraits of other reformers.
‘Cranach is closely linked to the dukes and electors of Wittenberg and to Luther; for example, he illustrates Luther’s German edition of Bible. He also paints altarpieces for churches in Wittenberg and elsewhere, creating a Lutheran iconography,’ says Eva de la Fuente Pedersen.
His works are in great demand, prompting him to develop a style that is very distinctive, but also easy to copy. And copied they were: a great many paintings in his style were done by other artists at his own workshop, which was taken over by his son upon his death. Their work helped spread the ideas and images of Protestantism far and wide.
‘You are never in doubt when you see “a Cranach”. It doesn’t look like anything else, including works from his own time, even though they do incorporate many features that are typical of the period.’