This is one of the many printed and painted portraits of Martin Luther that were produced by Cranach and his workshop beginning about 1520. The reformer and the artist were well acquainted, for Cranach served as Luther's Brautwerber (matchmaker) when he was courting Katharina von Bora, who lived in Cranach's house in Wittenberg from 1523 until her marriage to Luther in 1525. Luther also served as the godfather of Cranach's first daughter, born in 1520.
Deeply involved with the production of images for the Protestant Reformation, Cranach made illustrations for the Bible, including for Das Neue Testament deutsch (Wittenberg, 1522) and for Luther's sermons, lectures, polemical tracts, and broadsheets. He also painted a number of pictures and altarpieces supporting Protestant viewpoints, among them portraits of Luther that varied according to the purposes they were meant to serve. In 1532 Cranach paired a half-length view of Luther facing right with one of Philipp Melanchthon facing left; of the several versions of this painting, the pendants in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, are considered the primary examples. Melanchthon was Luther's main collaborator, a theologian and intellectual leader of the Reformation. The Museum's Luther is a subtype of this group, showing a close-up view and a more tightly cropped image that was probably joined with a portrait of Melanchthon. An extant pair in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, is very similar in dimensions.
Löcher ("Humanistenbildnisse, Refomatorenbildnisse: Unterschiede und Gemeinsamkeiten," Literatur, Musik und Kunst im Übergang vom Mittelalter zur Neuzit: Bericht über Kolloquien der Kommission zur Erforschung der Kultur des Spätmittelalters 1989 bis 1992," Göttingen, 1995) suggested that this portrait type of Luther emerged in 1532 because of the new Protestant Bewusstseinsstand (state of awareness) that resulted from the 1530 Imperial Diet at Augsburg. With that convocation and the presentation there of the Confessio Augustana (Augsburg Confession), he noted, Lutheran Protestantism came to be seen as an "independent confession and church" separate from Roman Catholicism. In the 1532 portrait type, Luther is shown wearing the distinctive black Protestant vestments and in a mood of "calm persuasiveness," which has replaced the militant demeanor and features of Cranach's early portraits of him. The pairing with the Melanchthon portrait, Löcher suggested, may be related to the Diet of Augsburg: it was Melanchthon who drew up the Augsburg Confession and presented it as a representative of electoral Saxony and of the Protestant Estates. The pairing may also derive from humanist friendship portraits, and in this case likely served to sustain the idea of a newly established Reformation and to maintain the morale of its proponents.
Although Friedländer (unpublished opinion, 1927) first considered the Museum's portrait an autograph work by Cranach from about 1530, the attribution was reevaluated over the years owing to the preponderance of versions and workshop copies. The painting does indeed exhibit the rather dry, hard contours and stiff rendering of a copy. There are five other known versions of closely similar size, four of which are in oil on wood (sold, Christie's, London, July 7, 1972, no. 75; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; Universitätsmuseum für Bildende Künste, Marburg) and one watercolor on parchment (Duke of Buccleuch, Boughton House). The version sold at Christie's and the one in Copenhagen both carry Cranach's insignia and the date 1532. The Museum's painting is most similar to the Copenhagen version and to the drawing in the Buccleuch collection. There is a particularly close correspondence between the MMA painting and the drawing—in the wavy contour of the head at the right, in the modeling of the face, in the specific arrangement of the locks of hair at the left, and even in the stubble of the beard, a feature shared with none of the other painted versions. In fact, when an exact scale digital image of the drawing is superimposed onto the Museum's painting, the two so nearly match that they must have some relationship to each other. However, there is no visible evidence that the design for the MMA portrait was transferred from a cartoon, and it is possible that the tonal underpainting in gray washes in the head obscures such evidence. The vivid appearance of the Buccleuch drawing and its parchment support suggest that it may have served in the workshop as either a model for portraits of Luther or as a ricordo. If the former, then the Museum's portrait has followed this model very closely.
[2013; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]