Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Friedrich III (1463–1525), the Wise, Elector of Saxony

Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar)
Oil on beech, with letterpress-printed paper labels
8 x 5 5/8 in. (20.3 x 14.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Robert Lehman, 1946
Accession Number:
Not on view
These posthumous portraits of the Saxon electors Friedrich III, the Wise, and Johann I, the Constant belong to a series of sixty such portrait pairs, ordered by Johann I’s son and successor, Johann Friedrich I, the Magnanimous, when he became elector in 1532. He intended the portraits of his father and uncle to serve as instruments of propaganda. The accompanying laudatory poems emphasize the passage of Saxon electoral preeminence from Friedrich to Johann, thereby implying the legitimacy of Johann Friedrich’s own electorate.
Completed in 1533, the extensive series demonstrates the speed and efficiency of which the Cranach workshop was capable.
This small posthumous portrait and that of Johann I, the Constant (MMA 46.179.2) belong to a series of sixty such portrait pairs of the brothers and Saxon electors that Johann I's son and successor, Johann Friedrich I, the Magnanimous (r. 1532–47), commissioned from Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1532. The commission coincided with Johann Friedrich's assumption of electoral office after the death of his father. An extant record of payment indicates that Cranach and his workshop completed the series in 1533. Many of the portraits from this series are still extant in public and private collections. The works also gave rise to a number of variants, such as the triptychs in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, and the Hamburger Kunsthalle, both datable to about 1535, which display larger portraits of Friedrich, Johann, and Johann Friedrich.

Because of the great size of the series, the content of the accompanying poems, and the religiopolitical position of Electoral Saxony in those years, it is thought that Johann Friedrich intended the portraits to serve as instruments of propaganda. He is presumed to have given them to other political figures in order to gain influence and support at a time of growing antagonism between Saxony and the Habsburgs. The Augsburg Confession, the fundamental doctrinal statement of the Lutheran Reformation, of which Elector Johann and Johann Friedrich were signees, had been submitted at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 and was subsequently rejected by Emperor Charles V (r. 1519–56). Furthermore, at the beginning of 1531, both Johann and Johann Friedrich had opposed the election of Charles's brother, Archduke Ferdinand I, as king of the Romans. In February of that year, several Protestant princes and cities, led by Elector Johann and Philipp I, Landgrave of Hesse, founded the Schmalkaldic League to defend against potential Habsburg incursions. As a result, after Johann Friedrich took office in 1532, Charles V refused to invest him with the electoral title until 1535.

The 1532–33 portrait pairs appear to address this political situation through their poems, which were possibly composed by Martin Luther. These are printed on pieces of paper that have been pasted down on the panels. The texts emphasize the passage of Saxon electoral dignity from Friedrich to Johann, thereby implying the legitimacy of Johann Friedrich's electorate. Also, while invoking the electors' facilitation of Luther's religious reforms, the verses simultaneously attest to Friedrich's support of Charles V and to Johann's ultimate reconciliation with Charles after the controversy over Archduke Ferdinand's election as king of the Romans. In this way, the portraits convey a tactful message of electoral Saxony's resolution to protect its own political and religious interests while remaining loyal to the empire.

The overall compositional scheme of these works appears to derive from the engraved likeness of Friedrich that Albrecht Dürer made in 1524, which depicts the elector in a similar pose and attire above a fictive epigraphic tablet. The particular Friedrich type that Cranach employed for the series is based on one he developed by 1522 and reused in various formats. The long-established type for Friedrich served, in turn, as the model for the figure of Johann as it appears in the 1532–33 series.

The series exemplifies the speed and efficiency of which the Cranach workshop was capable. The modeling was carried out with a typical economy of means, and certain compositional and material elements, particularly the conformity of the figures' silhouettes and the use of printed texts, were clearly intended to speed production. The relative refinement of the Museum's pendant portraits sets them among the highest quality examples in the series. The portrait of Friedrich in particular, while conforming to the unified appearance of the group, displays a remarkably subtle handling. This is apparent when the painting is compared in detail with the still highly competent companion piece of Johann. Although the series is probably mostly the work of studio assistants, the possibility that Cranach himself contributed from time to time should not be discounted. This may well have been the case with the Museum's portrait of Friedrich and perhaps also with the comparable but somewhat less refined portrait of Johann. A second portrait of Johann in the Museum's collection (71.128) is not as accomplished and appears to have been produced entirely by the workshop. The 1533 date of the Friedrich portrait places it later than several inferior versions of the previous year, when work on the series began. The instance of higher quality at a later date adds further support to the idea of a flexible distribution of labor between master and workshop as the commission progressed, suggesting that Cranach's involvement did not end with the creation of models to be followed by assistants.

As part of a mass-produced series, the Museum's pendants of Friedrich and Johann were possibly not originally planned and executed as a discrete pair. It is plausible that they were paired only after completion, selected for their comparable quality from a group of nearly identical versions. Although the original frames do not survive and any evidence of attachment by hinges has consequently been lost, the decoration of the backs suggests a diptych arrangement. The reverse of each is painted black, and the back of the portrait of Friedrich bears an electoral Saxon coat of arms, which would have been displayed when the diptych was closed. A dynastic portrait diptych of this sort has a clear precedent in Cranach's intact 1509 diptych of Elector Johann and his son Johann Friedrich in the National Gallery, London, which has hinged frames, black reverses, and similar heraldic decoration.

[2013; adapted from Waterman 2013]
This work and its pendant (46.179.2) have a number of features in common. Affixed to each of them are two original paper labels. One, printed in black ink with the sitter’s name, is in a corner at the top of the panel and the other, on which a verse is printed in black ink, is at the bottom of the panel, beneath the likeness of the sitter. The labels are legible and intact, although the paper support has darkened and degraded owing to acidity in the wood panel and the absorption of varnish.

The supports are vertically grained beech panels, .32 centimeter thick, both of which display a slight transverse convex warp. The size of the panels corresponds to Heydenreich Format A. The reverses have been coated with a black ink or paint, within an unpainted border .64 centimeters wide.

An extremely thin white ground was applied to the panels. X-radiography revealed a thinly washed priming layer that contains small amounts of lead-white pigment. The priming was applied in horizontal strokes with a brush 1.27 to 1.9 centimeters wide (46.179.1) and 1.9 to 2.5 centimeters wide (46.179.2). The ground was scored with a line along the perimeter of the pictures indicating the area to be painted. Further scored lines show where the labels would be placed.

Eight semicircular skips in the ground preparation along the edges of each panel are vestiges of the Cranach workshop’s practice of fastening panels to a support before applying the ground. Evidence that the panels were unfastened before painting took place is visible along the perimeter where paint flowed over the skips.

A very finely divided pale greenish blue pigment was used for the background of both portraits. The background was painted first, and the color was carefully applied, leaving a reserve area for the figure; however, it was allowed to flow across the unpainted borders, indicating the painter anticipated that the latter would be covered by a frame. Examination with infrared reflectography did not clarify the underpainting or reveal any underdrawing.

The wood support for this portrait was cut from the same tree as the supports for eleven other Cranach paintings. Dendrochronological analysis suggested an earliest possible fabrication date of 1533 for them all.

Underpainting in shades of gray was used to establish the shadows in the flesh tones and the modeling in the white shirt. Under magnification the particles of coarse black pigment used in the underpainting are visible. As is typical of paintings by Cranach and his workshop, many details were executed in a layered technique: a nearly flat base color was topped by fine strokes of dark and light paint. In the sitter’s mantle, intermingled dark and light tones were finely applied with a slightly dry brush on top of a midbrown base to create the illusion of long fur. The fur is more convincing and realistically volumetric than the fur in 46.179.2. In the flesh, the cool gray shadows were finished by thinly scumbling over the tonal underpainting.

In general, the condition of the painting is very good. The quick, deft brushwork contrasts with the more studious and labored style seen in its pendant portrait; moreover, the interplay between the dark and light strokes seems less mechanical. Many passages are painted with fewer brushstrokes, to better effect.

A strong black line overlapping the edge of the paint layers on one side and the edge of the paper on the other was added as a final touch along the sides and top of the label below the sitter and along the bottom and left edge of the label in the top right corner. A black painted line extending the whole width of the painting separates the portrait from the printed verse. The verse is flanked by wide borders of black paint.

[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Signed (upper left) with winged serpent and dated 15 33; labeled (printed paper on panel): (upper right) Friderich der Drit / Chur- / fur[s]t vnd Herzog zu / Sachssen.; (bottom) Fridrich bin ich billich genand / Schonen frid ich erhielt im land. / Durch gros vernunfft gedult und gluck / Widder manchen erzbosen tuck. / Das land ich zieret mit gebew / Und Stifft ein hohe Schul auffs new, / Zu Wittenberg im Sachssen land / Inn der welt die ward bekand / Denn aus der selb kam Gottes wort / Und thet gros ding an manchem ort. / Das [tzt?]epstlich Reich storgt es nidder / Und bracht rechten glauben widder. / Zum Keisar ward erkorn ich / Des mein alter beschweret sich. / Dafur ich [Keisar Car]l erwelt / Von dem mich nicht wand gonst noch gelt. (I am rightly called Friedrich, / for I maintained a blessed peace in my domain / with great wisdom, patience, and luck, / despite the machinations of a number of rogues. / I graced my lands with new buildings / and endowed a new university / at Wittenberg in Saxony / that became famous throughout the world, / for from it the Word of God came forth / and wrought great change in many places. / It destroyed the papal empire / and brought back the true faith. / They elected me emperor, / but my old age protested, / so I chose Emperor Charles [Charles V, 1500–1558] / and neither favors nor money could dissuade me.)
[D. Heinemann, Munich, until 1929; sold to Lehman]; Robert Lehman, New York (1929–46)
Baltimore Museum of Art. "Man and His Years," October 19–November 21, 1954, no. 32 (as by Workshop of Lucas Cranach).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Cranach's Saint Maurice," April 20–July 27, 2015, no catalogue.

Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, p. 43, no. 133 (with 46.179.2), pl. XXV, as by Lucas Cranach the Elder; states "Dated 1533 and signed with the dragon with wings erect," without specifying that only 46.179.1 is so inscribed.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 205–6, ill., as Workshop of Cranach; state that the poem is by Martin Luther; discuss the large group of related portraits produced in Cranach's workshop [see Notes].

Claus Grimm. Meister oder Schüler?: Berühmte Werke auf dem Prüfstand. Stuttgart, 2002, fig. 36 (color detail).

Maryan W. Ainsworth in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, p. 85, under no. 18.

Joshua Waterman in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 78–84, 290–91, no. 17A, ill. and figs. 66–67 (color, overall, detail, and reverse).

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