Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Johann I (1468–1532), the Constant, 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 Friedrich III, the Wise (MMA 46.179.1), 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 (46.179.1) 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.

Dendrochronological analysis provided an earliest possible fabrication date of 1526 for this portrait. Monochrome gray undermodeling, typical of Cranach and his workshop, was used to establish the forms, a technique particularly evident in the face. Under magnification, this undermodeling is visible beneath the translucent flesh in the eye sockets and in the nose, the shadow below the mouth, and the shaded side of the face. Fine strokes of dark paint were added for final outlines, such as the eyelashes, the nostril, and the crease in the eyelid. A heavy black line separates the likeness of the sitter from the poem. It overlaps the edge of the paint layers on one side and the edge of the paper on the other. Dark lines can also be found on the bottom and right edges of the paper in the upper left corner of the painting.

In general, the condition of the painting is good. There are tiny losses along the wood grain surrounding the right eye and above the left eye of the sitter.

[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Labeled (printed paper on panel): (upper left) Johans der Erst / Churfurst / und Herzog zu Sachssen.; (bottom) Nach meines [lieben bruders e]nd / Bleib auff m[i]r d[as ganz Regim]end. / Mit grosser sorg [und mancher fa]hr / Da der Bawr toll und [toricht w]ar. / Die auffrhur fast inn allem [land] / Wie gros fewer im wald [entbrand]. / Welches ich halff dempffen mit Gott / Der Deudsches land erret aus not. / Der Rotten geister feind ich war / Hielt im land das wort rein und klar / Gros drawen bittern hass und neid / Umb Gottes worts willen ich leid. / Frey bekand ichs aus herzem grund / Und personlich selbst ich da stund. / Vor dem Keisar vnd ganzen Reich / Von Fursten gschach vor nie des gleich / Solchs gab mir mein Gott besnnder / Und vor der wellt was ein wunder. / Umb land und leut [zu bringen] mich / Hofft beid freund vnd [feind ge]wislich. / Ferdnand zu Romisc[hm Konig] gmacht / Und sein wahl ich allein anfacht./ Auff das da[s] alte Recht bestund / Inn der gulden Bulen gegrund. / Wiewol das grossen zorn erregt / Mich doch mehr recht denn gunst beweg[t.] / Das hertz gab Gott dem Keisar zart/ Mein guter freund zu lezt er ward. / Das ich mein end ym frid beschlos / Wast sehr den Teuffel das verdros. / Erfarn hab ichs und zeugen thar / Wie uns die Schrifft sagt und ist war. / Wer Gott mit ernst vertrawen kan / Der bleibt ein unnerdorben man. / Es zurne Teuffel odder welt / Den sieg er doch zu lezt behelt. (On the death of my beloved brother / the whole job of ruling fell to me, / bringing much worry and considerable danger, / for the peasants were wild and foolish. / Violence flared throughout my country / like a great forest fire, / which I helped to quench with God, / who rescued German territory from its misery. / I was an enemy of the leaders of the rabble / and kept the Word pure and undefiled in my land. / I had to suffer dire threats, bitter hatred, and envy / for the sake of God's word. / I professed it freely from the bottom of my heart, / and I myself took a stand / before the emperor and the entire realm. / No prince had ever done such a thing before. / My God gave me alone that role, / and it was a marvel to the world. / Friend and foe alike sought to rob me / of my land and and people, to be sure, / and made Ferdinand [ Ferdinand I, 1503-1564] king of the Romans. / I alone opposed his election, / hoping to ensure that authority might continue / to be based on the Golden Bull of old. / Though this occasioned great wrath, / I acted according to what was right rather than out of partiality. / God gave the emperor a kind heart, / and in the end he became my friend / so that I ended my days in peace-- / Much to the Devil's dismay. / I have seen it myself, and I assure you / that as the scriptures tell us--and it is true-- / the man who can truly trust in God / will never be defeated. / The Devil and the world may rage all they will, / yet his is the victory in the end.)
[D. Heinemann, Munich, until 1929; sold to Lehman]; Robert Lehman, New York (1929–46)
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 46.179.1), pl. XXV, as John the Constant 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., state that the poem is by Martin Luther; discuss the large group of related portraits produced in Cranach's workshop [see Notes].

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. 17B, ill. and fig. 68 (color, overall and reverse).

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