The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the making of the Reformation
Yale University Press £25
(978-0-300-16985-0)Church Times Bookshop
HEINRICH HEINE once observed that “the loins of Cranach’s Venus are far more substantial theses than those the German monk placed on the door of the church in Wittenberg” — an insight that this book sets out to explore.
Steven Ozment’s The Reformation in the Cities first appeared in 1975. Since then, he has written widely of Reformed Europe. Now he hopes to introduce an American audience to the art of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), who is not as widely known there as is Albrecht Dürer, despite recent exhibitions.
Among his Wittenberg properties, Cranach kept a safe house for runaway nuns, for whom Luther sought suitable husbands, preaching universal marriage and a divine sex-drive. The last nun to find a husband at one stage, Katherine von Bora, married the Augustinian monk Luther himself. Cranach served as best man, and both stood as godfather to each other’s first-born sons. Both stand side by side, along with St John the Baptist, in the great Weimar altarpiece painted by Cranach’s surviving son, in 1555.
I read the book during a trip to Brussels to hear Richard Strauss’s obscene opera Salome, and used the chance to see the Cranachs in the royal collection there. Salome and, of course, Judith, Bathsheba, Delilah, and the classical Lucretia are, albeit perversely, examples of women who acquitted themselves well when faced with a challenge, and Cranach repeatedly painted them. But Matthew 14.1-12 is surely more than a tale of “the wrath of two women thwarted, one of whom has a fan dance like no other”? Guy Joosten’s mesmerising opera production made the point better.
When the court secretary to the Duke of Saxony came to marry, in the same summer as Luther, the monk was unable to attend. Instead, he assured Spalatin that he and Katie would renew their own vows at the same time as his ceremony, and that they would have sex that night thinking of the newlyweds’ first night. This book amply shows how Luther’s obsession with his own sex-drive (which cost the Church a lot) was mirrored in the Cranach-workshop production line of naked women, depicted for the newly liberated Saxon market.
This book is not without merit, but has been carelessly put together; the first paragraphs on pages 3 and 9 are all but identical, and it is never clear whether Mrs Cranach was portrayed by her husband (page 207) or not (page 271). I hope that at Harvard Professor Ozment is more rigorous.
The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.