Lucas Cranach was an entrepreneur. His workshop cranked out paintings, serving the needs of aristocratic patrons of both Catholic and Protestant commitment. He also ran a pharmacy (with monopoly privileges), a real estate portfolio, a publishing house and served as city councillor, mayor and occasional diplomat.
These diverse approaches to life have suggested to many a man without deep seated convictions. Artists (in our romantic imagination) are not meant to be worldly wise nor at the service of others. They should suffer for their imaginations or be solely vindicated by the light of them.
However, the historian, Steven Ozment in his 'The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the making of the Reformation' want us to see Cranach not only as a highly gifted artist but also, through his friendship with Luther and his position at the court of Saxony, one of the architects of the Reformation. What Luther was in the charisma of words, Cranach was in paint and print (and indeed was Luther's publisher and illustrator).
It is an excellent case that Ozment makes and, at critical moments, it was precisely Cranach's worldliness and sense of the possible that tempered Luther's enthusiasm and made for the practicality (and possibility) of reform.
One of the most interesting features of Ozment's argument is the revolutionary nature of Cranach's depiction of women, sex and its consequences; and, how it fell four square within Luther's revolutionary message.
Put simply sex is God given, constitutive of our humanity and ambiguous. We are fallen creatures and eros cannot be overcome but it can be channeled. St Paul told us that it was better to marry than to burn. This is (on the face of it) a rather negative exhortation to marry. Luther turned it around: marriage is precisely the place where we can happily celebrate our sexiness. His marriage to the runaway nun, Katherine, was both obviously happy and momentous - it became the archetype of what we are made for and Cranach's older and equally blessed marriage reinforced Luther's message.
But what role in this celebration do Cranach's nudes play? They are, Ozment argues, invitations to contemplate the morality of our desires. Cranach's nudes are powerful and yet in their iconography chaste. Human sexuality is powerful and, therefore, we can be saved in it only through recognising its importance, hallowing it appropriately, and living it within creative, domestic bounds. It cannot be denied nor controlled by forces outside the family, especially by forces that repress it, namely the Catholic Church that imagines celibacy as the ideal and falsely imagines that sexuality sits within what can be controlled by the will.
In Luther, and in Cranach, as we are saved by faith alone in the midst of our sinfulness, so sex must find a place within our faithfulness not left to be controlled by our will. The faithfulness of domesticity is where that can be done. But there is fire in that domesticity too - both Luther and Cranach celebrate eros. The repeated painting of Venus and Cupid chaste and yet engaged is an indicator of that.
Ozment ably suggests that one of the most powerful drivers of the Reformation was that it answered the anxiety generated by imagining that we are in control of our bodies (which as many of us know is frankly a fiction). We could recognise the fiction and generate a different story - we are saved in spite of our control rather than because of it - but there are things we can do to hallow our helplessness - living in a loving family is one, and a major one.
Ozment reading of Cranach's iconography is compelling: women may continue to be 'objectified' (in the critical jargon of post-modernist feminism) but they often live on their own terms. Again and again Cranach paints women who live their own lives sometimes in innocence of men's designs, sometimes even in overcoming men's designs - including many of the sassy women of the Old Testament. For example, where many painters implicate Bathsheba for leading King David on (to the murder of her husband), Cranach shows her spied upon unknowingly by a voyeuristic David.
Lastly Ozment shows how the Reformation (unintentionally) laid the foundations of the modern, secular world. If sex is the dynamic that rightly exists in the domain of relationship - in the personal sphere of the family - without being 'controlled' or 'made inferior' by an all powerful Church - then the space of the secular has begun to emerge. The primary transaction is of our personal conscience. The cat is out of the bag and is running in freedom and in riot.