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This beautifully preserved, richly colored and intimately sized panel ranks amongst the finest religious works executed by Lucas Cranach the Younger. Saint Paul, identified by the sword of his martyrdom, is seated at a stone pulpit, writing his Epistles in a sparsely decorated room opening up on a fanciful rocky landscape. The artist's characteristically elegant and graphic style is evinced in the confident outline of the figure and the delicate serpentine strokes that make up the saint's curly hair and beard. Contrasting with this fine handling, deft strokes of red suggest the folds of the apostle's dress; the trees are painted in a free and spontaneous manner that instills freshness to the landscape, recalling the Danube School. Exceptionally, this is the only known treatment of this subject by Lucas Cranach the Younger, who, in line with his father's practice, would commonly produce multiple variants of his religious and historical themes.
The iconography of the divinely inspired scholar engrossed in his redaction derives from manuscript traditions: in illuminated Bibles and Books of Hours, miniatures of the Evangelists would frequently introduce their corresponding Gospels. This imagery was further popularized in oil paintings by the large number of autonomous depictions of Saint Jerome in his study produced in the 15th and 16th centuries. The present panel, in both its small scale -- no bigger than the page of a book -- and minute handling relates closely to this manuscript tradition. Indeed, Cranach the Elder and his studio were involved in book illustration. They provided woodcuts for Martin Luther's German Bible, published by Nicolas Wolrab in 1541, only six years before the present painting was executed. Introducing Paul's Epistles to the Romans in this bible was a woodcut of the Apostle at his desk, which bears close stylistic and compositional similarities to the present picture (fig. 1).
Paul's writings were hugely influential in the elaboration of Luther's doctrine of Sola Fide or justification through faith alone: the idea that salvation was only to be accessed though faith, rather than through works of charity, as prevailed in the Roman Church. In his preface to Paul's Epistles to the Romans, the reformer emphatically stated: This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. Friends of Luther's, Cranach and his son belonged to a close-knit group of reformed humanists in Wittenberg that would have been familiar with the theologian's insistence on Pauline thought. It is probably from this circle that the demand for this iconography, unique in the artist's oeuvre and thus likely the result of a special commission, emanated.
We are grateful to Ludwig Meyer, Archiv für Kunstgeschichte, Munich, for confirming the attribution to Lucas Cranach II. He compares the present painting to the following works by the artist: The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist, dated 1543, in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden; The Altar of the Reformation in the town church of Wittenberg, dated on the altar frame 1547; an Allegory of the Virtues, dated 1548, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; and two versions of A reclining Water Nymph, in the Hessisches Landesmueum, Kassel, and the Lehman Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 2; M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, 1978, nos. 403A and 403B).
Signature: Signed with the artist's serpent device and dated '1547' (lower right).
PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
Marquesa Margaret Rockefeller de Larrain; Sotheby's, New York, 8 January 1981, lot 105, as Lucas Cranach I.
The Ian Woodner Family Collection; Christie's, New York, 25 May 1999, lot 113, where acquired by the present owner.
German, 1515-1586, Wittenberg, Germany, based in Wittenberg