His portfolio is jam-packed with some of the best art of the Northern Renaissance. His portraiture of nobility, clergy, and laity is so complete that we can instantly put a face to a historical name. His depictions of saints, martyrs, and events of the Lord’s life stretch to the horizon. Even the Renaissance must-have genre of Classical mythology is given a place. And then there’s Lucretia.
Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop produced an amazing amount of artwork, but the most-frequently painted secular subject is that of Lucretia. The Cranach Digital Archive has cataloged dozens of versions of the woman’s image.
Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1520-40
(State gallery in Johannisburg Castle,
We could scoff at those pieces as being unsuitable fodder for such a sacred artist, but it is difficult for the modern eye to look at Cranach’s world without Renaissance glasses. Society was not as much concerned with expanding its knowledge of all things as it was enthralled with all things Classical. That meant anything culturally-connected with ancient Greece and Rome, including the more stupid parts – mythological stories. But Lucretia was not a mythological figure.
The woman was a real person that lived during the waning days of the Roman Kingdom. Because of variations of her account, Lucretia has been categorized as “legendary.” Apparently, that’s a notch or two above “mythological.” Still, the core of her story fits with the course of history.
Lucretia was blackmailed by the son of the last Etruscan King, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and consequently raped. The woman, having a conscience and principles higher than the Imperial standard, told the King of the deed in the presence of witnesses, and promptly committed suicide. That was c. 508 BC.
Her actions set in motion a rapid demise of the kings and their tyrannical line in favor of a Republican Rome. In spite of her suicide, Lucretia was afterward seen as an example of noble character and virtuosity. This carried over into the Renaissance view of women in a strange duality of seductive temptress – which was actually aimed at the foolishness of men – and virtuous heroine.
But there might be another reason for the popularity of Lucretia in the Germanic lands of the 1500s. Her heroic act of defying a kingdom, not for personal gain but for what was right and just, certainly resonated with those chafing under the yoke of a very different Roman rule. Of the nearly 50 known versions of Lucretia painted in Cranach’s workshop, only three have been confirmed as being painted before Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church.