John Frederick the Magnanimous, Elector of Saxony (1533)

Cranach, Lucas the Elder (1472-1553) & Workshop

John Frederick the Magnanimous, Elector of Saxony
Oil on panel, 20 x 14 cm
Museo del PradoMadrid

This painting was made following the mechanised procedures used by various German workshops in the 16th century, including that of Lucas Cranach. Between 1532 and 1533 Cranach produced 120 similar portraits of Electors of Saxony, commissioned by John Frederick following his ascent to the title in 1532 and which Cranach’s numerous activities (as Burgomaster of Wittenberg, publisher and pharmacist) prevented him from executing personally. It should be remembered that Cranach was Court Painter to the Electors, most actively to John Frederick, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship. The present work is a small commemorative or ‘presentation’ portrait produced in series, as can be deduced from its similarity to other portraits which were painted on small-format panels and in standard sizes using mechanised techniques of reproduction, and from its similarity to the various versions of this image of the Elector. This is indicated by the repetition of the same compositional format, defined by schematic outlines and the use of barely three colours. In fact, the information derived from a technical analysis of the painting indicates that the various replicas of John Frederick (whom Cranach knew extremely well) were made on the basis of autograph drawings by the artist, which were transferred to the painting, and not executed freehand. In almost all the known surviving versions the face is practically identical, although the attributes and pose differ. The economy of means with which the image is painted is so pronounced that the shadows of the volumes of the flesh tones are largely derived from the underdrawing (the nose is not even painted on the upper surface), and only a very light glaze adds nuances. In order to create the lighter areas the artist also made use of the pale ground, as is also the case with the fur of the over-garment. The work contains numerous surprising details which should be understood as attempts to conceal the standardized practices of this workshop.They include highly subtle elements such as the minute scratchings that emphasise the hair and beard (This text is based on Gónzález Mozo, A.: El Retrato del Renacimiento, Museo del Prado, 2008, p. 499).

See also:

• John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony (1503-1554)