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What’s in a Coat-of-Arms?


In 1508, three years after his hiring as court painter to the electoral Saxon dynasty seated in Wittenberg, the thirty-six-year-old painter Lucas Cranach received a wondrous coat-of-arms from his lord, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony. Honoring his good services, the eye-popping shield displayed a mesmerizing winged serpent endowed with awesome life-giving powers, much as its human bearer would become known for.

The recipient, an early admirer of Albrecht Dürer in the contemporary art world, was a rising star among the best German Renaissance painters who recorded the age’s religious reforms and confessional wars for posterity. Open-minded and ecumenical in an age that was not, Cranach and his workshop supplied both Rome and Wittenberg with their preferred religious artworks. At the same time he counted among his closest friends two clerics who became lethal rivals: Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz, the most powerful cleric in European Christendom after the pope, and Martin Luther, the monk who turned the religious world upside down.

A renowned court painter by the early 1520s, Cranach would become the Saxon court’s de facto mentor and ‘‘handler’’ of Luther, an undertaking that positioned him also to become the painter of the Protestant Reformation. Although he scoffed at the myth of the vaunted ‘‘Renaissance man,’’ Cranach came as close to exemplifying such a person as any other giant of the age. A natural diplomat and clever entrepreneur, he became the confidant of each of the three Saxon electors he served life-long.

An impresario of lucrative businesses, Cranach accumulated more real estate than any other burgher in the city by the late 1520s. Elected to Wittenberg’s city council in 1519, he served thirty-plus years, nine of them (three full terms) as bürgermeister. Among the profitable enterprises that made him rich and powerful were the city’s only publishing house and a full-service pharmacy. Here, indeed, was a keen man who was not to be
trod upon.

His primary professional world was that of Greek mythology, the humanistic world of classical antiquity, that of Venus, but not initially of Eve. Cranach was the creator of an unredeemed, seductive world of beautiful women and powerful men, who shared fleeting pleasures and mixed messages. Among the reigning deities who governed that mythological world was Chronos, the Greek god of time and speed. With Düreresque pride, Cranach adapted the name for himself and his art world. Old and New Testament snake lore also ran through that world. These various mythological and Christian associations pointed to an artist who wielded a ‘‘fast-striking paint brush,’’ whose images survived time and outlived posterity, a kind of biblical ‘‘serpent venom’’ that saved life as well as took it away.


In 1524, at the peak of the Reformation’s birth pains, Martin Luther also created a family shield of his own. It was occasioned by the success of foreign booksellers who had pirated the manuscript of his revised Latin Bible before it could be printed by the Cranach-Döring press. In response to the incident, Luther and Cranach manufactured a protective seal, henceforth to be embedded in future works as they came off the press. The seal became the authenticating trademark of the reformer’s works wherever they appeared.

Juxtaposed to Cranach’s Serpent, the Lutheran Lamb of God came from another world and culture. Unlike the fearsome figure of the Cranach serpent, a creature quick to strike and to kill, Luther’s sacrificial Lamb was neither designed for nor bestowed upon the reformer by reigning political authority. It was Luther’s and Cranach’s protective measure, undertaken in the name of a greater power: that of the servants of God Almighty.

The message of the Lamb was not a threatening ‘‘Don’t Tread On Me.’’ It was a bright, assuring, transparent statement of forgiveness and salvation. Attractive, even charming, the Luther trademark or seal presented the Lamb of God in the figure of the crucified Christ. In a counterintuitive gesture, the Lamb holds up the flag of the cross with his right leg, while his bloodstream erupts from his wounded heart filling the chalice of salvation for all eternity—a redemptive washing of the sinner in the blood of the self-sacrificial Lamb of God.

In purely pragmatic terms the Lutheran seal was a none too assuring hedge against recurrent piracies of the reformer’s books, pamphlets, and broadsheets. During the early 1520s and still two decades later Luther’s books made up one-third of all German publications, a precious cache for both honest publishers and thieving pirates.

With the passage of years the figure of the Lamb was joined by a second Luther trademark that became a second family shield: the multilayered Lutheran White Rose. Unlike the sacrificial lamb, the White Rose, accompanied by a matching signet ring, was presented to Luther in around 1530 by the new elector, John Frederick. Intended to be an abstract or summary of Luther’s theology, it displayed a black cross within a blood-red heart in the middle of which lies a ‘‘heavenly’’ colored blooming white rose, a symbol of joy, comfort, and the peace of faith on earth and in the afterlife.

It was not until after 1517 that the two men got to know each other well. In 1520, Cranach was forty-eight and Luther thirty-seven, both men in their remarkable prime. In the same year, Cranach, at the Saxon elector’s bidding and Albrecht Dürer’s urging, engraved an official court portrait of the emerging reformer while Luther himself stood as godfather to Cranach’s lastborn child—a merging of their two families as well as their talents in the cause of reform.

Cranach’s portrayals of ‘‘Luther the monk’’ made the reformer’s name and face a household word and image throughout Saxony. Already a condemned heretic of the Church, Luther now became an outlaw of the Holy Roman Empire by the imperial decree of the Diet of Worms in May 1521. In that same year, he and Cranach answered back with their first collaborative blast against Rome: twenty-five irreverent pamphlet pages depicting and declaring the Holy Father to be the ‘‘Anti-Christ.’’ By this time both the “Serpent’’ and the ‘‘Lamb’’ were moving up to the front lines for the great battle with Rome. Each brought his special talents and top-of-the-line weapons to the battlefield, where a war like no other would be waged in European Christendom. Although coming from distant worlds strange and far apart, like the blood of the Lamb upon the curse of sin, the venom of the Serpent would also prove to be effectively life-giving, each, so to speak, ‘‘poisoning to save.’’