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The Luthers -- and the artist who shared their era

By Anna and Giorgio Bacchi / November 29, 1985



MARTIN Luther, his wife Katharina, and the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder had important roles in the first act of one of history's major dramas -- the birth of the Modern Era in Germany. Time: the early 1500s. Movement: the Reformation. Plot: man begins the long resolute struggle for human rights. Slogan: ``We were meant to be free, and so shall we be!''

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The social system still followed the feudal idea whereby everyone was subject -- body, heart, and mind -- to the next higher rank. Most people could not read or write, largely because the only written German had been derived from Latin and was rigid and inappropriate. Martin Luther changed this and made progress possible.

An eminent scholar, Luther studied intensely the original Greek and Latin manuscripts and then published treatises setting forth deeply felt personal interpretations, taking positions he never thenceforth denied. He translated the entire Bible -- first the New Testament, then the Old -- from Latin into a German he composed principally out of oral dialects of the various regions. The books were printed in Lucas Cranach's workshop and widely distributed.

People easily learned to read the ``Luther German'' -- not all at once, first thirty, soon hundreds, then thousands. ``Luther German'' became the base on which have grown the language and culture of today's Germany.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (his second son is known as Lucas the Younger) painted several of the early leaders of the Reformation. He customarily worked in a colorful, somewhat fantastic style, but for the portraits shown here he adopted a straightforward, intimate, and impressive manner. He made numerous sketches from life, to which he could add fond memories of fleeting, unrehearsed expressions. Martin Luther and his wife are depicted with realism and psychological insight.

Luther was full of contradictions; at times determined, vigorous, stubborn, assertive, he was also rich in humanity, kind, tender, and had a great need of affection. Katharina, wise, gentle, and understanding, suited him.

Cranach, a successful merchant, honored politician, and official court painter, was proud to be counted a reformer and one of their friends. His self-portrait, also on this page, offers a later example of his art.