Lavish chronicle of the Cranach family; Cranach: A Family of Master Painters, by Werner Schade. Translated by Helen Sebba. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. $50.

Art history has had its share of dynasties, families within which the profession of artist passed from generation to generation. Chief among these have been the Bruegels, Holbeins, Bellinis, and most emphatically the Cranachs.

The Cranachs were a remarkable family of painters who lived during that extraordinary period of European history that saw not only the emergence of the German Renaissance, but also the eruption and suppression of the Peasants' War and the electrifying dramas of the Protestant Reformation.

The patriarch of the Cranach family of artists was Lucas the Elder (1472-1553 ), founder of the family workshop, court painter to the Electors of Saxony, and creator of numerous altarpieces, allegories, landscapes, prints, and drawings. Most particularly he was a master portraitist who numbered Luther, Durer, Erasmus, and some of the crowned heads of Europe among his subjects. Lucas the Elder, in turn, was followed into the family business by his sons, Hans and Lucas the Younger, and by his grandson, Augustin.

Of them all, Lucus senior and junior were by far the most exceptional -- with art history tending to give the final nod to the father -- as much for his unyielding character as for his unflagging pictorial invention.

All this and a great deal more is spelled out in full detail in "Cranach: A Family of Master Painters," a 476-page, well- documented, and profusely illustrated book devoted to this extraordinary family. It opens with a social, political, religious, and artistic introduction to the period, and then proceeds to examine in detail the lives and careers of Lucas the elder and his descendants, with particular emphasis on the various important patrons who encouraged, hired, and honored the family. The text is studded with numerous black- and-white illustrations (mostly of contemporary woodcuts), which help establish the nature and quality of Cranach's graphic work and to clarify for us the history and character of 16th-century Germany.

In addition, there are 265 independent illustrations, most of them full-page, and many of them in color. Included among these are the works most generally associated with the name Cranach: "Rest on the flight Into Egypt," "Lucretia," "Venus and Cupid," "The Judgment of Paris," and that almost unbelievably rich and exotic "The Court Hunts Stag, Boar, and Foxes." And there are autograph letters and other forms of documentation in the hundred pages of notes and appendixes at the end of the book.

But the real gems are the colored portrait drawings by both the older and younger Lucas. These rival those by Durer and Holbein for Brilliance of characterization and draftsmanship.

In all, it's an excellent book, with a solid, if generally uninspired, text and many first-rate color illustrations. I recommend it, even though the art of the Cranachs may be a bit too archaic and florid for some.

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