These finely rendered portraits of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora were painted shortly after their marriage on 13 June 1525 (a public celebration was held on 27 June). Koepplin records only four versions of this pendant portrait type, of this format and scale, this being the smallest (op. cit.). The ceremony itself was witnessed by a very small group of the couple’s closest family and friends, which included Cranach the Elder and his wife Barbara Brengebier. These intimate portraits, which were included in the recent Cranach exhibition in Düsseldorf in spring 2017, stand as a testament to the close personal and professional relationship between the leader of the Protestant Reformation and one of the most significant German painters of the sixteenth century.
As court painter to the Electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, Cranach witnessed the emergence of the Protestant movement. As powerful supporters of Martin Luther and his reforms, the Electors and their circle commissioned works from Cranach specifically to represent, expound and affirm this new faith. Cranach himself became a close friend of Luther’s. While the exact date of their meeting is not known, Cranach had painted Luther’s portrait as an Augustinian monk in a Doctoral hat by circa 1519 (private collection; see B. Brinkmann, ed., Cranach, exhibition catalogue, Frankfurt and London, 2007, p. 188, no. 38). Cranach first appeared amongst Luther’s correspondents in 1520 and he maintained contact with Luther during his exile following the 1521 Diet of Worms (which declared Luther an outlaw) when he assumed the pseudonym Junker Jörg. He later acted as godfather to Luther’s first child, Johannes (Hans), born in 1526.
Luther’s decision to marry marked a highly significant moment in the Protestant Reformation. Throughout his writings and sermons, Luther had stressed the equality of men and women, regarding marriage and family life as a Christian calling. By breaking his clerical celibacy, mandatory in the Catholic Church, Luther firmly reiterated his Protestant ideals and initiated a fundamental shift in the development of secular marriage. While a few priests had married before 1525, including Andreas von Karlstadt (1486-1541), who had celebrated the first reformed Protestant communion at Wittenberg on Christmas Day 1522, Luther’s ‘prominence, his espousal of clerical marriage, and his prolific output of printed anti-Catholic propaganda’ made his own marriage a defining moment of the Reformation (J.C. Smith, ‘Katharina von Bora Through Five Centuries: A Historiography’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 30, 1999, p. 754).
Katharina von Bora had spent most of her life within the confines of a religious house. From the age of five, in late 1504 or early 1505, she had entered the Benedictine convent school at Brehna, remaining there until 1509 when she joined the Cistercian Marienthron cloister at Nimbschen, near Grimma, where her aunt was abbess. In 1523, however, encouraged by Luther’s writings and seeking to escape the strictures of a cloistered life, Katharina and eleven other nuns, assisted by the merchant and alderman Leonhard Koppe of Torgau, sealed themselves in empty herring barrels on a wagon bound for Wittenberg. Upon arriving in the city, von Bora found shelter in Cranach’s home, where Luther promised to find her an acceptable husband. After several failed proposals (first to Hieronymous Baumgartner, a nobleman from Nuremberg, whose parents refused to condone the match, and later to Caspar Glatz, pastor of Orlamünde for whom Katharina had ‘neither desire nor love’), Luther himself announced his intention to marry her. Though he had been adamant that he would not marry, in a letter dated 4 May 1525 written to John Rihel, the counsellor to Count Albrecht of Mansfeld, he had confided: ‘If I can manage it before I die, I will still marry my Katie to spite the devil’ (ibid., p. 749).
While the wedding ceremony itself had been celebrated in relative privacy, with only a few witnesses, the ensuing months saw images of the newly-married couple proliferate as a means of documenting and assuring the legitimacy of the marriage. Cranach was intimately involved in this process and produced a limited number of small pendant portraits of the couple. Each one, painted with exquisite care, was doubtless intended for an important supporter of the Protestant cause, or for a close friend of the couple. The earliest pair was probably that painted as small roundels now in Basel (Kunstmuseum, inv. nos. 177 & 177a). The half-length, rectangular format appears in only four known versions on this small scale: the present pictures; a pair in Schleswig (Private collection, on long-term loan to the Landesmuseum für Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte, Schloss Gottorf); a pair in the Wartburg collection in Eisenach; and a pair at Schloss Güstrow (Schwerin, Staatliches Museum, inv. nos. G 2488-2489).
The present paintings appear to be amongst the smallest portraits of the couple that Cranach produced. The sitters’ features are minutely detailed and subtly modelled. While both sitters are shown in three-quarter-profile, the way in which each is portrayed is subtly different. Luther looks beyond the picture frame, his hands hidden in the folds of his black cloak, while Katharina looks directly at the viewer, her hands folded before her, conveying a sense of authority and alertness. A highly intelligent and energetic woman, Katharina quickly had assumed financial management of Luther’s large household at the former monastery, the Wittenberg ‘Black Cloister’, where the couple moved in 1525, as well as taking care of the housekeeping, kitchen, brewery, stables, and several gardens. Her strong personality is perfectly encapsulated in Cranach’s lively portrait.
These portraits are included in the Cranach Digital Archive (private none-p162 and private none-p163).