This previously unpublished work is the only autograph version of this composition by Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose primacy has been confirmed by Prof. Dr. Dieter Koepplin after first hand inspection (May 2018). He regards it as an important addition to the artist’s oeuvre, admiring ‘the composition, the colour, the vivacity and precision of details’ in a certificate that accompanies the picture. Koepplin dates this work to between 1515 and 1520, a time of great religious upheaval in Northern Europe, ignited by Martin Luther’s publishing of his Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg in 1517, which signalled the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Centred around the figure of Christ, His eyes partially covered and His hands resting calmly in His lap, Cranach shows the various humiliations Christ suffered before His Crucifixion. Koepplin points out that the composition draws on Albrecht Dürer's depiction of the same subject in a woodcut of circa 1508-11 that was included in his influential Small Passion print series (fig. 1). This painting conflates the various Gospel accounts given of the mocking of Christ, and shows Him already dressed in a robe of royal purple, in which He was dressed before He was crowned with thorns. Each of the figures mocking Christ is given exaggerated, grotesque features, emphasising their sin in mocking Christ and heightening the humanity of Christ’s suffering. Described in Psalm 22 as ‘dogs…the assembly of the wicked’, each is engaged in a different form of mockery, from the man in the red hat who pokes his tongue out at Christ, while pulling a lock of His hair, to the two men who prepare some salted water which another sprays into Christ’s face.
In March 1519, Luther wrote to his friend, Georg Spalatin, describing ‘a treatise dealing with the meditation of Christ’s passion’ upon which he was embarking, and which he published only a month later (G.G. Krobel, ed., Luther’s Works, Philadelphia, 1963, XLVIII, p. 114). By 1524, twenty-four editions of this treatise had been published in Wittenberg, Erfurt and across southern Germany, and in Switzerland. It was even translated into Latin and included in a Church homily as the Good Friday sermon in 1525. Luther’s tract warned against seeking superficial benefit from Christ’s sufferings or displaying an overly sentimental response to the Passion. Instead, he emphasised that the devout should recognise that it was their own sin that caused Christ’s sufferings: ‘you are the one who is torturing Christ thus, for your sins have surely wrought this…in his suffering Christ makes our sin known and thus destroys it’ (M.O. Dietrich, ed., ‘A Meditation on Christ’s Passion’, Luther’s Writings, Philadelphia, 1969, XLII, p. 9-13). In the context of this highly popular treatise, Cranach’s Mocking of Christ assumes a more powerful significance. While the picture may possible have pre-dated Luther’s treatise, the prevailing attitudes in Wittenberg, where Cranach had been working at the Court of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, since 1504, would likely have supported and quickly adopted such a view of the Passion from the outset of the Reformation.
Two old copies of this composition - one given to a ‘Follower of Cranach’ in a private collection (Cologne, Lempertz, 20 March 2013, lot 5), and a slightly later version by a Netherlandish painter now in Prague (Prague Castle Picture Gallery) - include a barrel-vaulted ceiling with a circular window above the central figures, suggesting that this prime treatment of the subject may likewise originally have included this architectural detail and that the panel might therefore have been reduced slightly along the top edge. This painting has been included by Prof. Dr. Gunnar Heydenreich in the Cranach Digital Archive (private_none-p176) as Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop.
This painting is first recorded in the collection of Ludwig Wilhelm, Margrave of Baden-Baden, whose arms, jointly with those of his wife, are stamped in a seal on the reverse of the picture. Ludwig Wilhelm’s wife, Sibylle of Saxe-Lauenberg was descended on her father’s side from Sibylle of Saxony (1515-1592), herself the daughter of Henry IV the Pious, Duke of Saxony (1473-1541), of whom Cranach had painted a full-length in 1514, along with a pendant of his wife, Catherine of Mecklenburg. Given this connection with Cranach, it is possible that The Mocking of Christ was commissioned by a member of the family and passed through the Saxe-Lauenburg line.