J. W. Montgomery on Cranach’s Seal

I heard back from the distinguished scholar John Warwick Montgomery on the symbolism of Lucas Cranach’s seal, the winged serpent device from his coat of arms that he used to sign his paintings and that we have adopted as the logo of the Cranach Institute and this blog.  (See the title heading above.)

I’ve now had an opportunity to research this.  I was particularly helped by the wonderful Cranach exhibit last month at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris.   The exhibit included examples of Cranach’s coat-of-arms and the exhibit description makes the following point:  “En remerciement de ses loyaux services, Luca Cranach se voit remettre dès 1508 des armoiries, un serpent ailé tenant une bague dans sa gueule qui lui servira désormais de signature.”  [In appreciation of his loyal services, Lucas Cranach received in 1508 (from Frederick the Wise) his coat-of-arms--a winged serpent holding a ring in its mouth--which served from then on as his signature]  We are also informed that in 1537, following the death of his son Hans, Lucas Cranach modified the design of his coat-of-arms, “lowering the serpent’s wings” (Cranach et son temps [Paris: Beaux Arts/TTM, 2011], p. 65).

Viewing the serpent as a dragon, one has a strong tendency to see it as alchemical symbolism.  However, contemporary dictionaries of the subject (e.g., the standard Dictionaire hermetique [Paris, 1695]) and modern authorities (Carl Gustav Jung) present the alchemical dragon or serpent very differently:  as the ouroboros which eats its own tail, or as an uncrowned dragon symbolising the element mercury).
It is therefore far more productive to view the coat-of-arms from a straightforward heraldic standpoint.  Rietstap’s Armorial Général (2d ed., 1884) includes a listing for the Cranachs, describing the coat-of-arms as consisting of a crowned serpent with bat’s wings, holding in its mouth a golden ring with a ruby.  A variant (apparently used by later generation Cranachs) consisted of a serpent surmounting a crown of thorns.
But why the particular symbolism chosen or employed by Cranach himself?  Here, we are strongly warned as a general principle in interpreting heraldic figures to avoid simplistic equivalents or easy allegory.  Symbols are often chosen for aesthetic reasons, not with any attempts at profundity or classical/theological reference.  Emile Gevaert’s marvelous L’Héraldique: son esprit, son langage et ses applications (Paris: Editions du Bulletin des Métiers d’Art [ca. 1920]) offers some assistance.  A serpent can symbolise “prudence” and at the same time “desire” (p. 362).  (Here,  I am immediately reminded of the arms of the Aldine printing house in Renaissance Florence, consisting of an anchor and a dolphin, to carry the idea of simultaneous solidity and progress.  Note also that Cranach’s serpent is given wings, making it not just an earthly beast but at the same time a dynamic, heavenly creature.)  One thinks inevitably, as well, of the biblical reference to serpents as “wise” (Matt. 10:16).
As for the addition of a crown or diadem (uncommon on a heraldic serpent), its presence generally signifies that the arms belong to a “household of eminence”–and “a crown surmounting a figure seemingly indicates a power which the bearer does not derive from himself” (Gevaert, p. 210).  In the case of the Cranach arms, the latter point could remind the observer that Cranach received the grant from his prince–or (since any legitimate coat-of-arms results from a grant and is not the personal creation of the bearer) it might represent Cranach’s Refomation belief that he is saved and receives his talents by God’s grace, not through any personal capacity or efforts on his own part.  The golden ring in the serpent’s mouth could perhaps reinforce this interpretation, since a ring, like a circle, represents eternity theologically, and gold is the colour not just of nobility and richness but also of faith and divinity (= God).  The ruby on the ring could represent “the pearl of great price,” i.e., the gospel.
Beyond this I cannot go.  It would be important to check any surviving Cranach correspondence, particularly in the years surrounding 1508 and 1537, to see if by chance Cranach himself  interprets his coat-of-arms–as Luther does in his oft-quoted letter to Lazarus Spengler  (see my Heraldic Aspects of the German Reformation (Bonn: Verlag fuer Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2003).
JWM

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    Cranach’s coat-of-arms as an element in his Adam and Eve paintings. See especially pages 12-16: http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~wmartin/AdamUSL.pdf

  • Tom Hering

    Cranach’s coat-of-arms as an element in his Adam and Eve paintings. See especially pages 12-16: http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~wmartin/AdamUSL.pdf

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Wow, Tom, that’s a superb article. I’m going to blog it.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Wow, Tom, that’s a superb article. I’m going to blog it.

  • Tom Hering

    Cool! :-)

  • Tom Hering

    Cool! :-)

  • Abby
  • Abby
  • Joanne

    I just read Martin’s article at Essex on Cranach’s “Adam and Eve” of 1526. It is indeed an excellent article and came the closest to understanding the Lutheran concept of the sinful human condition that I’ve read from any Englander. Starting on page 24 he has three quotes from Luther that are spot on, but then on page 25 he slips off the bicycle seat with, “But there is something that seems almost hideous in these passages – not simply in the pessimistic claim that man is unable to do good, but in the disturbing suggestion that God’s laws are intended to produce despair, that God sets out ‘to make us deserving of eternal wrath’, that the aim of scripture is that ‘every man becomes a sinner.”
    Dang, and from then on he thinks that Lutherans teach that pre-lapsarian Adam also cannot keep the commandment to not eat the forbidden fruit. He should have tested his paper out at Westfield House in Cambridge to work out the Lutheran theology kinks.
    In this quote and following, Martin seems to say that God “set out” in Eden to make Adam fail and deserve eternal wrath by not giving him enough information to make the right decision when Eve gave him the forbidden fruit. It was God’s fault, as always man says.
    The art history and analysis were wonderful.

  • Joanne

    I just read Martin’s article at Essex on Cranach’s “Adam and Eve” of 1526. It is indeed an excellent article and came the closest to understanding the Lutheran concept of the sinful human condition that I’ve read from any Englander. Starting on page 24 he has three quotes from Luther that are spot on, but then on page 25 he slips off the bicycle seat with, “But there is something that seems almost hideous in these passages – not simply in the pessimistic claim that man is unable to do good, but in the disturbing suggestion that God’s laws are intended to produce despair, that God sets out ‘to make us deserving of eternal wrath’, that the aim of scripture is that ‘every man becomes a sinner.”
    Dang, and from then on he thinks that Lutherans teach that pre-lapsarian Adam also cannot keep the commandment to not eat the forbidden fruit. He should have tested his paper out at Westfield House in Cambridge to work out the Lutheran theology kinks.
    In this quote and following, Martin seems to say that God “set out” in Eden to make Adam fail and deserve eternal wrath by not giving him enough information to make the right decision when Eve gave him the forbidden fruit. It was God’s fault, as always man says.
    The art history and analysis were wonderful.

  • Carl Vehse

    Also, as noted in this May 6th comment on the 1509 wood carving, the coats of arms hanging from the tree are those of Elector Frederick. (It doesn’t hurt to include a reference to your benefactor in a Creation picture. ;-) )

  • Carl Vehse

    Also, as noted in this May 6th comment on the 1509 wood carving, the coats of arms hanging from the tree are those of Elector Frederick. (It doesn’t hurt to include a reference to your benefactor in a Creation picture. ;-) )

  • Tom Hering

    But what are we to make of the fact that Frederick’s coats-of-arms hang like forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

  • Tom Hering

    But what are we to make of the fact that Frederick’s coats-of-arms hang like forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

  • Abby
  • Abby
  • Abby
  • Abby
  • Tom Hering

    Abby, it’s interesting the way Cranach shows the whole story of Adam and Eve’s fall in the first painting you linked to. But the second one is fascinating, because Cranach shows the Fall at mid-point. It’s begun, but isn’t yet. Look at the stag. He looks as innocent and unconcerned as Adam does. But look at Eve’s face, and the lion’s eyes. She’s knowing, and the lion is changing – from a companion of the stag to a killer and a consumer of the stag. He’ll bite and eat when Adam does.

  • Tom Hering

    Abby, it’s interesting the way Cranach shows the whole story of Adam and Eve’s fall in the first painting you linked to. But the second one is fascinating, because Cranach shows the Fall at mid-point. It’s begun, but isn’t yet. Look at the stag. He looks as innocent and unconcerned as Adam does. But look at Eve’s face, and the lion’s eyes. She’s knowing, and the lion is changing – from a companion of the stag to a killer and a consumer of the stag. He’ll bite and eat when Adam does.

  • Abby

    Tom @10: Wow! I looked and looked at the painting and wondered about those things you pointed out, but couldn’t understand it. Thanks for verbalizing it! I wonder what would have happened if Adam would have refused to eat?!

  • Abby

    Tom @10: Wow! I looked and looked at the painting and wondered about those things you pointed out, but couldn’t understand it. Thanks for verbalizing it! I wonder what would have happened if Adam would have refused to eat?!

  • Tom Hering

    Abby, I’ve lightened and brightened the painting to bring out the details:

    https://docs.google.com/leaf?id=0B0LY_IA6TPrIOWEzM2Y3M2YtMDA0NC00MmI5LWEzZDgtMzViOWY5YmQ4YzRm&hl=en_US

    Download “Virtual Magnifying Glass” to examine the details better:

    http://magnifier.sourceforge.net/

    “I wonder what would have happened if Adam would have refused to eat?!”

    Cranach is also depicting the innocence of prelapsarian sexuality. Adam isn’t just preserving modesty with that branch. He’s tickling Eve. So I guess we know what would have happened next – in Cranach’s painting, anyways. It’s the kind of thing that makes some people uncomfortable with the honesty of great art.

  • Tom Hering

    Abby, I’ve lightened and brightened the painting to bring out the details:

    https://docs.google.com/leaf?id=0B0LY_IA6TPrIOWEzM2Y3M2YtMDA0NC00MmI5LWEzZDgtMzViOWY5YmQ4YzRm&hl=en_US

    Download “Virtual Magnifying Glass” to examine the details better:

    http://magnifier.sourceforge.net/

    “I wonder what would have happened if Adam would have refused to eat?!”

    Cranach is also depicting the innocence of prelapsarian sexuality. Adam isn’t just preserving modesty with that branch. He’s tickling Eve. So I guess we know what would have happened next – in Cranach’s painting, anyways. It’s the kind of thing that makes some people uncomfortable with the honesty of great art.

  • Tom Hering

    Ooh! I just noticed. As Eve is handing the forbidden fruit to Adam, she’s also handing some backwards to the lion.

  • Tom Hering

    Ooh! I just noticed. As Eve is handing the forbidden fruit to Adam, she’s also handing some backwards to the lion.

  • Abby

    “. . . she’s also handing some backwards to the lion.”
    And he’s looking right at it!

    Also, did you see Cranach’s signature down to the left of Adam’s foot?
    (magnified)

    Also, since you’re still “here,” I can’t see the masthead or the portrait of Cranach on my computer? It may be something wrong with my computer if they are showing up for everyone else.

  • Abby

    “. . . she’s also handing some backwards to the lion.”
    And he’s looking right at it!

    Also, did you see Cranach’s signature down to the left of Adam’s foot?
    (magnified)

    Also, since you’re still “here,” I can’t see the masthead or the portrait of Cranach on my computer? It may be something wrong with my computer if they are showing up for everyone else.

  • Tom Hering

    Click “Tools” on your menu bar, then “Options” then “Content.” Is “Load images automatically” checked?

    Re: Cranach’s signature. Either you have a higher-resolution copy of the painting than I do, or your eyes are really sharp. I can just barely make it out.

  • Tom Hering

    Click “Tools” on your menu bar, then “Options” then “Content.” Is “Load images automatically” checked?

    Re: Cranach’s signature. Either you have a higher-resolution copy of the painting than I do, or your eyes are really sharp. I can just barely make it out.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Tom (@15), the link Abby gave (@9) is fairly high-resolution — certainly enough to see Cranach’s dragon — wings, ring, and all. You can also see the date 1533, though the 1 is cropped. In my browser (Chrome, though this is true for Firefox as well), large images are automatically scaled to fit the browser window. If you hover over such an image, your cursor is a magnifying glass, and clicking will zoom in to the actual size of the image.

    Abby, when you say you “can’t see the masthead or the portrait of Cranach on my computer” — do they appear mostly black? What kind of computer do you have (and what browser are you using)? On my iPhone, the “masthead” image is almost entirely black, with a ghostly white snake on the right the only visible element (it’s kind of a cool effect, actually). The Cranach portrait, on the other hand, appears somewhat like a photo-negative, with a black-skinned Cranach on a grey background. But this is only on my iPhone. On my PC, all these images appear normally, no matter the browser.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Tom (@15), the link Abby gave (@9) is fairly high-resolution — certainly enough to see Cranach’s dragon — wings, ring, and all. You can also see the date 1533, though the 1 is cropped. In my browser (Chrome, though this is true for Firefox as well), large images are automatically scaled to fit the browser window. If you hover over such an image, your cursor is a magnifying glass, and clicking will zoom in to the actual size of the image.

    Abby, when you say you “can’t see the masthead or the portrait of Cranach on my computer” — do they appear mostly black? What kind of computer do you have (and what browser are you using)? On my iPhone, the “masthead” image is almost entirely black, with a ghostly white snake on the right the only visible element (it’s kind of a cool effect, actually). The Cranach portrait, on the other hand, appears somewhat like a photo-negative, with a black-skinned Cranach on a grey background. But this is only on my iPhone. On my PC, all these images appear normally, no matter the browser.

  • Tom Hering

    Doh! I knew that. Really, I did.

  • Tom Hering

    Doh! I knew that. Really, I did.

  • Abby

    tODD @16: My spaces are white. Computer “Compaq” :( Browser: public–but I had no trouble previously.

  • Abby

    tODD @16: My spaces are white. Computer “Compaq” :( Browser: public–but I had no trouble previously.

  • Abby

    Tom @12: “So I guess we know what would have happened next . . .”
    –yeh, Cain!

  • Abby

    Tom @12: “So I guess we know what would have happened next . . .”
    –yeh, Cain!

  • Tom Hering

    Abby, Todd: A school/library set-up that’s suddenly filtering the images as inappropriate?

  • Tom Hering

    Abby, Todd: A school/library set-up that’s suddenly filtering the images as inappropriate?

  • Abby

    I was looking for photo-images of Satan a little while back and as I started to open a site my computer got zapped with some kind of major attack! So, don’t go looking for Satan online! Maybe that attack has something to do with it?

  • Abby

    I was looking for photo-images of Satan a little while back and as I started to open a site my computer got zapped with some kind of major attack! So, don’t go looking for Satan online! Maybe that attack has something to do with it?

  • Tom Hering

    Have you run a virus scan?

  • Tom Hering

    Have you run a virus scan?

  • Abby

    Not yet–I’m getting to go out of town for the summer. But my computer guy said I can call him from where I am and he can get on my computer and fix whatever.

  • Abby

    Not yet–I’m getting to go out of town for the summer. But my computer guy said I can call him from where I am and he can get on my computer and fix whatever.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Abby (@23), are the images fixed now for you?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Abby (@23), are the images fixed now for you?

  • Abby

    tODD: Yes! Thank you! Now I don’t have to pay my computer guy. :) What was it?–not that I would understand it.

  • Abby

    tODD: Yes! Thank you! Now I don’t have to pay my computer guy. :) What was it?–not that I would understand it.

  • Abby

    Also–everything looks great!

  • Abby

    Also–everything looks great!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Abby (@25), the images were not generated the correct way — it was nothing wrong with your computer, in the first place.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Abby (@25), the images were not generated the correct way — it was nothing wrong with your computer, in the first place.

  • Tom Hering

    The images also look lighter, less color-saturated now. Interesting.

  • Tom Hering

    The images also look lighter, less color-saturated now. Interesting.

  • Abby

    tODD: Well, thank you–you did a great job. Also, I don’t think you are “ODD” at all–I love how you defend Luther!–and our faith!

  • Abby

    tODD: Well, thank you–you did a great job. Also, I don’t think you are “ODD” at all–I love how you defend Luther!–and our faith!


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