Cranach’s artistic confession of faith

We had been discussing Lucas Cranach’s seal of the winged serpent, crowned with a ring, and what it might mean.  Thanks to Tom Hering for digging up this scholarly article by Wayne Martin, professor of philosophy of the University of Essex, who offers a reading of the artist’s “Eden” in the Courtald Gallery in England.  As a reminder, art in Cranach’s day was charged with meaning, unlike the preoccupation with abstract forms of today, but  that meaning was rendered visually.  Prof. Martin points out that Cranach this time puts his signature seal not at the bottom in a corner, where it usually goes, but right on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  (You can just make it out below the snake.)  The squiggly curves of the stylized seal are echoed in the similar squiggly curves of the snake and in the curls of Eve’s hair.  Thus, the artist is identifying himself with temptation and with sin.  But those squiggles are also echoed in the vine, laden with grapes, a symbol of Christ (“I am the vine”): specifically, His sacrificial blood as given for us in Holy Communion (“This is my blood of the new testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins”).  In the painting, the vine covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness, just as Christ’s blood covers the sinfulness of Lucas Cranach and all of us.

Prof. Martin doesn’t quite understand the Gospel of the evangelical Reformation.  He professes “shock” that a pious Christian would “identify himself with evil.”  Like many people he assumes that being a Christian means being good, rather than facing up to one’s true sinfulness and receiving Christ’s forgiveness.  He is also confused about different covenants and the pre-lapsarian state.  Still, even despite himself,  he discerns Cranach’s ubiquitous theme of Law and Gospel.

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

This blog’s new title heading

In the midst of all of the talk about Redeemed Rambling’s critique of the appearance of this blog, the consensus that this blog has a good design really, the addition of Cranach’s seal with its many variations, the minor suggestions that people put forward, and the tweaks that Stewart implemented, commenter Tom Hering–who knows a thing or two about design–was kind enough to design some other possible headings for the title of this blog.  I really liked the one with quasi-medieval lettering and the colorful version of Cranach’s seal.   I also like how it adds a touch of color–antiquated parchment color–without taking away from the clear black on white posts.  So Stewart put it up.

So what does Cranach’s seal mean?  It’s very simple, if we go by the original intention:  It means Lucas Cranach!  The device of the winged serpent bearing a ring is part of his coat of arms, as awarded by Frederick the Wise.   Knights had their coats of arms on their shields, and Kings used them on their royal seals.   The Kings of England had three lions.  The Holy Roman Emperors had a two-headed eagle.  Shakespeare’s was a shield with a diagonal spear, which presumably could be shaken.  Middle class types, such as Shakespeare and Cranach, could be granted a heraldic seal in recognition of their services or contributions, and they were typically very proud of that sign of semi-nobility and used it everywhere they could.  So Cranach signed his paintings with his device, which existed in many different forms, from the realistic to the abstract.  This one has the most artistic elements, in my opinion.

So the seal simply means Lucas Cranach and was the equivalent of his signature.  What is its derivation?  That is another question, which was discussed in last Friday’s post.  Was it a multi-language pun on his name, as one expert suggests?  Was it based on a symbol for artists, combined with one for speed, as another expert suggests, building on Cranach’s reputation as a really fast worker?  Was it an alchemical symbol?  A symbol for redemption?  I don’t know.  I’m waiting to hear from John Warwick Montgomery, who has agreed to weigh in on the matter and who has  published scholarship on how during the Reformation alchemical symbols for chemical transformations were used to symbolize spiritual transformations.

Anyway, thanks to Tom for the design.   How do you like it?

Versions of Cranach’s Seal

As an update to the post on tweaks to this blog, let me show you some different versions of Cranach’s Seal, as we try to interpret what it means.  (I thought it is an image of redemption; Tom Hering suggested it was alchemical symbolism, so I’ve asked Dr. Montgomery; it could also be some kind of conventional heraldry symbolism–someone who knows something about heraldry, please chime in.)    Special thanks to Abby for alerting me to the final version here, which is the most expressive, detailed, and dragon-like.  Should we use that one for our logo, or is it too disturbing?


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