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Lucas Cranach the Younger

Christ blessing the children

Panel: 59,3 x 120 cm
1538
Signed with the winged serpent carrying a ring in its mouth, dated 1538
Inscription: "VND SIE BRACHTEN KINDLEIN ZV IM·DAS / ER SIE ANRVRETE · S MARCVS AM X"

introduction

Through its expressive and artistic power, this Christ Blessing the Children can easily be compared, from all points of view, with the two other versions of this subject kept in Frankfurt and Copenhagen. The theme very seldom appears in art before Cranach the Elder but it was portrayed many times after 1537, the date of the first version, both by his son and his studio, as well as by Anthony van Dyck and Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem. The artist has chosen to illustrate Verse 14 of Chapter X of the Gospel according to Saint Mark: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (“lasset die kindling zumir kommen und weret inen nicht dan solcher ist das reichgottes”), showing Christ surrounded by a large number of women bringing their newborns to be blessed. The reproachful apostles are portrayed on the left.

The subject of this painting does not simply evoke a passage from the Bible. Close to Lutheran concerns, Lucas Cranach the Elder is seeking to convey a message, an idea which, in this case, is the cause of the Reformation. He agreed with Luther's vision in the controversy of 1530 on baptism. Christ Blessing the Children is the “battle horse” of Lutheran reform against the Anabaptists, who chose to condemn baptism imposed on young children, arguing that this sacrament should only be received by those in full knowledge of the facts. Luther thus referred to the Gospels to counter the arguments of the dissident sect and emphasised the importance of baptism at birth. Cranach’s painting sets out to illustrate the Lutheran doctrine by explicitly quoting the verse from the Gospel of Saint Mark: "VND SIE BRACHTEN KINDLEIN ZV IM•DAS / ER SIE ANRVRETE • S MARCVS AM X".

Among the existing versions of the theme by Cranach the Elder and his studio, this variant by his son particularly stands out owing to its great quality and the finesse of the details, and to its slightly different format, thus accentuating the artist’s individualisation of the faces, emphasising his talent as a portraitist. The paternal style is respected in the use of numerous flat tints, preventing the viewer from entering into the scene in order to better understand the subject. The figures’ lack of individual interpretation as well as the dark and indeterminate background, which gives no clue as to the scene’s location, reinforces this idea. The viewer is voluntarily excluded from the work because the painting should be interpreted as a lesson, a way of thinking, and not as the portrayal of reality. Thus, the aim of the painting is knowledge and sharing.

Provenance :
Ulveldt family, Vienna, before 1768;
Baron Hakvin Stiernblad of Torup, Sweden, and his descendants;
Sale Christie’s, London, 23 March 1973, lot 33;
Sale Sotheby’s, London, 11 December 1985, lot 26;
Private collection.

Littérature :
O. Granberg, Inventaire Général des Trésors d'Art en Suède, Stockholm, 1913, III, p. 261 (date 1539 incorrect);
M.J. Friedländer et J. Rosenberg, Die Gemälde von Lucas Cranach, Berlin, 1932, p. 83, no. 291b;
M.J. Friedländer et J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, New York, 1978, p. 141, no. 362B.