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Georg Pencz

Portrait of Martin Luther

Panel: 41 x 32 cm
1533
Monogrammed and dated GP 33 (top centre)

introduction

For his Portrait of Martin Luther, Georg Pencz openly draws inspiration from the famous painting by Lucas Cranach. The work of this accredited portraitist and friend of the theologian was copied for many years from the 1520s onwards. Painting his portrait in 1533, Pencz seems to take inspiration from the matching piece of Luther and his wife Katharina von Bora painted in 1528, versions of which are kept in the museums of Weimar and Darmstadt.

However, this portrait assumes a very personal touch. Usually of great austerity, the image of the reformer conveys a certain intimacy here, probably accentuated by the warm tones used for the model’s face. The detail of the shadow, which is absent from Cranach’s work, gives the portrait a remarkable power and emphasises the magnificence of one of the most influential men of the 16th century. Historically, Martin Luther, doctor in theology at the University of Wittenberg, is considered as one of the most outstanding men of his century. It was upon reading Paul’s epistle to the Romans that this reader and commentator of the bible acquired the conviction that divine love is free. This led him to write his famous 95 Theses against indulgences, which he stuck on the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517. He was excommunicated in 1521 and welcomed by the Elector of Saxony at Wartburg Castle, where he was able to write his most well-known and most widely distributed texts.

The components of this type of portrait with its three-quarter pose, dark clothing and doctoral cap, became characteristic in the portrayal of the theologian. They are the symbols of the Reformation, as well as bearing witness to the period of power of this Augustinian monk at the origin of the movement that spread like wildfire through Germany and Europe. Here, it isn’t simply a question of a portrait that bears witness to the beginning of the Reformation; it is also an invitation to reflect upon Georg Pencz’ style.

The artist was often asked to paint portraits of the influential men of his era, which had been executed by other German Renaissance artists. Several copies of portraits after the works of Albrecht Dürer are known to us, such as the portraits of Emperor Charlemagne and Emperor Sigismund I. These paintings were executed for John the Magnanimous, Elector of Saxony, and it is quite likely that this is case for our portrait of Martin Luther. Dated 1533, this portrait was indeed painted in the same year as the paintings commissioned by the Elector of Saxony. In general, the copies painted by Pencz are larger in size and this multi-facetted artist knew how to impose his own style. He helped to spread the image of the reformer in the form of an icon. Our monogrammed painting dated GP ’33 bears witness to a key era of the Renaissance and will undoubtedly seduce the greatest enthusiasts of historical portraits.

Provenance :
(Probably) Prince John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony;
Tollemache Estate Collection, Peckforton Castle, England;
Christie’s, London 15 May 1953, lot 139;
The North Carolina Museum of Art.

Littérature :
W.R Valentiner, Catalogue of Paintings: including Three Sets of Tapestries, Raleigh, 1956, p.75, no. 171;
H.G. Gmelin, “Georg Pencz als Maler”, Münchner jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, XVII, 1966, no. 48;
J.C. Smith, Nuremberg: A Renaissance City, 1500-1618, exhibition catalogue, Austin, 1983, p. 212, under no. 110;
C. Wright, The world’s Master Paintings: From the early Renaissance to the present day, Routledge, 1992, II, p. 381;
K.Heard and L. Whitaker,vThe Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, exhibition catalogue, London, 2011, under no. 55;
K. Dyballa, Georg Pencz : Künstler zu Nürnberg, Berlin, 2014, pp. 266-268.

Expositions :
Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, Robert F. Phifer Collection, 31 March – 13 May 1973, pp. 64-65.