Renaissance and Reformation. German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach. On the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Luther’s theses, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München are presenting key works of German art from around 1500 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibition was made possible by support from the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Renaissance and Reformation
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther published his ninety-five theses on the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg. This “heretical” act became the trigger for the Reformation and a schism of the church and led to far-reaching social upheaval. Luther’s criticism was directed at the luxury and abuses of the Catholic Church and in particular at the selling of indulgences by which the faithful could pay for their release from their sins. Calling into question the powerful institution of the Catholic Church also opened up new perspectives on the world in other areas. The ideas of humanism and the Renaissance influenced human thought. Around 1500, the horizon expanded on the levels: not only in terms of knowledge but also geographically with the discovery and conquest of new continents and cultures.
On the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Luther’s theses, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München are presenting key works of German art around 1500 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The masterpieces of Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger, Hans Holbein the Elder and Hans Holbein the Younger, Tilman Riemenschneider, and other contemporaries reflect the social tensions of this epoch, which is one of the most important chapters in the history of German and European art and culture.
The exhibition was made possible by support from the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Tradition and Religion
Devotional images with motifs from the Bible characterized Western art prior to 1500. For centuries, the Catholic Church developed traditions for illustrating liturgy and ritual. At their center stood the history of salvation through Christ and depictions of the Virgin and of saints as mediators between the faithful and God. Around 1500, a transformation in the visual language becomes evident: the figures appear more human, their physicality and individuality are emphasized, they seem to come from this world.
Not only in church services but also in daily life, the faithful maintained a close connection to biblical figures and the legends of the saints. In private devotion especially, small-format wooden sculptures of Christ, the Virgin, as well as saints were prayed to and beseeched for their direct support in difficult situations. Not infrequently, the figures were treated as if the people depicted were actually present. They were touched, kissed, in many places even dressed for festivals and presented with gifts. The iconoclasts later took aim at this custom. They considered it as worshipping of idols, which was prohibited in the Bible, and thus destroyed many Christian works of art and objects of devotion.
Humanism and Reality
With the spread of humanist ideas from Italy, new pictorial motifs reached the lands north of the Alps. Landscapes, historical scenes, and figures from ancient mythology bore witness to a new, altered perception of the world between a longing for antiquity and intense observation of nature and the human form. In filigreed drawings, we find the original, individual styles of artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Erhard and Albrecht Altdorfer. More and more, the motifs are depicted for their own sake. The drawings are thus also an expression of a European Renaissance art in which artists act as individuals and their works of art become increasingly autonomous.
Ancient gods and heroes such as Cupid, Saturn, Venus, and Hercules were rediscovered and became popular pictorial motifs in the wake of the Renaissance enthusiasm for antiquity. Their adventures between this world and the beyond revolve around universal themes such as love, death, honor, and betrayal. But also “superstitions” from the common people, such as the widespread belief in witches, are found in paintings of the period around 1500. Although the humanists mocked these as “delusion,” the subject offered fascinating material for artists and some (fool’s) license for unusual scenes and compositions.
Portrait and Status
During the Renaissance and Reformation, portraits played a central role, since they captured important figures in the rapidly growing, increasingly complex society. Burghers, merchants, and scholars had their likeness recorded in the new detailed style of oil painting. At a time in which paintings were expensive and elaborate, having one’s likeness painted signified privilege and prestige. Famous portraits such as that of the merchant Jakob Muffel by Albrecht Dürer or the double portrait of Thomas Godsalve and his son by Hans Holbein the Younger illustrate the historical and artistic relevance of the portrait around 1500.
The development of European portraiture is tangible in the more widespread drawings as well. Increasingly, this artform was shaped by the humanist idea of the human being as an individual. Depictions of friends, acquaintances, and family members provide clues to the artist’s immediate surroundings, but even the lifelike renderings of unknown people underscored the portraitist’s gift for sensitive observation.
Court and Culture
The political dimension of humanism is revealed in the increasing power of principalities that propagated and protected the new ideas of the time. Court culture achieved exceptional cultural significance and objects from the art collections of electoral princes bare testimony to the refined art of artisans: jewelry boxes and goblets but also weapons and armor convey an impression of the life at a princely court. The art of the court at Dresden, which enjoyed great respect and had great influence on the imperial level, was exemplary of a Protestant principality with ambitions to convey its status.
In splendid armor, princes presented themselves according to their rank as representatives and defenders of their Christian faith. Religious scenes and motifs from the Bible were artfully depicted on iron armor.
Objects from the most precious materials, such as gold and silver, are adorned with figurative decorations. They celebrate virtues such as bravery and justice and the Christian faith.
Conflict and Polemics
The Reformation was not limited to the court but affected all spheres of society. The conflict between the Catholic Church and the Reformers was fought throughout the country and even beyond its borders. In broadsheets and mocking images, the pope and the corrupt monkhood were severely denounced. The Catholic side responded with accusations and insults of Luther and his followers.
The Reformers’ ideas were disseminated using modern visual media such as broadsheet, woodcut, and book printing. Numerous printers and skilled artisans and artists in the cities of the empire made it possible to underscore and polarize the conflict with deliberately employed visual propaganda. This made it possible to reach even the illiterate and recruit them visually for the goals of the Reformers and the Protestants.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the largest art museum in the western United States. A museum of international stature as well as a vital part of Southern California, LACMA shares its vast collections through exhibitions, public programs, and research facilities that attract over a million visitors annually. LACMA’s collections encompass the geographic world and virtually the entire history of art. Among the museum’s special strengths are its holdings of Asian art, housed in part in the Bruce Goff-designed Pavilion for Japanese Art; Latin American art, ranging from pre-Columbian masterpieces to works by leading modern and contemporary artists including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Jose Clemente Orozco; and Islamic art, of which LACMA hosts one of the most significant collections in the world.
LACMA located on the Pacific Rim, with a collection of nearly 140,000 objects that illuminate 6,000 years of artistic expression across the globe. Committed to showcasing a multitude of art histories, LACMA exhibits and interprets works of art from new and unexpected points of view that are informed by the region’s rich cultural heritage and diverse population. LACMA’s spirit of experimentation is reflected in its work with artists, technologists, and thought leaders as well as in its regional, national, and global partnerships to share collections and programs, create pioneering initiatives, and engage new audiences.