Between Renaissance and Reformation – major works by Cranach the Elder and Cranach the Younger

Once the royal seat of Anhalt, the town of Dessau holds the most remarkable and most extensive collection of works by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Saxony-Anhalt, including altarpieces and panel paintings at the Anhalt Art Gallery in the Georgium Palace and in St. John’s Church.

View of the Georgium in DessauIn particular the Princes’ Altar, Catherine’s Altar and the panel painting of the Last Supper rank among the most important works by Cranach and his son, Lucas Cranach the Younger. Two richly illustrated Cranach Bibles are also kept at the Anhalt Regional Library. Only 40 kilometres from Wittenberg (the centre of Cranach’s work), Dessau was an important town in the spread of Protestantism and the reformed faith under the rule of Prince Georg III of Anhalt. The Last Supper is a bold and equally ambitious reference to this, and shows Luther, Melanchthon and Georg III of Anhalt celebrating the Last Supper with Christ, together with other leading figures of the Reformation as the disciples.

The Marian themes evident in the Dessau collection are characteristic of the early works of the Catholic painter. However even in these works it is possible to recognise the more secular treatment of holy figures that was characteristic of Cranach, and his intensive portrayal and characterisation of man and nature. In the works of Cranach the Younger, there is a tendency – in the spirit of the Reformation – to consciously reduce the use of rich, emotional depictions in favour of the matter-of-fact Biblical word of God. Two mythological paintings and some outstanding portraits round off the collection in Dessau. The Cranach paintings are part of a valuable collection of works by Renaissance painters such as Hans Baldung Grien, Bartel Bruyn, Hans Mielich, Hans Maler and others.

Places to visit

The Anhalt Art Gallery in Dessau also displays a distinguished collection of Dutch paintings and an impressive exhibition of German paintings from the 17 th to the 21 st centuries. The Georgium Palace and its gardens are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, as are the nearby Bauhaus buildings.

St. John’s Church

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