Cranach paints for Meissen Cathedral

In Cranach’s day, the town of Meissen on the river Elbe had become less influential than Dresden, the royal seat of the House of Wettin, but it nonetheless remained the seat of a Protestant cathedral chapter.

View of Meißen across ElbeThe Wettins, who had been invested with the Margraviate of Meissen in 1089, not only initiated the construction of the Gothic cathedral but also had a magnificent mausoleum built in front of its west portal from 1415. Frederick of Saxony’s memorial stone in the royal chapel was cast in the workshop of Peter Vischer the Elder in Nuremberg. It depicts the duke, who died in 1510, as the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. It is thought to be based on a drawing by Lucas Cranach, which would make it the oldest reference to the artist in Meissen.

The earliest work proven to originate from the Cranach workshop is the cathedral’s retable of the Crucifixion altar, which has decorated the altar in front of the choir screen since its installation in 1526. Duke George, who remained true to the Catholic faith, had a small side chapel built at the cathedral for himself and his wife Barbara, who died in 1534, and had it decorated with a triptych painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder. It was later a cause of some surprise that the so-called creator of Lutheran imagery and court painter of the Protestant Elector had accepted a commission from this "bastion of orthodoxy" and "adversary of the Reformation". But as we know today, this fully reflected Cranach’s prominent position as an artist and the pragmatic function of art in his day.

Further works from the Cranach workshop were brought to Meissen in the year 2000 to be incorporated into a small cathedral museum, most notably the large-format portrait of Hans von Lindenau, portraits of the reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, and a small portrait of Elector Frederick the Wise, all by Lucas Cranach the Younger.

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Meissen Cathedral is a Gothic building dating from 1250 to 1400 and has always served as the church for the Bishopric of Meissen. Its interior includes several Cranach panels.

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