The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1506
Lukas Cranach the Elder
ca. 1472 Kronach – Weimar 1553
Die Versuchung des heiligen Antonius – The Temptation of St. Anthony 1506
woodcut; 406 x 271 mm (15 15/16 x 10 5/8 inches)
Bartsch 56; Geisberg 593; Hollstein 76 second (final) state; cat. Basel, p. 542, no. 398
A fine and early impression; some very skillful retouches, mainly along the edges of the sheet, otherwise in very good overall condition; trimmed on the borderline all round.
Early impressions of this woodcut are, as so often with Cranach’s prints, very rare. Only two impressions are known of the first state showing the electoral shield with the sable field in base (Basel and Chicago). The colors of this coat of arms were altered in 1508 with the sable now in chief and the block was probably reprinted right after this change. We have found fewer than a dozen early impressions of this second state, to which our print belongs. (There was also a much later printing campaign from a deteriorated block, dating to the mid-to-late sixteenth century, and even those impressions are rare).
Images of St. Anthony being tormented by demons were highly popular in Cranach’s day. They allowed artists to give free reign to their imagination, creating demons and monsters of all kinds. These hideous creatures might send shudders down the viewer’s spine but they nonetheless remained safely confined within the bounds of the work of art—the same effect that might account for the popularity of ghost stories and horror movies today. Cranach was undoubtedly aware of Martin Schongauer’s large engraving dating from the 1480s, the most influential depiction of the subject. However, he transformed the earlier artist’s model considerably. The saint is no longer shown standing upright within a largely empty space. In Cranach’s version, Anthony has fallen backwards, overwhelmed by the monsters; similarly, the dense web of lines seems to subsume the figures in the image, making it nearly impossible to differentiate between the saint in his flowing drapery and the demons. The saint’s struggle is now set above a beautifully rendered and surprisingly serene landscape that allows Cranach to display his astonishing mastery in the depiction of a wide open scenery. The prototype for embedding the “aerial combat” within a detailed landscape vista was, as so often, supplied by Dürer, whose Engelkampf (Meder 171) from the 1498 Apocalypse is usually referred to as a close comparison.
In addition to the popular appeal of the scary demons, there was also an interesting local connection to the cult of St. Anthony in Wittenberg, where Cranach was employed. The founding chancellor of the University of Wittenberg in 1502 was Goswin von Orsoy (ca. 1450–1515). He was the preceptor general of the German branch of the Order of St. Anthony as well as the preceptor of the Antonine monastery of Lichtenburg near Prettin on the river Elbe. The Lichtenburg Antonines also maintained a house and chapel in Wittenberg where one of the altars was dedicated to their patron saint. Werner Schade, the first to point out this connection, further suggests that the group of buildings visible in the middle ground might even depict the destroyed house of the Antonines in Lichtenburg. There were also Anthony reliquaries in the famous collection assembled by Elector Frederick the Wise. Cranach’s print can, therefore, be convincingly positioned within the context of the local veneration of St. Anthony in Wittenberg at the time and its publication would have found a ready market in town for the artist who had started his life-long employment with the Ernestine dynasty in Wittenberg in the year previous to the date of this print.