Case Study: Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as Saint Jerome
by Lucas Cranach

Cardinal Albrecht (or Albert) of Brandenburg (1490 - 1545) was Archbishop of Mainz from 1514, and Cardinal from 1518, at the age of 28. Life was short in the fourteenth century and so people got on with it. 
   The Catholic Encyclopaedia tactfully describe his early years as 'somewhat worldly wise and extravagant.'  He was certainly fond of spending money, which had extraordinary consequences. 
   To pay his  expenses, in particular the cost of his sumptuous vestments, he borrowed a large sum of money. This he intended to pay back by the sale of indulgences. Pope Leo X agreed to this, the deal being that half the money raised would be forwarded to the Vatican to help with the reconstruction of St. Peter's. 
   The Vatican had already had in Germany a resident Dominican indulgence salesman called Tetzel, (slogan -  'As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs')  and he worked closely with Albrecht. it was the activities of Tetzel that infuriated Martin Luther.  Luther nailed his theses to the church door, Albrecht sent copies to Rome, Luther was accused of heresy, and the rest, as they say, is history.
   Albrecht was very keen that his image should be well known, and he commissioned Lucas Cranach to paint a remarkable series of paintings. The best known of these are of him adopting the persona of Saint Jerome. 

  The first  painting, dating from 1525, is on the left. Albrecht was clearly delighted with it, (though perhaps he thought it a little short on animals),  and he commissioned another in 1526. (On the right). 


Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota

   This was never going to be enough for Albrecht. The following year he was in touch again for another picture of himself as Jerome, but in a desert setting this time. It's a rather more comfortable desert than Jerome's. Part of the Golden Legend story (the merchants bringing the donkey back to the monastery) is going on in the background.

Staatliche Museen, Berlin

    It didn't end there; here is Cranach's painting of Albrecht attending the crucifixion, and, by Grunwald, Albrecht pretending to be Saint Erasmus disputing with Saint Maurice.
Didn't that preacher in Ecclesiastes have something to say about vanity? 

Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Alte Pinakothek, Munich

   To return to the Jerome pictures. Albrecht/Jerome was clearly fond of pets, and each animal does represent some aspect of the character of the sitter - or some aspect the sitter wishes us to think he has. The beaver, for example, represents hard work, the parrot oratorical gifts, and the stag (or gazelle) is sometimes used as a symbol of Christ. This was one of Origen's ideas, so I'm not sure Jerome would have approved of it.  The lion, of course, is there to ensure we know it's Jerome that Albrecht is pretending to be. Some of the other creatures have a more ambivalent meaning, as we'll see below.
   A curious fact is that it seems that Albrecht never actually sat for Cranach. His likeness was taken from these engravings by Durer. No fault of Durer's, but this is probably why Albrecht looks rather vacant in the paintings. 

   Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the series is that Lucas Cranach was a friend and supporter of - Martin Luther. In 1526, when he was working on the second Jerome picture, he stood as godfather to Luther's first child. So what was he doing painting all these pictures of  Albrecht?
   The simplistic answer - and possibly the correct one - is that Cranach's workshop was a business, Albrecht was wealthy, and you don't turn down work just because you are not keen on the client.  But is there more going on here? 

   Notice anything odd in that second picture? That chandelier looks unusual. Lets have a closer look at it, and at a drawing by Durer of one rather like it. 

   This is a Leuchterweibchen, or female chandelier. Very popular at the time, they were made of antlers, on  which were fixed candleholders and a human figure, usually an attractive woman. These were considered rather racy, and distinctly secular. 
   Is Cranach trying to tell us something? (Albrecht might have wanted to look like Jerome, but he was less enthusiastic about his strictures on chastity. A lady called Magdalena Redinger, daughter of the local baker, was his long-term mistress.)  And what about the peacock? Is he pointing a finger at Albrecht's vanity? 

   It's a lovely theory, but sadly I don't think it really stands up. Albrecht was no fool, and if Cranach was trying it on he would have quickly spotted it  and wouldn't have paid for the picture.  If he had been a fool someone would have quietly taken him on one side and explained it to him. And it's a child or maybe an angel on the chandelier, not a woman. Sorry. Life is all too often more prosaic than conspiracy theorists would like it to be. 

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