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Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome in his Study (Lucas Cranch the Elder, 1527)

In addition to troubling paintings of severed heads and dark allegories of German society, Lucas Cranach the Elder liked to paint animals.  He painted several splendid pictures of Adam and Eve in a paradise teaming with creatures (including human headed parrots and unicorns) and he also frequently portrayed the bloody business of large scale stag-hunts by the aristocracy.  One of my favorite of Cranach’s animal paintings is the one above titled, which was completed in 1527.  A generous supporter of the arts (and personal friend of Erasmus), Albrecht was the Elector and Archbishop of Mainz.  Ironically, to secure this position, Albrecht had taken out an immense loan “to discharge the expenses of his elevation.”  In order to pay this money back he obtained permission from Pope Leo X to sell indulgences.  The agent Albrecht utilized to sell these indulgences, John Tetzel, was so odious and grasping that Luther wrote his 95 theses partly as a direct response to Tetzel. Albrecht was the first to notify the papacy of Luther’s theses (which he suspected might be heretical).

Although dressed as a 16th century cardinal, Albrecht is affecting the style and symbols of Saint Jerome, the 4th century hermit and scholar who had translated the bible into Latin.  Jerome was frequently painted with a tame lion due to an ahistorical medieval legend about how he had removed a thorn from a marauding lion’s paw (and thus gained the creature’s friendship).  Cranach expands on this iconography to fill the painting with animals including not just a pensive lion, but also an industrious beaver, a pheasant, a rabbit, and a stag.  In gothic iconography, the stag represented Christ and here we see a handsome stag beneath a crucifix apparently speaking to Jerome.  The ecclesiastical contemplation and tame animals of the foreground are contrasted starkly with the more realistic background, where aristocratic hunters ride back to their great hall with their hounds while real stags joust with their horns in the forest.

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