Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553) was a court painter to the Saxon Elector Friedrich II, the Wise. An important artist of the German Renaissance, he was surpassed in his painting skills only by Albrecht Dürer. Cranach created this painting of Saint Maurice between 1520-25 amidst the tumultuous years of the German Reformation. The martyr Saint Maurice had become the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire in the tenth century. However, the visual representation of his African descent did not appear until the thirteenth century, which is not surprising as in the earlier Middle Ages, blackness was often associated with negative connotations, symbolizing evil, sin and the demonic. With the presence of dark-skinned musicians, servants and soldiers at the Holy Roman Emperor’s court, this changed to some degree in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. Cranach’s work shows the black Saint Maurice in a regal bearing, dressed in exquisite silver armor and a large plumed hat. His figure epitomized contemporary ambitions to expand Christian rule and represented the virtues of the perfect Christian warrior.
The piece was most likely commissioned as part of a decorative program for a new collegiate church. The Neues Stift (New Foundation) was set up by cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545), a staunch defender of the Old Catholic Belief, and was dedicated to Saint Maurice, Saint Mary Magdalen, and Saint Erasmus. It was intended to showcase Albrecht’s relic collection and art patronage. Alongside Albrecht’s connections to power, the painting reveals Saint Maurice’s importance across the Holy Roman Empire. The image of the imperial eagle in the highly detailed banner attached to the saint’s lace indicates Maurice’s role not only as patron saint of Albrecht’s Neues Stift but as patron saint for the entire empire.
The new iconography of the black-skinned Saint Maurice never gained universal acceptance and remained a largely local phenomenon, largely restricted to the provinces of Saxony, Brandenburg, and Pomerania. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the growing trend toward idealization meant that Maurice often became, once again, increasingly white.
Source: Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop, St. Maurice (ca. 1520-1525), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, St. Maurice (ca. 1520-25) by Julia Alcamo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.