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15th and Early 16th-Century Germany


The changes experienced in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were nowhere more strongly felt than in German-speaking lands. There the revolutions of printing and the Protestant Reformation were first unleashed. And it was a German artist, Albrecht Dürer, who introduced the art of Renaissance Italy to northern Europe. As France, England, and Spain coalesced around strong dynasties into powerful nations, Germany remained a political mosaic of small, independent states under the aegis of the Holy Roman Emperor. Yet it sustained a strong sense of national identity, and this was reflected in the distinctive character of German art.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, German artists, like those all across Europe, created delicate courtly art in what is now known as the International Style. This was marked by long graceful figures, richly patterned surfaces, gold decoration, and a preference for abstract ornamentation over realism. By about 1450, influenced by painting in the Netherlands, German artists adopted a more naturalistic style. In general, however, their work remained more expressive than their neighbor's. German painters tended to emphasize line and pattern over three-dimensional form. They juxtaposed strong contrasts of color and continued to use gold backgrounds long after they became old fashioned elsewhere. German altarpieces often included painted and gilded sculpture, increasing the theatricality of the sacred scenes. All these qualities pitched art to a high emotional key, one well suited to the German religious experience, which had been heavily influenced by the mysticism of such preachers as Meister Eckehart beginning in the 1300s.

Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471 - 1528, Portrait of a Clergyman (Johann Dorsch?), 1516, oil on parchment on fabric, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.17

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Created with fine black lines printed on an ivory-white paper, a winged woman sits with her head in one hand, surrounded by tools, a dog, and a baby-like, winged putto perched on a millstone, all in front of a distant landscape with a still body of water under an arched rainbow in this vertical engraving. Filling the lower right quadrant of the composition, the winged woman, Melencolia, sits with her body angled to our left, and she looks in that direction from under furrowed brows. Lit from our right, her face is cast in shadow, but she has a straight nose and her lips are closed. She wears a ring of leaves over hair that falls in waves over her shoulders. Wings curve up from her back, and she wears a long-sleeved dress with a tight bodice and a voluminous, pleated skirt. She rests her chin on one tightly closed fist. The other arm rests on a book in her lap, and she holds one of the two legs of a tall compass in that hand. Several keys hang on a ribbon looped onto her belt, and they nestle into the deep folds of her skirt. Around her feet are a purse cinched closed, several nails, the metal tip of a bellows, a saw, a plane, the end of a pair of pincers, an ink pot, a molder’s form for baseboards, and a round sphere about the size of a basketball. The dog lies in a tight circle to our left of Melencolia’s feet, its chin resting across its paws. The dog’s ribs show through the short fur of its hide. Next to the dog, the millstone leans against the building that fills the right half of the composition. The millstone is round and flat, is about the height of the woman's torso, and a hole is cut from its center. A chubby child sits atop the stone. It has short, curly hair, stubby wings, a loose robe, and it draws on a tablet propped on its lap. Beyond the child, a wooden ladder leans against the building, and a pair of scales hangs above his head. On the face of the building, hanging over Melencolia’s head, is an hourglass with the sand about halfway spent and a magic square, which is a grid of four rows and four columns. The numbers in the grid read, from left to right, 16, 3, 2, 13 in the top row; an upside down 5, a 10, 11, and 8 in the second row; a backward 9, a 6, 7, and 12 in the third row; and a 4, 15, 14, and 1 in the bottom row. A bell hangs from a ring above this grid. On the step beyond the sleeping dog and millstone, another large stone is carved into flat planes to create an irregular, geometric, rhomboid form about as tall as the millstone. A hammer lies in front of the rhomboid, and beyond it is a melting pot sitting among tongues of flame in a mug-like cup. In the upper left quadrant of the composition, a placid body of water leads back to a distant town and small boats, beneath a starburst that fills the sky. An arched rainbow crosses the sky over a rat-like bat with its sharp teeth and tongue showing. It holds a banner reading “MELENCOLIA I.” The artist signed and dated the engraving as if he had carved into the front face of the step on which Melencolia sits, near the lower right corner: “1514 AD,” with the uppercase D nestled between the long legs of the wide, uppercase A.

The Reformation and the Graphic Arts

In 1517 Martin Luther launched the Protestant revolt when he posted his Ninety-five Theses complaining of greed and corruption in the church. Long before, German mysticism and other changes in late medieval piety had begun to "democratize" religion. An emphasis on direct, emotional experience of God shifted spiritual focus -- and authority -- to private devotion. In addition, political realignments had increased the power of secular rulers at the expense of the church, and growing nationalism made prosperous northern cities increasingly reluctant to share their wealth with Rome.

The Reformation swept through Germany and into the Low Countries in the 1520s. Its success was aided by religious propaganda broadcast through the new media of printed books and graphic arts. Perhaps because so many German artists had emphasized line over form, they were particularly attracted to woodblocks and engraving. The wide availability of prints, especially those by Albrecht Dürer, also helped to spread the style and theory of Italian Renaissance art, leading northern painters to model their figures with greater three-dimensionality. In areas affected by the Reformation, artists turned more frequently to secular subjects, especially portraiture, and in religious works they focused on the life of Christ, paying less attention to the saints whose role as intermediaries for mankind was denied by Protestant theologians.

Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471 - 1528, Melencolia I, 1514, engraving on laid paper, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.3522

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A dozen people surround a woman reclining in a bed in front of a gleaming gold background in this vertical painting. All the people have pale skin. Red curtains drape from a shallow awning hanging over the head of the bed to our right, and the foot of the bed almost reaches the left side of the panel. The woman on the bed, Saint Clare, lies back against pillows with her hands crossed over her chest and her eyes closed. A white cloth covers her body from the waist down. She and two women attending to her from behind the head of the bed wear nun’s habits with black robes and head coverings over high-necked white collars. A row of five women line up along the far side of the bed, looking at Saint Clare. They all have blond hair, pointed noses and rounded cheeks, and they all have crowns surrounded by halos, which have been punched into the gold leaf background. Their dresses are in shades of vivid blue, forest green, white, or burgundy red and gold. Each holds a different object, including one with what looks like the model of a castle tower and another a small basket of flowers. The woman closest to Saint Clare holds the nun’s face in her hands. On our side of the bed, two more blond women kneel and lean onto the bed. One near the foot of the bed wears a maroon-red and gold brocade robe and holds a tiny dragon. The other kneels near Saint Clare, wearing royal-blue robes, and is accompanied by a miniscule sheep. Two smaller, seated women flank the woman in blue on our side of the bed. They are about half the size of the other people, and they wear nun’s habits but with gray robes rather than black. Both look at open books in their laps. Two blond, winged angels hover within the awning over Saint Clare’s head swinging incense burners. A bearded, haloed man in a blue field at the top center of the panel and holds a tiny, crowned person, and looks down at Saint Clare. The gold background is punched and incised with a decorative band at the inner edge of the panel, and also to create regiments of musicians and winged angels along the top quarter of the composition.

Saint Clare was a disciple of Saint Francis and founder of the order of Franciscan nuns called the Poor Clares. This jewellike painting illustrates a vision that appeared to her followers as they stood vigil around her deathbed in 1253. The Virgin cradles the dying nun's head as a group of female saints, Clare's sister Agnes, and members her order stand by. Above the gold field that separates earth from heaven, Jesus holds a representation of Clare's soul as a white-clad child. (The gold leaf, often beaten from coins, was applied in extremely thin square sheets whose overlapping outlines are visible here.)

This panel was perhaps made for a convent of the Poor Clares in eastern Europe. We do not know the name or even the nationality of the artist, but his style is unmistakable, distinguished by large heads, long spidery fingers, saturated colors, and richly patterned surfaces. The long, elegantly silhouetted figures, delicate designs punched into the gilt, and flattened space are all typical of the International Style, a court style that united the arts from Paris to Prague at the end of the Middle Ages. Its surprising uniformity resulted from dynastic marriages and from the strong competition between royal patrons to hire the best artists. Speculation about this artist—he has been called French, German, Austrian, and Bohemian—indicates the style's pervasiveness.

Master of Heiligenkreuz, Austrian, active early 15th century, The Death of Saint Clare, c. 1400/1410, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.83

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A mostly nude man hangs by his outstretched hands from a wooden cross, and is flanked by two pairs of people in this vertical painting. The cross and four people at its foot fill the composition. All the people have pale skin, and the scene is set in front of a shiny gold background. Blood trickles from a ring of thorns around the man’s head, over chestnut-brown hair. Eyes closed, his face tips to his right, our left, to rest on his shoulder, and his body faces us. His hips are wrapped in a translucent white cloth. Blood drips from the nails piercing his hands and overlapping feet on the T-shaped cross, and from a wound over his right ribs. His head is encircled with a flat, gold, disk-like halo. A plaque at the top of the cross, over his head, reads “INRI.” At the foot of the cross, to our left, a balding man with a long, white beard, wearing a gold brocade tunic under a red cape, kneels with his head tipped back and eyelids lowered. Behind him and to our left, a woman wearing a long lapis-blue robe that covers her head and body stands facing us with her hands crossed across her chest. She holds a piece of white cloth and has tears on her cheeks. She also has a gold halo. Another man kneels to our right of the cross. He wears a white robe and his hair is cut into a ring that encircles his head. He looks up at the cross. Along the right edge of the panel, a person with long blond hair surrounded by a halo stands with fingers interlaced in prayer, looking toward the cross. This person’s robe is rose pink lined with olive green, and it falls over a coral-pink garment beneath. Five tiny angels wearing royal-blue garments flit about, each catching the blood from the man’s hands, side, and feet in golden chalices. The fifth angel flits to our right, mirroring the angel catching blood from the gash on the opposite side. The angels’ wings were punched into the gold background, but are difficult to make out now. The surface of the panel is covered with a network of fine cracks, and some of the red layer under the gold shows through.

With Mary and John the Evangelist at the Crucifixion are a Roman centurion and a Carthusian monk. Although not a portrait, this figure is probably meant to represent the monk who used the panel for private devotion in his own cell. The Carthusians emphasized solitary contemplation, and this scene makes concrete the type of vision such contemplation hoped to achieve: transporting the worshiper to the site of the Crucifixion to witness firsthand the human suffering of Christ's sacrifice. Angels, who collect Jesus' blood in chalices, offer hope of man's salvation through the mass and eucharist.

The gentle lyricism and decorative elegance of this work are in keeping with the International Style. The delicate coloring—notice the shot pinks, vermilion, and mauve in Saint John's robe—was produced with tempera, a medium soon to be replaced by oil paints. The artist remains anonymous even though he directed an important workshop in the rich and active commercial center of Cologne. The stillness and intensity of his images exerted a great influence on other German painters.

Master of Saint Veronica, German, active c. 1395/1420, The Crucifixion, c. 1400/1410, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.29

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The lifeless and gaunt body of Christ slumps in the arms of an angel, whose face is marked by quiet grief. In the corner the hand of God, emerging from a swirl of stylized clouds, points with a gesture of benediction to the dove of the Holy Spirit as it descends to the head of Jesus. Such images inspired the viewer to contemplate and identify with the suffering of Christ. Dramatic depictions of great pathos and immediacy, called Andachtsbilder (devotion-images), had been especially popular in German-speaking lands since the early thirteenth century for their ability to elicit a personal and emotional religious response.

This small alabaster relief, probably made by a Rhenish or southern Netherlandish artist, still retains much of its original paint. It may have been part of a larger set of carvings installed in a church or convent chapel or it may have been used for private devotion in a home. As the numbers of wealthy merchants in the cities increased during the fifteenth century, there was a growing market for such private devotional works. Some were specifically commissioned, but others were also produced in large numbers for export and to be sold at the annual fairs that enlivened market towns.

Rhenish or South Netherlandish, 15th Century, The Dead Christ Supported by an Angel (The Trinity), c. 1440, painted and gilded alabaster, Gift of Mrs. Ralph Harman Booth, 1942.11.3

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Twelve men and a woman kneel on the ground to either side of a moss-green rock and gesture or gaze up at a man floating on a black cloud, flanked by eight men, four to each side, in this vertical painting. The scene has an arched top with a shiny gold background within the curve. All the people have pale skin. The man at the top center, Jesus, sits enveloped in a red robe over a bare chest and feet. He looks down and to our left with light brown eyes under furrowed brows, and his brown hair falls to his shoulders. He has a long, straight nose, a curly beard, and his lips are closed. He holds up his right hand, on our left, with the first two fingers raised. In his other hand, he holds a thin, cross-topped staff with a fluttering red pennant marked with a cross. Red wounds pierce the palms of both hands and blood seeps from a gash over his right ribs. Bands of black clouds, one on each side, are occupied by four bearded men seen from the waist up in a vertical row, looking toward Jesus. Each man holds an object or two, including a palm frond, a book and miniature unicorn, two stone tablets, a harp, or sword, or they hold their hands up in prayer. In the upper corners, above where the gold background arches down, winged angels are painted in translucent white against a navy-blue background. Below Jesus and his cloud, a group of six men to our right and six men and a woman to our left create loose parentheses to either side of a smooth, rounded, green rock. The rock appears broken along the bottom and two footprints are impressed into the top. Closest to us to our left, a woman with pale skin and blond hair, wearing a deep, cobalt-blue mantle over her shoulders, looks up with light eyes and a slight smile on small lips. She holds her hands together in prayer and has a wide, flat, gold halo surrounding her head. Next to her, a cleanshaven young man with blond, curly hair, wearing a green cloak, wraps one arm around her and holds his other up in front of his chest. The other men all have trimmed or long beards. Some are balding with gray or white hair, and some have thick, chestnut or cinnamon-brown hair. They wear robes in crimson red, emerald green, lapis blue, or apricot orange. Most look up to the sky with furrowed brows, but one man, to our right, looks down at his neighbor. A row of leafy plants sprouts along the bottom edge of the painting, under the rock. Rays of light, created by lines incised into the gold background, radiate down from Jesus and upward from the heads of the people below.

After his sixth and final appearance on earth, the resurrected Christ ascended to heaven, leaving behind his mother, his fervent but shaken apostles, and the indelible print of his feet on the Mount of Olives. In this painting he is flanked in heaven by John the Baptist and several Old Testament figures, probably those he rescued from limbo. We can identify, for example, Aaron with the flowering branch, Moses with the Tablets of the Law, and King David with his harp.

This panel decorated the altar of an abbey church near Münster, where Koerbecke had a large studio. It and seven other scenes from the life of the Virgin formed the inner doors of an altarpiece more than twenty feet high. It must have been a dazzling sight when the doors were opened on Sundays and feast days to reveal a gilded and painted statue of the Virgin and Child in the center and reliquaries for Saint Ursula and twenty-four of her virgin companions, the latter probably in the form of heads lined up in rows.

In Germany the International Style had been gradually transformed by the middle of the 1400s, influenced by naturalism from the Low Countries. Though Koerbecke continued to place his figures against a gilded background, they have greater solidity and individuality than those in the earlier works in this gallery. They are marked by vigorous movements and vivid expressions. The wide spread of angular folds in the Virgin's robe seems particularly to suggest the style of Robert Campin and his followers.

Johann Koerbecke, German, c. 1420 - 1491, The Ascension, 1456/1457, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1959.9.5

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Surrounded by twenty-two men, women, and winged angels, a young man, wearing only a white loincloth, stands in a shallow body of water facing another man who kneels on the bank next to him and pours water onto his head in this horizontal painting. All the people have pale skin. At the center of the composition, the man in the water, Jesus, stands with his body angled slightly to our right. He is slim with shoulder-length, chestnut-brown hair, and he raises his hands to his chest, fingertips almost touching. To our right, the man who trickles water onto his head, John, faces our left in profile. Long, scraggly brown hair and beard frame his lined, wrinkled face, and he wears a camel-brown robe covering his torso and legs. It appears to be made from an animal skin whose face hangs at the bottom, draped over the edge of the riverbank. His bare arms reach forward toward Jesus as he upends a vessel in his right hand to pour out drops of water. The pair is flanked by three angels. The angel kneeling on the bank to our left has red hair and rust-red and teal-blue wings. That angel wears a scarlet-red cloak richly decorated with gold patterns and bordered with gemstones. With hands raised and fingertips touching, the angel holds a gray-green cloak hanging over a white robe. Two smaller angels kneel closer to us in front of the men. The red-headed angel on our left wears a powder-blue robe and strums a lute. The other, with blond hair and a white robe, draws a bow across a violin to our right. A crowd of fifteen people float above and around Jesus, John, and the angels to create an arch over them. They are dressed in robes of crimson or rose red, violet purple, peacock blue, moss green, or beige, and some are dressed as clergy members. Each person holds an object, for example, a basket of wafers, a sword, or a bishop’s crook. A man on the right side wearing armor kneels on a dragon. An elderly bearded man wearing a crown sits at the top of the arch with his hands raised. Small angels on either side of him hold open his scarlet-red cloak, which is lined with peacock blue. A long, narrow scroll curls in the pale blue sky under him. It reads, “HIC EST EILIVS MEVS DILECTV IN QVO MICHI CONLICVI.” The landscape around Jesus, John, and the angels on the riverbank creates a low hill topped with bushy trees. A half moon of pale blue sky encloses the landscape, creating a dome shape across the center of the composition. The crowd of men and women seem to float between the sky and the shiny gold background that surrounds the people and whole scene.

Jesus and John the Baptist are surrounded by a crowded arc of seven male and seven female saints. The choice of the saints is unusual and may have been specifically requested when the panel was commissioned. Its large size and horizontal shape suggest it was originally part of an altarpiece.

The Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar is sometimes referred to as the last Gothic painter of Cologne because he combined the naturalism of artists in the Netherlands with the abstract, otherworldly qualities of earlier German painting. Yet these figures have robust presence and, like his more "modern" contemporaries in the Netherlands, he re-created surface textures with meticulous realism. Notice, for example, how different are the murky water surrounding Christ's legs, the angel's richly embroidered vestments, and the hard gleam of Saint George's armor. At the same time, he retained the flat, two-dimensional space and gold background seen in paintings made a hundred years earlier. Here much of the original gilt is lost and has been retouched with yellow paint, but the vaporous effect of these swirling clouds remains much the same, removing this scene from the ordinary world to place it and the viewer in another realm. German mysticism may have conditioned artists and their clients to favor "old-fashioned" gold because its aura evoked not the physical world but a spiritual presence instead.

Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar, German, active c. 1475/1510, The Baptism of Christ, c. 1485/1500, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.78

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An older woman sitting in a tall, wooden, throne-like chair, holding a seated baby in her lap, is flanked by a bearded man to our left and a young girl to our right in this vertical painting. All the people have pale or rosy skin and flat, plate-like halos, three of which are inscribed with names. The bearded man’s halo reads, “S IOHANE.” The older woman’s is “S ANNA,” and the young girl’s reads, “MARIA.” The throne takes up the right half of the composition. The face of the older woman, Saint Anne, is deeply creased, and she has jowls along her jawline and bags under her eyes. With a smile, she looks down at the baby in her lap. She wears a dark brown robe with a cream-white wimple that covers her hair and neck and cascades down her shoulders. A long, scarlet-red cloak drapes from her right shoulder, to our left, and across her lap. With that arm, she supports the seated baby, Jesus. The chubby baby is nude except for a silvery-white cloth gathered around his hips, and he faces our right, looking at the young woman there, Mary. He holds one hand up by his chest and, with the other, reaches for and grips a small, dark red apple Mary holds. Both Jesus and Mary have blond hair, rounded cheeks and jawlines, and full, rose-red lips. Mary’s long, wavy hair falls loosely to her waist. She holds out the apple with one hand and, with the other, picks up the skirt of her moss-green dress to reveal a powder-blue skirt beneath. One of Saint Anne’s large hands wraps around Mary’s lower back. The bearded man, Saint John, kneels on the other side of the throne, facing Mary. He looks at her with dark eyes under a gathered brow. Wrinkles line his cheeks, forehead, and the corners of his eyes. He points with his right hand, closer to us, at Jesus and gestures down at a white lamb, also with a halo, at his knees with the other. He has a cap of light brown, curly hair and a full beard. He wears a mustard-brown robe rolled back to the elbows. Behind the chair, a black wall has two steps down to span the background behind Saint John’s head. There is a white column on each step, and a landscape beyond has a river, trees, and a town nestled on craggy cliffs in the distance. The sky above is pale blue. With tiny letters, the artist signed the painting with his initials intertwined, “HBG,” on the throne between Saint Anne and Mary.

Unlike most artists of the time, who followed their fathers' trades, Baldung came from a distinguished professional family. While in the workshop of Albrecht Dürer he acquired the nickname Grien (green), possibly for his acid-green pigments or preference in clothes. He and Dürer were close friends, and Baldung's own style was influenced by his teacher's encounter with Renaissance and classical art in Italy. Here the scene is placed, not against a gold background, but in a realistically portrayed room that opens on a landscape in the distance. The robust figures, shaped by bright light, are active and vital. Their sculptural presence is similar to that in Dürer's Madonna and Child nearby.

Saint Anne embraces her daughter Mary and holds Jesus as John the Baptist, by his gesture, repeats the Gospel exhortation "Behold the Lamb of God" (John 1.29). Saint Anne's popularity was stimulated by interest in Christ's human life and by growing acceptance of the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception, which freed her from original sin—notice the apple she holds jointly with her son. After Baldung's Strassburg home became a center of the Reformation, commissions for religious altars became scarce and he turned to secular subjects and to printmaking.

Hans Baldung Grien, German, 1484/1485 - 1545, Saint Anne with the Christ Child, the Virgin, and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1511, oil on hardboard transferred from panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.62

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This work and its companion, Saint Mary Cleophas and Her Family, also in the Gallery's collection, portray Jesus' extended family. According to the medieval Golden Legend, the Virgin's mother was married three times and bore two other daughters named Mary. These panels show the younger Marys with their own children, Jesus' cousins. Here Mary Salome is surrounded by her father, whose unusual hat identified Jews in medieval Europe; her husband; and her children saints James and John the Evangelist, the latter occupied with a book to remind viewers of his role as Gospel writer and the author of Revelations. The eagle was his traditional symbol.

This domestic and tranquil subject appealed to popular sentiment and to worshipers' personal identification with Christ and the saints. The panels probably flanked a sculpted centerpiece of painted and gilded figures, creating a crowded tableau that would have resembled real-life scenes from medieval passion plays, in which townspeople acted out events from the life of Christ.

In these paintings, with their tooled gold backgrounds and shallow space, Strigel returned to a Gothic sentiment that had largely been abandoned after the Reformation swept through Germany in the 1520s. More typical of this period are his portraits of Hans Roth and his wife, also in the Gallery's collection. This couple represents a new clientele: prosperous merchants and burghers. Her family, and perhaps his as well, had far-flung ventures in the New World and the spice trade.

Bernhard Strigel, German, 1460/1461 - 1528, Saint Mary Salome and Her Family, c. 1520/1528, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.89

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Cranach painted this woman and her husband (Portrait of a Man, also in the Gallery's collection) in the year Luther's German translation of the New Testament was first printed. Cranach was closely associated with the Reformation. Luther himself was the godfather of one of Cranach's children, and the artist painted Luther several times.

This couple's identity remains unknown. The lack of distracting details such as jewelry or elaborate embroidery and the featureless green backgrounds focus attention on their faces, which are naturalistic likenesses.

What is striking though not unusual about their portrayal is the way the man's portrait is dominant. He is much larger, and his shoulders extend beyond the frame of the painting, while hers is a smaller, less imposing figure. Her pale face seems drawn in comparison to his ruddy complexion. The opposing turn of their heads indicates that he occupied the place of honor on the left side. It is likely that the portraits were intended to flank a window: notice how the shadows are cast in opposite directions and how the reflections of window panes can be seen in their eyes. (In Strigel's portraits of Hans Roth and his wife, the couple's equal size and her placement on the left may indicate that they were commissioned by her family or when she received unusual honor on her birthday.)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, German, 1472 - 1553, Portrait of a Woman, 1522, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1959.9.2

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