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German Painting and Sculpture in the Late 1400s and 1500s



The early sixteenth century saw a great flowering of German culture as artists in several different regions either absorbed Renaissance naturalism or continued to develop the emotional qualities of Gothic painting from the Middle Ages. Scientific inquiry and spiritual mysticism coexisted. Despite their variety, the paintings and sculpture in this tour are united by an attention to minute detail and technical expertise.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, German, 1472 - 1553, A Prince of Saxony, c. 1517, oil on panel, Ralph and Mary Booth Collection, 1947.6.1

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Unique in northern Renaissance art, this secular altarpiece combines themes from Christianity and classical mythology. In the central panel, The Fall of Man, the figures in the Garden of Eden reinterpret the design of Albrecht Dürer's 1504 engraving Adam and Eve. The flanking side panels depict chaos unleashed by two pagan deities. According to medieval concepts of science, a human being's constitution was composed of the Four Humors, or fluids, which were held in balance before the Fall. After the sin of Adam and Eve, individuals came to be dominated by a single humor that determined their temperament. The unruly crowds in the two side panels demonstrate personalities distorted by excessive influences from Bacchus, god of wine, and Mars, god of war. Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480/1488-1538) often dealt with man's relationship to nature, and this unusual work was produced under his influence.

Workshop of Albrecht Altdorfer, German, 1480 or before - 1538, The Rule of Bacchus [left panel], c. 1535, oil on hardboard transferred from panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.31.a

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A pseudoclassical legend proposed that a statue of a nymph was found on the banks of the Danube River. Cranach portrayed the nymph as a seductive German woman resting on her bundled gown. Her nudity is emphasized by her jewels and filmy veils. A Latin inscription warns, "I am the nymph of the sacred spring. Do not disturb my sleep. I am resting." Coyly, however, this nymph peers through half-open eyes. Her bow and quiver of arrows are attributes of Diana, the mythological goddess of the hunt, who also symbolizes chastity. The game birds could refer to Diana or to Venus, the goddess of erotic love. Thus the subject is tantalizingly ambiguous.

For his courtly patrons, Cranach provided several versions of this provocative theme. On the rock above the spring is the artist's device, a winged serpent. In 1508 the Saxon duke ennobled Cranach, who thereafter often signed his paintings with a flying-serpent motif.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, German, 1472 - 1553, The Nymph of the Spring, after 1537, oil on panel, Gift of Clarence Y. Palitz, 1957.12.1

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Cranach, court painter to the dukes of Saxony, employed a highly sophisticated, stylized manner, evident here in the rich coloring and decorative folds of Mary's elaborate garments. On his knee Jesus balances an apple, symbolizing the Forbidden Fruit and implying that Christ will redeem humanity. He eats a grape from the bunch offered by his mother. These grapes and the glass on the parapet refer to the eucharistic wine of the Last Supper.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, German, 1472 - 1553, Madonna and Child, probably c. 1535, or after oil on panel, Gift of Adolph Caspar Miller, 1953.3.1

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Men hanging on three, rough-hewn, grayish-brown wooden crosses on a low, stony hill with a man on horseback at their feet fill this vertical painting. All the people have pale skin and the crucified men all wear white loincloths wrapped around their hips. The man on the central cross, Jesus, has a close-cropped beard and a ring of thorns around his scraggly, reddish-brown hair. His head tilts to our left and his eyes roll up under knit brows, his mouth slack. His long loincloth swirls in the wind on either side of his knees. Each hand is nailed to the cross and his overlapping feet are nailed with a third. The letters “INRI” are inscribed on a strip of paper above the cross. The men on the other crosses have more tanned, swarthier skin and the crosses are angled to face Jesus. Both have reddish beards and short hair, and their loincloths are tightly tied. The man to our left has a lean build and looks at Jesus so is seen in profile. The man to our right turns his head away, to face us, and has a heavier build. At the foot of the central cross, the silvery-gray horse faces our right in profile as it rears off its front legs. The rider wears pewter-gray armor with a ruby-red, wide-brimmed hat with a ring of puffy, white feathers along its edge. The rider has short, flax-colored hair and a trimmed beard. He looks up at Jesus with mouth open and raises his right hand, with the first two fingers raised. Pleated red fabric hangs from his right hip and the gold hilt of a sword hangs off the opposite hip. The hill is lunar-gray and scattered with stones. The sky behind the hill and crosses deepens from buttercup yellow along the hill to marigold orange, blush pink, and indigo blue. The top half of the sky is filled with heavy, roiling, steel-gray clouds. A line of text painted with pale yellow is placed near the horseman’s mouth, and it reads, “WARLICH DISER MENSCH IST GOTES SVN GEWEST.” A second line of text appears near the top center, over Jesus’s cross: “VATER IN DEIN HET BEFIL ICH MEIN GAIST.”

On a barren hilltop, silhouetted against a glowing horizon and fiery sky, Jesus utters his dying words, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" Cranach literally spelled out this statement in the air. The mounted Roman soldier recognizes Jesus' divinity with the phrase "Truly this man was the Son of God!" The centurion wears armor and a plumed hat fashionable in Renaissance Germany. Cranach was closely associated with Martin Luther and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. The artist and the cleric were friends, and both lived in Wittenberg. By 1522, Luther had translated the Bible's New Testament into German so that it would be accessible to lay readers. Significantly, the words of Jesus and the centurion are here written in German, not the traditional Latin of the Catholic Church.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, German, 1472 - 1553, The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion, 1536, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.69

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Painter, printmaker, and author of books on perspective, anatomy, and fortifications, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg is one of the most important figures in the history of art. Both the subject and style of this panel demonstrate the complexity of his genius. The Madonna and Child reveals Netherlandish concepts in portraying a corner of a room with a landscape view beyond the window. Mary's sculptural form and the contrast of her clear blue robes against a red drapery show the Italian influence of Giovanni Bellini, whom Dürer met on two trips to Venice. Jesus' squirming posture and the attention to textures are typically German in taste. The coat of arms in the lower left corner is that of the prominent Haller family of Nuremberg, patrons and friends of the artist.

In contrast to the careful finish of the panel's front, the painting on the reverse is rendered with broad, fluid strokes of the brush. Lot and His Daughters is the first known depiction in a panel painting of this story from Genesis. When God destroyed the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, He spared the family of the righteous Lot. Lot's wife, who disobeyed and looked back, is shown on the mountain path, having been turned into a pillar of salt. The images on the two sides of this panel might be linked by the idea of salvation.

Albrecht Dürer, German, 1471 - 1528, Madonna and Child [obverse], c. 1496/1499, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.16.a

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This Catholic cleric may be Johann Dorsch, who was to become the Protestant pastor of Dürer's parish church in Nuremberg. Dürer's incredible observation of nature is evident in the man's eyes, which reveal multiple reflections from the window he faced while posing. Albrecht Dürer signed the work with his AD monogram and dated it 1516. The portrait is one of a number of paintings on parchment made by the artist at about the same time. The parchment gives the paint surface a fine, smooth quality that, in this case, has been somewhat disturbed by the weave of the canvas to which it was later attached.

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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Three pale-skinned people stand around a cross from which hangs the twisted and bloodied body of a nearly nude man, Jesus, set in a dark, rocky landscape in this vertical painting. Jesus wears a ring of spiky thorns on his head and a white loincloth encircles his waist. His white skin is tinted green and covered all over with short red gashes. His body hangs heavily from his hands, which are nailed to the cross so his arms make a shallow Y shape. His head hangs down, and his eyes and mouth are open. His feet coil around a nail near the base of the cross. A man wearing a crimson red garment under a pale blue and pink robe stands to our right facing the cross. He has blond hair, white skin, red rings around his eyes, and his fingers are tightly interlaced and twisted in an exaggerated prayer. One woman stands to our left, wearing a teal and brown robe that covers her bowed head. She gazes down beyond her clasped hands and her mouth is downturned. A second woman wearing an ash-purple garment over a raspberry pink robe kneels at the cross to our left. She holds her hands up at her chest as she looks up at the person on the cross, her mouth open wide. Rocky outcroppings rise along either side of the painting in the landscape, and a house is seen at the center beyond the cross. A dark disc covers a small bright moon in the dark blue, nighttime sky.

Grünewald's work is characterized by mystical power and a highly personal use of radiant colors and distorted forms. Here Jesus' body festers in a gruesome depiction of suffering. The Virgin Mary weeps; Mary Magdalene falls to the earth; and the grief-stricken John the Evangelist bends his wrists at a painful angle. The unusual light effect intensifies the emotional impact and illustrates the biblical account of Christ's death: "and there was a darkness over all the earth." In fact, a solar eclipse occurred over Germany on October 1, 1502, and the artist, with a Renaissance interest in natural phenomena, may have recorded it in the shrouded sun seen at the upper right.

In his famous Isenheim Altarpiece, commissioned by a German monastery, Grünewald used a variant of this expressive composition. The only Grünewald painting in America, The Small Crucifixion bears a traditional title, first given to it in the seventeenth century to distinguish this private devotional work from the monumental altarpiece.

Matthias Grünewald, German, c. 1475/1480 - 1528, The Small Crucifixion, c. 1511/1520, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.19

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Shown from the waist up, a middle-aged, cleanshaven man wearing a black cap, a voluminous fur-lined, black cloak, and a garment with wheat-gold-and-black sleeves is positioned behind a crimson-red ledge or tabletop in this vertical portrait painting. His head and torso nearly fills the composition. His body is angled to our left and he looks off in that direction with dark brown eyes under faint eyebrows. His high cheeks, closed lips, and pointed nose are a rosy, peach color, and he has the faint hint of a five o-clock shadow. His soft black cap has flaps that cover his ears. The wide, fur lapels of his black cloak nearly reach his shoulders. The sleeves of the garment beneath has a tight, tan-and-black checked pattern, and a white undershirt peeks out at his neck and cuffs. A cross hanging from a heavy gold chain has black pearls in the cross of each arm and a teardrop-shaped black pearl hangs from the bottom. The cross appears to be painted with a hand on each short arm, two feet on the long leg, and a red circle at the center. The sitter’s left hand, on our right, rests on the red surface holding a pair of gloves that are ivory around the wrist and charcoal gray at the fingers. His right hand, father from us, rests in a loose fist near his other wrist. A folded piece of white paper with black writing lays to our left of the hands. It reads, “NVNQVID NON PAVCITAS DIERVM MEORVM FINIETVR BREVIS.” The background behind the man is mottled with rust-brown and steel-gray. Gold writing spans the background to either side of the man’s head, reading, “BRIANVS TVKS, MILES, ANO ETATIS EVAE LVII” along the top and “DROIT ET AVANT” across the center.

This portrait, with its meticulous rendering of the fur collar and cloth-of-gold sleeves, was painted during Holbein's first stay in England in 1526-1528. Sir Brian Tuke was one of those rare persons who was comfortable in the worlds of both scholarship and government. He served Henry VIII as Master of the Posts and as treasurer and secretary to the royal household, but he was also an intimate of the literary, intellectual circle around Sir Thomas More. Holbein portrayed Tuke with impartial accuracy yet also managed to convey a gentle melancholy in the unfocused gaze and wan smile. Tuke's name, age of fifty-seven, and personal motto, "Upright and Forward," bracket his head. He points to a paper with a quotation from the Book of Job: "Are not the days of my life few?"

Hans Holbein the Younger, German, 1497/1498 - 1543, Sir Brian Tuke, c. 1527/1528 or c. 1532/1534, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.65

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During his second period in England, from 1532 until his death in 1543, Holbein became court painter to Henry VIII. This portrait of Henry's much desired heir is presumably the one Holbein presented to the king as a New Year's gift in 1539. The prince, born on October 12, 1537, was the son of Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour. The Latin inscription, written by the poet Sir Richard Morison, exhorts the boy to imitate the virtues of his royal father.

Holbein simultaneously indicated the subject's childhood innocence and regal power. Edward holds a baby rattle as though it were a monarch's scepter, and he waves with an open hand, a gesture implying generosity to his people.

Hans Holbein the Younger, German, 1497/1498 - 1543, Edward VI as a Child, probably 1538, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.64

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Schäufelein worked in Albrecht Dürer's shop from about 1503 to 1507. This powerful head suggests a young artist's efforts to emulate the master's analytical approach to facial structure and expression. The Dürer monogram is a later addition, as is the date 1507, but the year is consistent with Schäufelein's stylistic development and the sitter's costume.

Hans Leonard Schäufelein, German, c. 1480/1485 - 1538/1540, Portrait of a Man, c. 1507, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.66

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This man, in an elegant black damask robe and embroidered cuffs and collar, can be identified by a coat of arms on the painting's reverse side. He belonged to a wealthy family from a town east of Munich. Mielich's dramatic landscape setting reveals the influence of Albrecht Altdorfer.

Hans Mielich, German, 1516 - 1573, A Member of the Fröschl Family, c. 1539/1540, oil on panel, Gift of David Edward Finley and Margaret Eustis Finley, 1984.66.1

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A major German sculptor and also a high town official of Würzburg, Riemenschneider here portrayed a bishop presumed to be Burchard who was anointed Würzburg's first bishop in 741. The priest raises one gloved hand in benediction, while his other once held a pastoral staff. The fastener of his robe has been carved away to make room for a reliquary, formerly set inside the diamond-shaped hollow. The wood sculpture is similar to other busts that Riemenschneider carved for altars, tombs, and wall shrines. The sunken cheeks and furrowed brow masterfully convey the gaunt frailty of the careworn holy man. Traces of red pigment remain on the lips, and the black paint on the eyes shows the pupils diverging outward as though the bishop were experiencing a visionary trance.

Tilman Riemenschneider, German, c. 1460 - 1531, A Bishop Saint (Burchard of Würzburg?), c. 1515/1520, linden wood with traces of polychromy, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.1.1

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