Friedrich the Wise in Veneration of the Apocalyptical Mother of God
The Saxon Elector Friedrich III. (1463-1525), known as ‚the Wise‘, is one of the most interesting figures of early modern German history: educated and appreciative of art, power-conscious and peace-loving, unconventional and devout. He was the patron of the Reformation and remained faithful to the old faith. He was firmly focused both on this world and the next. Cranach’s painting in Karlsruhe gives expression to this awareness of ‚time and eternity‘ with an impressive pictorial metaphor.
Friedrich the Wise is depicted kneeling in front of a prayer stool. He wears rings on his fingers and his hands are folded in an attitude of prayer. He wears a shirt embroidered with pearls and a wide cloak with a fur-collar, puffed sleeves and gold decoration. The carefully kempt beard is also in keeping with contemporary male fashion as is the golden net bonnet. The personal patron of the praying prince, the apostle Batholomew , stands behind him. He is absorbed in the Holy Scriptures, which he holds in his hands, together with a knife, which recalls his terrible martyrdom: according to legend the King of Armenia had the missionary apostle flayed. Friedrich was proud that he had a piece of his facial skin in his reliquary.
More than half of the painting is occupied by a vision: the Mother of God appears before Friedrich‘s spiritual eye as the ‚apocalyptical woman‘ in accordance with the description in St John’s revelation: the Virgin stands on a crescent moon with the Child in her arms. She is ‘clothed with the sun’ – this is given expression by Cranach through the gilding with punched rays pointing in all directions – and wears a crown as befits the Queen of Heaven. She is identified as ‚domina angelorum‘ or Lady of the Angels by the circle of clouds around her, in which 25 putti romp.
Two spheres – a worldly and a transcendent-saintly – interpenetrate: the apostle has entered Friedrich’s devotional chamber, which is decorated with precious brocade. The knife – his attribute – and the prayer stool establish the link to the vision of the Virgin. The small chamber is filled with a surreal radiance and becomes infinite.
Friedrich the Wise was one of the most influential princes in the empire. In 1519 he assisted the young Habsburg Charles V. to become emperor. Soon afterwards he protected Luther and defied the pope. Here he appears very humble – kneeling before a higher power: the ‘regina coelorum’ and her son, the universal ruler. The elector displays his veneration both with seriousness and intimacy. However he does allow his court painter Cranach to depict the Christ Child turning towards him, almost reaching out to him. This gesture is underlined by the white cloth, which billows down towards the prince: Friedrich appears blessed he enjoys the protection and goodwill of Christ. The painting is as such – like Friedrich’s famous collection of relics – a testimony of faith and representation.