Archive for February 16th, 2020

Unknown Cranach work found in Rylands Library

Sunday, February 16th, 2020

A previously unknown work by the workshop of renowned Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Younger has been identified in the collection of the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. It is catalogued under the non-descript name of German MS 2. There was no information about it in the book itself. The title page dubbed the volume “Deutsches Stammbuch” (German Genealogies) and dated it 1565. The back cover had the initials P.T. stamped on it.

Dr. Ben Pope of the University of Tübingen realized it was not a genealogy, but rather an armorial, a collection of coats of arms of German noble families, and a splendid one at that at that. It contains more than 1,800 coats of arms from the aristocracy and nobility of the Holy Roman Empire hand-painted in brilliant color and fine detail. He was able to trace its origins to mid-16th century Saxony, right to the top of it, in fact. From correspondence in the state archives in Dresden, Pope learned that in 1565 August, Elector of Saxony, commissioned Lucas Cranach the Younger to make a faithful copy of a ca. 1500 armorial that had belonged to Lucas’ father Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Armorials were essential sources for artists needed to reproduce the arms of noble patrons in their commissions. The earlier armorial was used in the Cranach’s Wittenberg workshop as a reference. August wanted a complete, faithful copy of the armorial and any other coats of arms the Younger might be able to add to the collection. The Elector gave detailed instructions to Cranach, all of which have been followed in the manuscript, and the coat of arms of Saxony is particularly stunning.

As was typical of armorials from southern Germany, this one opens with coats of arms of historic figures, towns and churches representing the idealized virtues and socio-political structure of the Empire. The arms of imperial princely and noble families follow. The arms of private societies formed by lower nobles are also included, and this is rare as they have only been found in four armorials.

Despite its Saxon origin, the armorial has a particular connection to the imperial house of Habsburg. It includes an illustration of the Romreich, the imperial herald, the arms of Emperor Frederick III, those of his son Maximilian, and those of Maximilian’s second wife Bianca Maria Sforza.

Bianca Maria’s arms fill the first page of the Cranach copy, and there is good reason to think that she was at the heart of the original armorial too, as her arms are followed by those of thirty-nine princely ladies of the Empire. This unusual collection of women’s arms depicts individuals living in 1499/1500 and is thus both an integral part of the original material and a clear statement of Bianca Maria’s status as the highest ranking woman in the Empire. This section’s presentation in Rylands German 2 suggests that Bianca Maria is the head of a separate ‘province’, a parallel Empire of women.

Rylands German 2 thus offers insights into a sixteenth-century prince’s heraldic interests and artistic patronage; an artist’s use of heraldic materials in his workshop; the south German armorial tradition of the fifteenth century; and the heraldic and artistic programme of the Habsburg court in the reign of Maximilian. It depicts an Empire of regions dominated by certain princes: some of these regions can be understood as the ‘territory’ of the prince at their head, but others are regional communities connected through the princes to the imperial centre. At this centre we find, surprisingly, not Maximilian, but his often overlooked second wife, Bianca Maria Sforza. This gives cause to reappraise not only her queenship, but also the wider relationship between women and heraldry in the later Middle Ages.

Mark your calendars because starting February 18th, Dr. Pope’s article detailing all of his research into German MS 2 published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library will be available for free, but only until the February 24th. The manuscript will go on display for the first time in its existence next month. German MS 2 has been digitized so if you can’t make it to Manchester, you can up close and high-definition personal with every page of it online.

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