Plague picture – Cranach

Based, like many of his religious images, on the late fifteenth century wood-cut tradition, this Cranach of around 1520 is now in Budapest. It featured in the recent exhibition in Burlington House. Here the artist combines three traditional elements into a theological meditation on the justice and mercy of God.
At the top of the canvas the Father sends his arrows of destruction on mankind below: the plague is a visitation of God’s righteousness on sinful humanity. The two images below mitigate, in their different ways, the savage retribution of the God of the Old Testament.

Jesus, here the Man of Sorrows, familiar from so many late medieval devotional prints, shows the marks of his wounds as he kneels on the instrument of our salvation, the wood of the cross.
Mary – the Madonna of Mercy – shields humanity from the Father’s wrath. Enfolded in her protection are kings and cardinals, rich and poor, male and female. All equally come under the Father’s judgement and are in need of the Madonna’s protection.

These three figures from an older iconography are placed in a landscape by which Cranach shows his familiarity with fashionable Italian models. But the painting as a whole owes everything to a thoroughly German tradition of devotional scenes intended to assist meditation and prayer in times of distress and suffering. It is a talisman against natural disaster, employing symbols well-known to the spectator.

The new art comes to the rescue of the old. What could have been merely formulaic is rendered poignant and immediate by the humanity of Cranach’s Christ, and the wistful tenderness of his Virgin.

Mark Stevens