Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop, Saint Maurice

Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop, Saint Maurice, c. 1520–25, oil on linden, 137.2 x 39.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) A conversation with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven ZuckerExpand renaissance initiative logo

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. It’s a painting that should not be hanging by itself on a wall. It shows Saint Maurice, but it was originally part of a much larger altarpiece. It would have been just one of many panels.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:23] The altarpiece from which this painting comes was located in what is today Germany, in Halle. It was commissioned by a very famous cardinal, Albrecht of Brandenburg, who was the most important member of the Catholic church in the Holy Roman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] Albrecht amassed the largest collection of relics and reliquaries in Western Europe. He had hundreds and hundreds of relics.

[0:49] A relic is a physical remnant of a saintly figure, of a spiritual figure. It might be a body part, it could be the finger of a saint, or it might be a piece cloth, but an object that had great spiritual power, so much so that elaborate containers were built in honor of these sacred objects.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:08] The reason we mention that he had this impressive collection of relics — he had 8,200 relics — is that this painting is actually a representation of a life-size reliquary of Saint Maurice that was in the collection of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg.

Dr. Zucker: [1:23] The painting survives, but unfortunately the original reliquary does not. It was destroyed in a fire. This painting was produced before the destruction of the reliquary, although it’s important to note that it was painted probably from a watercolor made of the reliquary, not from the reliquary itself.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:41] Before the reliquary was destroyed, it and more than 300 other of these important reliquaries were actually painted in watercolor. So we still have that book that shows us what these reliquaries would have looked like.

[1:53] This painting is looking to that watercolor, and the reliquary was one of the most important in this collection because Saint Maurice was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire since the 10th century.

Dr. Zucker: [2:04] The Holy Roman Empire was a political entity in western and central Europe — basically, what is now Germany, Switzerland — and it was headed by the Holy Roman Emperor, who, at this time, was Charles V, who fashioned himself as the inheritor of the great medieval empire of Charlemagne.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:20] When this painting was produced, which is sometime around 1520, 1525, the idea of the Holy Roman Empire is important to keep in mind, as is a Catholic cardinal, because the Protestant Reformation has just happened.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] In 1517, Martin Luther posts the ninety-five theses on the castle church in Wittenberg and unleashes the Protestant Reformation, which will fracture the power of the Roman Catholic Church in western Europe.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:48] Something that Protestants do not agree with is the concept of a relic. That we have a painting here that is showing a copy of a relic is important in this context. That has actually [been] made even more complicated by the artist. Lucas Cranach the Elder is a very well-known artist of the German Renaissance, but he was also the artist of the Protestant Reformation.

Dr. Zucker: [3:10] He was a friend of Martin Luther’s. He painted Martin Luther’s portrait, yet here he is painting an extremely important saint. And one of the things that Luther finds problematic are the idea of saints themselves.

[3:22] We’re in this transitional moment, in this transitional place, but for all that, we haven’t even gotten to the single most interesting part in this painting, which is the subject, Saint Maurice, is represented as a Black African.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:36] Saint Maurice was a early Christian saint. He lived in the 3rd century, and he was actually born in Egypt. He was part of a Roman legion and he was martyred, he was killed along with some of his men, when he refused to kill Christians, and so he’s beheaded.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] That takes place in what is now Switzerland, a place that was then part of the Roman Empire.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:59] And Saint Maurice, as we mentioned earlier, became the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire in the 10th century, and it’s around that time that his cult or his veneration really begins to increase. Then in the 13th century, you begin to see transformations in the way that Saint Maurice is depicted.

[4:16] One of the earliest representations we have of him as a Black African comes from this area as well, and it’s a three-dimensional sculpture of him. From about the 13th century until about midway or the late 16th century, he’s shown as a Black African.

Dr. Zucker: [4:31] And here depicted with great nobility, wearing incredibly elaborate armor. In fact, armor that was modeled on the armor of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It’s a type of armor that’s known as field armor, and here you can see that it’s been highlighted with gold and with an extraordinary array of jewels.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:49] We’re able to date this armor to around 1500, 1510 because right at that moment, you have huge transformations in the style of the armor that we see, especially in the feet. Armor went from a pointed-toe shoe to a flat-toed shoe. This armor that is modeled after Charles V’s armor is in vogue at that time.

Dr. Zucker: [5:09] Look at the hat that he wears. It’s fringed with these lovingly-painted ostrich feathers, and he holds a banner on which you can just make out the edge of the emblem of the Holy Roman emperor…

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:20] The eagle, and we even see symbols of what look like the papal keys on the bottom of the banner as well. We also see a symbol of the Order of the Golden Fleece that’s just above the necklace and attached to his armor.

Dr. Zucker: [5:33] The Golden Fleece was an extremely prestigious order that was associated with chivalry and that had been formed in the 15th century.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:40] The church that this reliquary was in, we presume that this altarpiece would have been there as well. The patron saint of that church was also Saint Maurice, in addition to a couple of other saints, including Mary Magdalene.

[5:54] We have a lot of ways in which this painting is reminding us not only of the reliquary, but also of the patron of this church, also of the patron of the Holy Roman Empire, and the power of the Holy Roman Empire in many ways, which is referenced in the way that Saint Maurice is displayed here, very regal, very confident, very stately.

Dr. Zucker: [6:13] I want to pick up on that issue of power for just a moment, because it’s not just the power of the emperor that’s at stake here. The value of a relic was in its spiritual power.

[6:22] It’s interesting to think about in the 16th century, when this was painted, whether or not a depiction of a relic was imbued, at least to some extent, with the power of the original.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:32] Something that is so important here as well is to remember that there were many different peoples living in Renaissance Europe at the time. Here we have Saint Maurice, born in Thebes in Egypt, who is displayed as a Black African.

[6:46] There were many peoples from Africa or of African descent who were living in Europe, and so it would not have been out of the ordinary or strange to see people of color in the Renaissance.

Dr. Zucker: [6:59] Scholars have conjectured that people of color were commonly part of the courts of Europe, and so occupied privileged positions in the political hierarchy of Europe.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:08] Unfortunately, by the later 16th century, a process of whitewashing occurred, and Saint Maurice is actually then displayed as white. There is this dynamic that shifts in the context of the 16th century, where the issue of what we call “race” does seem to matter and become important in the later 16th century.

Dr. Zucker: [7:26] It’s interesting to think about that dynamic in relationship to Europe’s colonial expansion during this period. European powers are asserting themselves in the Americas and increasingly in Asia and in Africa.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:38] I think it’s also important to keep in mind that when Saint Maurice is being shown as a Black African, it’s at that same time where you also have one of the magi, Balthazar, being shown as a Black African as well.

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Read about this painting on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website

Learn more about an exhibition at The Met that framed this painting

Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art on the Google Art Project

Joaneath Spicer, ed., Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe (Baltimore: The Walters Museum, 2013)

Maryan Ainsworth, Sandra Hindriks, and Pierre Terjanian, “Lucas Cranach’s Saint Maurice,The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 72, no. 4 (Spring, 2015)

T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, eds., Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, Cambridge, 2005

Erin Kathleen Rowe, Black Saints in Early Modern Global Catholicism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Lucas Cranach the Elder and workshop, Saint Maurice," in Smarthistory, December 8, 2020, accessed May 24, 2024,