Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553) was a prolific German artist of the Early Northern Renaissance.
Cranach the Elder is best known for his portraits, both of German princes and those of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, whose cause he embraced with enthusiasm (he was also a close friend of Martin Luther). Despite his close relationship with the Protestant Reformation as well as the Catholic Church, he prolifically depicted the nude in art and some of his paintings had very strong erotic elements as well, at least compared to similar works of the time.
Many of his early nudes were with the classic "Adam and Eve" theme. He regularly used a more traditional Gothic style and is noted for the idealized proportions of his nudes, which are often characterized by small heads and high breasts and hips. As described by Richard Dorment of the Telegraph, "the anatomies and the proportions of Cranach's nudes are all wrong, and, when he gets them more or less right, as in his Adam and Eve, it is because he is copying them from Dürer." Not an entirely fair assessment since Dürer studied art in Italy, and so there is a strong Italian influence in his paintings. Cranach dabbled with the Southern style, though worked predominantly in a style that was popular with his clientèle in the North at the time. To say Cranach's proportions were "all wrong" would be the same as calling Michelangelo's David "all wrong" for its exaggerated extremities.
As well as Adam and Eve, Cranach depicted the nude in many of the classical mythological scenes, which were often commissioned by the wealthy merchants and aristocrats at the time.
During Cranach's lifetime, the Protestant Reformation brought large changes to the art of Northern Europe. Out of the many aspects of Catholicism the Protestants chose to reexamine was the second commandment:
"You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I The Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My Commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6 RSV)
Churches were filled with "graven images," everything from frescoes and oil paintings, to stained glass and sculptures. Many interpreted this commandment to mean that God had forbid imagery such as this, and that led to wide spread destruction throughout Germany of art in churches.
Martin Luther, although originally supporting this view, later preached in support of the arts claiming that if anyone revered art more than was deserved, the fault was with the viewer and not the art or artist. This, as well as Cranach's political and monetary influence in his later life, was probably what allowed him to use a stronger erotic element in his paintings than other artists of his time would dare.