Lucas was born in Franconian Kronach, probably in 1473, as the son of the painter Hans. He later named himself Lucas Cranach in reference to the name of his home town. He was trained as a painter in keeping with his father’s trade. He travelled to many places as a journeyman, including Vienna in 1501. Cranach received the sought-after appointment as court painter to Frederick III (the Wise) in 1505 and continued to serve Frederick’s successors until his own death in 1553. On behalf of the electors, he created portraits of the princely family, woodcuts of the hunt and of tournaments, designed court dress, and decorated the rooms of the Saxon palaces.
A versatile businessman and mayor of Wittenberg
He relocated his studio to a house on Wittenberg’s marketplace around 1511 and began to create more work for other European rulers. His altarpieces, portraits, and woodcuts were extremely popular. His nudes – depictions of Adam and Eve, Lucretia, or Venus – sold particularly well. Cranach was a good businessman and wasted no time in his search for additional sources of income. He received a monopoly as apothecary of Wittenberg in 1520. At various times, he operated the town hall’s basement tavern (Ratskeller) and a printers’ workshop as well as working as a publisher, wine merchant, and landlord. In this way, he became one of Wittenberg's wealthiest and most influential citizens. He was elected treasurer and also mayor of Wittenberg multiple times.
Painter of the Reformation
Despite a great number of secular images, Cranach is known today primarily as the ‘painter of the Reformation’. He painted portraits of many of Wittenberg's Protestant reformers and illustrated their writings; the so-called ‘September Testament’ (Martin Luther’s original translation of the New Testament) was produced in his printer’s workshop in 1522. The complete Luther Bible of 1534 was also provided with woodcuts by members of Cranach’s studio. In this way, the painter played a significant role in the Reformation’s success.
Close friendship with the Luther family
Cranach married Barbara Brengebier, the daughter of Gotha's mayor, in about 1512; they subsequently had five children together. The three daughters were married well and the surviving son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, was trained as his father's successor. Cranach was bound to Luther and his family by a close friendship. He was witness at Luther’s wedding and godfather to Luther’s first son, Johannes. Cranach was furthermore the only artist to portray Luther during his lifetime.
When the Saxon Elector John Frederick I (the Magnanimous) was captured during the Schmalkaldic War, Cranach followed him to Augsburg and then to Weimar, where the painter died on October 16, 1553.