Cranach’s Martryrdom of St. Barbara

In this painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder the artist represents himself as the evil man executing "his painting" of spiritual perfection, St. Barbara. Note how the lighting on the saint's figure differs from all else around her; she looks like a cut-out and, thus, "a painting". However, since every painter paints himself, she too must be an alter ego of the artist, as a saint. By representing the creative process as evil but the final painting as spiritually perfect, he depicts the endeavor as similar to the journey that all souls should take to reach inner perfection. (See The Inner Tradition.) In addition, by depicting himself in totality as both male and female (executioner and victim), the artist indicates that his mind is androgynous as all creative minds, and all spiritual minds, must be.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Cranach, Martyrdom of St. Barbara 

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To the right of the composition you will see half a "face" carved out of rock. It has never been seen before by art historians. The tip of the sword's blade is in the dark space where the "eye" would be, with "nose", "lips" and "chin" clearly carved below it. There is even a row of "six or seven teeth". The half-face formed from the rock of ages clearly indicates that the scene takes place in the mysterious and mythic darkness of Cranach's mind. In the early 1520's Cranach used the unrealistic row of teeth in the open mouth of this rock-face to depict Christ's head wearing a crown of thorns. Its later appearance confirms the existence of the rock-face here.

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Detail and diagram of the rock-face in Cranach's Martyrdom of St. Barbara

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Hidden rock ‘faces” like this have been seen by other art scholars in works by a number of Northern artists including Dürer, Joos van Gent, Martin Schongauer and Herri met de Bles.11 A similar rock-face with trees also growing from its “mind” can be seen here, at left, in a detail of a Lamentation in Brescia by Bernardo Zenale.

Although such “hidden” faces appear in literally hundreds of paintings since the early Renaissance, most remain unseen by art scholars. The reason why artists can see them but not art scholars is that scholars consistently believe, regardless of their methodology, that Renaissance artists painted nature as external reality and followed the wishes of a patron. Thus, not expecting metamorphic faces, they cannot see them. Artists, more imaginative than scholars, penetrate the external layer but say nothing.

See also Dante’s face in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and Dürer’s Rock-faces.

Captions for image(s) above:

Bernardo Zenale, Detail of Lamentation, Brescia

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Notes:

1. Felix Thürlemann, “L’aquarelle de Dürer (fenedier klawsen): La double mimesis dans l’analyse picturale d’un lieu géographique”, Revue de l’Art 137, Sept. 2002, pp. 9-18; Michel Weemans, “Herri met de Bles’s Sleeping Peddler: An Exegetical and Anthropomorphic Landscape”, Art Bulletin 88, Sept. 2006, pp. 459-81; Weemans, “Herri Met De Bles’s Way to Calvary: A Silenic Landscape”, Art History 32, April 2009, pp. 307-31

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