Lucas Cranach the Elder was one of the most important artists of the German Renaissance together with Albrecht Dürer. Associated with the ideas of the Protestant Reformation he nonetheless worked for Catholic clients and his output includes religious compositions, portraits and prints. These four panels were part of a triptych whose central image is now lost. The exterior left wing depicts Saint Christopher with the Christ Child on his shoulders and a tree trunk that he uses to wade the river. The right wing depicts Saint George in armour standing on the dragon that he has defeated. Both saints look out at the viewer, capturing our attention. The inside left wing depicts Saint Elizabeth reading, with Duke George of Saxony in the lower part, while the right interior wing has Saint Anne with her hands crossed on her breast, accompanied by Duchess Barbara of Saxony. The two donors are shown kneeling with their hands joined in prayer and their bodies outlined against the dark background of the wall that separates them from the accompanying saints. Isolde Lübbeke considered that the striking difference in proportion between the Duke and Duchess and the saints reflected the patron’s instructions. The panels are considered to have been painted after Cranach’s trip to the Low Countries due to the way the figures are modelled and the nature of the composition.
On the exterior wings Cranach depicted Saint Christopher and Saint George against a dark background. Their gazes capture the viewer’s attention, as do their measured poses, which determine the composition. Saint Christopher, patron saint of sudden death, carries the Christ Child on one shoulder. Looking out at the viewer, the Infant Christ holds onto a lock of the giant’s hair and blesses with his other hand. As is traditional in depictions of this saint, Christopher uses a large branch to help him ford the river. Saint George wears his traditional knight’s armour and stands on the dragon’s back with his sword unsheathed, holding the beast by the tail. Cranach gave the saint a discreet halo that glows over his head.
The inner wings depict the monumental figures of Saint Elizabeth and Saint Anne against a graduated background of sky, while the lower parts contain figures of the donors, George, Duke of Saxony and his wife, the Duchess Barbara. Kneeling on the ground and in prayer, they are set against dark, flat backgrounds with stepped elements that are abruptly inset into the main compositions in an odd way. Friedländer and Rosenberg’s monograph on Cranach suggested that these figures might have been added later around 1518 in comparison to 1508 for the rest of the work. These authors also noted that the scale of the figures conforms more to Gothic models than to early 16th-century painting. For this reason the panels were the subject of a technical study with the aim of establishing whether or not the two donors figures were added later. The results, which were published by Isolde Lübbeke, established the fact that the pigments and medium used for the two female saints and the donors were the same. In addition, the clothes of the saints were only finished in a few areas and the rest of the composition was left unfinished. This information, as well as the notable technical and stylistic similarity between all the figures, led Lübbeke to consider that these panels were one, unified work, painted at the same time. The difference in proportion between the saints and donors must thus respond to a personal decision on the part of client who commissioned the work.
This was not the only occasion on which Cranach depicted the Duke and Duchess of Saxony as donors. In Meissen Cathedral there is a triptych whose central panel depicts Christ as the Man of Sorrows. The lateral panels depict an older Duke and Duchess in prayer, flanked by pairs of saints. Various portraits of Barbara of Saxony have also survived by Cranach and his workshop, such as the version in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, which is directly inspired by the present image. If we compare the two, the only significant change visible is that of the position of the hands.
Among the various suggestions as to what would have been the central panel of this now dismembered altarpiece is that of the lost Galluzzo Madonna of 1515. That Virgin in a landscape with the Christ Child and Saint John the Baptist would establish a logical connection with the present panels in terms of iconography. The rounded faces and soft model have led these panels to be dated to the years following Cranach’s visit to the Low Countries. Characteristic of his style is the masterful way of depicting transparent, gauzy materials such as Saint Elizabeth’s ruff and Saint Anne’s delicate veil.