The Study of Dress in European Paintings- Lucas Cranach the Elder

For our class of History Through the Nineteenth Century we were asked to analyze dress in a chosen painting from the 1400s to the 1800s with the aim to determine if the painter could be considered a valuable source for the study of fashion. You might remember my own research of the work of Rembrandt. Today we bring you the research of Landis Lee, on the work of German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Lucas Cranach the Elder

By Landis Lee

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes ca. 1530 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The artists  real name was Lucas Sunder or Lucas Maler and he attained the name of Cranach after his native town, Kronach.  Not much is known of the first 30 years of his life before the earliest pictures attributed to him show up. His early style was in the Gothic tradition and became softer with rounder lines.He painted religious images but he also completely stepped out of the religious sphere by painting more classical themes. In addition, he also made engravings, illustrations to Protestant teachings, and he became the picture-maker of the Reformation.

The painting Judith with the Head of Holofernes depicts the Old Testament story of Judith who lived in a town that Holofernes and his army besieged.  Holofernes had too much wine at a banquet and passed out and Judith beheaded him to save her city.

Judith is shown here with the severed head of Holofernes as an early 16th century fashionable German woman. Underneath her dress she is likely wearing a long linen chemise.  The chemise is showing through other parts of the dress; because it is visible through the laces on the stomach area, it is likely that no corset is being worn.  Judith is also likely wearing several layers of petticoats underneath her dress.

The dress is an example for the typical segmentation of the body of this period, achieved by segmented clothing.  The bodice has a panel, possibly made of velvet or silk, with a diamond design on it.  Other than the panel, the bodice is open except for laces showing the chemise underneath.  The sleeves are made of green velvet with piccadilles (slashed ends at the edge of a garment) around the shoulder, arm and wrist, as well as a gold and bronze silk with black embroidery or brocaded velvet.  The sleeves are made of two parts attached with laces and showing the sleeves of the chemise.  The skirt is made of the same green velvet as the sleeves.

Judith’s hat  is made of red velvet with big slashes and feathers tilted on the head.  One, or possiblly two necklaces made of metal, jewels and pearls are hanging from the bottom.  She also has the German- style metal chain around her shoulders.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Venus Standing in a Landscape, 1529 Musee du Louvre

Cranach’s nude entitled Venus Standing in a Landscape, is an example for the fashionable body of the period. The body is elongated with sloping shoulders, small breasts that are fairly far apart.  Cranach  emphasized  the rounded abdomen, giving the appearance of pregnancy- a desirable body image of that time. In relation to the torso, the legs and arms are long, and the color of the skin is very pale and marble-like. All of these features indicate that Cranach depicted fashionable body rather than a natural one.

Below is a painting done by Cranach from the 16th century showing three fashionably dressed German women.   They are each wearing style of dress similar to that worn by Judith, with small variations. Like Judith, they too have paneled bodice with laces, showing the chemise.  The dresses are made of velvet and possibly some embroidered silk. While the lady in the middle is wearing segmented sleeves (the chemise showing through at the elbow), the two other ladies are wearing one piece sleeves. In addition, the two women on the right also wear metal chains in German style.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Three Young Ladies, 16th C. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

When comparing the two paintings, it is clear that Judith resembles the woman in the middle. Since it was common for artists to use the same model for different paintings,  it could very well be the same woman sitting for both paintings.

On the left: Judith with the Head of Holofernes Ca. 1530 Cranach the Elder; on the right: Pordenone, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Ca. early 16th C, Private collection, Milan

The  painting of Judith with the head of Holofernes that was done by Giovanni Antonio Pordenone (Italian 1484-1539) is an example for the contrast between the German and Italian fashion of the same period.  The Italian Judith is wearing a dress of green velvet with large sleeves at the shoulder continuing down to the elbow where the sleeves are made of gold velvet with piccadilles.  The bodice of the Italian Judith goes down to the waist, ruffles around the wrists and the neckline.  Some similarities exist, like the soft pale skin and red hair, the square neckline, and of course the richness of the textiles. However, the body itself, and the way the clothes segment it, clearly illustrate that each artist depicted the fashionable dress and body of his native country.


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1 Response to The Study of Dress in European Paintings- Lucas Cranach the Elder

  1. Claudia says:

    It even seems to be the same hat on the head of the German Judith and the “Lady in the middle”, though both hats are mirror images of each other – weird, or one of the pictures has at one time been mirror-inverted during reproduction! But then, the lady on the right has a very similar hat on, so maybe this fanciful shape with its slashes, of which some overlap and some don’t, was as well-defined at the time as today’s (much uglier) baseball caps. Or do the slashes close where the rim is turned up, and open in a lowered position?

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