The Bavarian Cranach mystery will soon be solved, here is how

Jul 17, 2023 | Authentications & attributions, Cutural Heritage, Discoveries, Restoration

Scientific analyses will once again be crucial in determining the authenticity of a painting.

A small town in Bavaria, along with its monastery and a painting preserved there, are the protagonists of this discovery.

We know that Bettbrun, despite having few inhabitants, had been a destination for pilgrims since 1125. The pilgrimages intensified after a fire in 1329 destroyed a chapel but spared the wooden image of Christ that was kept there. This small statue, already highly venerated, became a true attraction after this event, and a convent was even built around it.

In 1650, Augustinian Hermits settled here with the task of caring for the pilgrims who continued to arrive in large numbers. Probably even before the arrival of the friars, a pilgrim donated a painting depicting “Salvator Mundi” to the convent. After almost four centuries, in the early 2000s, art historian F. Fuchs noticed the inscription “LC 1570” on it.

It was known that the painting was precious, as its existence had been closely guarded by the townspeople and the parish priest. The painting was shown only upon request. However, the name of the artist had been lost.

Years passed, and the impetus for new research on the painting came with the arrival of a new chaplain who decided to make the painting more accessible. To ensure the suitability of the environment in which it would be displayed, the Bavarian Department of Monuments and Sites became involved and began to investigate the artwork scientifically. The style, figures, and date could potentially attribute it to Lucas Cranach the Younger.

Following the standard protocol for conservation and historical-artistic study, various investigations were conducted, including Infrared Reflectography and UV Fluorescence, X-ray analysis, analysis of the painting palette using XRF, and wood analysis.

An appropriate protocol was implemented for both conservation and scholarly studies, further enhanced by the ability to compare the diagnostic campaign conducted with the dedicated public database for Cranach and his workshop.

If the hypothesis is confirmed, the small Bavarian town would find itself with a fortune far more valuable than the wooden Christ that had been the attraction for centuries: an authentic painting by one of the most famous and sought-after German Renaissance painters, inheritor of a dynasty of painters that began with his grandfather and reached its peak with his father, Lucas Cranach the Elder, a friend of Martin Luther and a court painter for the Electors of Saxony.

Portrait of Cranach the Elder by Cranach the Young, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

The production of the dynasty, their studio, and their imitators have been extensively studied, thanks to the Cranach Digital Archive project, which allowed for in-depth scientific investigations on paintings owned by public and private collections, making the findings accessible to all through online publication.

This valuable tool could be profitably replicated for many other artists (Art-Test has done something similar for Sienese painting) and is continuously evolving. In 2023, an additional 110 paintings have been added to the database.

The published portion of the reflectography of the analyzed painting reveals an underdrawing with a rather rigid character, likely a transfer executed with carbon-based materials. The UV fluorescence image shows that the painting underwent previous conservative interventions. There are surface retouchings above the final varnish as well as beneath it. Restorers hope to find the “signature” of the Cranach family, the “winged serpent” emblem granted to Cranach the Elder in 1508, which served as a certificate of authenticity.

By comparing the database containing all the investigations carried out on other Cranach paintings and those from his workshop, similarities or differences in techniques between the recently discovered painting and those of certain authorship can be identified.

Unfortunately, the database does not include any other “Salvator Mundi” paintings, whether signed or from the workshop.

However, it allows for comparisons with other paintings produced around that time. For example, these two hands, details from paintings considered to be certainly autograph and created around 1570.

Detail from the reflectography of the portrait of Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg


Epitaph for Princess Agnes of Anhalt – Crucified Christ (with lots of wormholes)

What do you think?

Art-Test also used the database for the study of another possible Cranach painting. Just like with the Bavarian painting and the paintings that were part of the Cranach project, we conducted Reflectographic, X-ray, UV Fluorescence, and pigment analysis investigations.

The study continues thanks to the comparison with the images contained in the database. We will study all possible variations of underdrawings as well as analyze the support and painting palette. The first step has yielded encouraging results, and now it is time for a comparative investigation with the existing literature.

One step at a time, that’s our philosophy. Economically sustainable and, above all, effective diagnostic campaigns!

Emanuela Massa
Emanuela Massa