Giant Chains in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Paintings
April 23, 2012
One of the most fascinating Renaissance accessories I’ve come across is the giant Saxon German chains in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings. He was born in 1472 and painted until he died in 1553 at the ripe old age of 81. Informal, stylized, and often scandalous and scathing, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings captured the soul of his subjects, often revealing their character despite their best efforts to hide behind their wealth. The subjects of his paintings often wear sumptuously detailed gowns full of embroidery, pearls, pleats, slashed sleeves, and laces. Along with giant feathery hats, complex sleeves, and ring-revealing gloves, his constant use of chain necklaces became a fixture in almost all his works:
Be it small…
…with tons of jewels…
..or nothing else at all!
The two types of chain that are most prevalent are plain, perfectly round rings that Lucas Cranach the Elder paints lying completely flat:
And huge, twisty bangle chains that drape around the shoulders of his subjects like bangle-bracelet scarves:
Looking at a necklace that ornate and gargantuan brings to mind the question: “How heavy is that thing?!”After all, those wrist-sized links are definitely not made of lightweight plastic! Annika Madejska on her blog “Textile Time Travels” found this picture of a very similar chain at the city hall collections in Schmalkalden, Germany that may hold some clues:
Amazing! The chain links look very thin and are twisted just like the ones in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings, but the caption gives no clue to the material. The metal itself appears to have extruded ridges, maybe from a wheel. The material could be gold, but it’d have to be very thin gold since solid gold chains of this size would be very, very heavy and very, very rare (remember gold mining was still a by-hand operation and was affordable only to the richest). A more likely scenario is that it is gilded metal, like gold-covered silver or tin. Another possibility is bronze. Popular since ancient times, bronze is made by mixing tin and copper and was a popular and moderately priced metal that could be made into detailed, complex forms. Bronze would also explain the deep golden-brown color of the chains in the portraits. Annika even puts forth the idea that the chains could have been leather, but this example looks pretty metallic to me.
This chain has charms hanging all over it. The oldest and largest of the five pendants is a flared shield with three morbid figures on it for which the piece is named (Kette der Armbrustschützen roughly translates to The Chain of the Crossbow Marksmen). The first figure on the left wields a crossbow and is aiming his next shot at the middle figure who has already been shot (you can see the arrows in his neck, ribs, and legs). Standing with his fists jauntily on his hips, a 16th century knight stands to the right over heraldry-emblazoned shields, three of which dangle below. I believe the large central figure is Saint Sebastian who was martyred with arrows and is– somewhat ironically– the patron saint of soldiers. This chain could have been made for heavenly protection or as a medal for military service, since another pendant shows a soldier holding an early musket in his hands.
Cranach’s chains, however, do not have pendants on them, and the wooden “clasp” on the Kette der Armbrustschützen is a bit out of place. I think this chain once looked even more like the ones in Cranach’s portraits, but since such a huge piece of jewelry would be very valuable, the Kette der Armbrustschützen was probably handed down through the family and added to over the generations. The chain itself appears to be much older than the baubles. It looks like it was once longer or even open-ended instead of closing with the strange wood chip tied together with bell-tipped chains– the bells may be original, but I can’t tell from the photo. The other pendants were added willy-nilly over the years by punching holes in the chain.
The actual prevalence of the large, curled chains outside of Saxony or even the artist’s studio is unknown, but the round link chains were popular throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries and continued in popularity through the Baroque period, though at a more manageable scale, like in the above Italian portrait of Ludovico Sforza from a 1495 altarpiece and this Northern European bracelet from 1640:
As for the other style of chain, I haven’t been able to find much more information about the giant-chain-scarf look as a fashion movement beyond Cranach’s paintings. As a motif, however, he certainly did a great job of making it his personal trademark. Just like Andy Warhol’s Technicolor pop-art portraits, Lucas Cranach’s chained beauties are almost instantly recognizable as unique and unabashedly real!
(One last little tidbit: You will also notice that most of his subjects face the the left, so he was probably right-handed!)
As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!