Lucas Cranach was born in 1472 and took his name from his birthplace, the Franconian town of Kronach, which was part of the bishopric of Bamberg. His father, Hans Maler, was an artist and it is assumed that he was Cranach's first teacher. Around 1501 Cranach traveled to Vienna where he stayed until at least 1504. In addition to several woodcuts which were strongly influenced by the graphic art of Albrecht Dürer, these years saw an outpouring of paintings of extraordinary quality.
Although the exact date of his appointment is not known, by April, 1505, Cranach was employed at the court of Friedrich the Wise, Elector of Saxony, at Wittenberg. The Venetian, Jacopo de' Barbari, was also at court from 1503 to 1505 and his art had a continuing influence upon Cranach. During this time Cranach supplied paintings, murals, and decorations for the various ducal residences at Wittenberg, Veste Coburg, Torgau, and elsewhere. The murals no longer survive, but the altarpiece of The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine monogrammed and dated 1506 contains views of the castle of Coburg and was most likely a ducal commission. In 1508, Cranach spent several months in the Netherlands, particularly Antwerp; in his Holy Kindred altarpiece, dated 1509, the women's kerchiefs are clearly Netherlandish and critics have seen the compositional and stylistic influence of Quentin Massys and Jan Gossaert.
Cranach headed a large workshp that included his sons Hans (c. 1513-1537) and Lucas the Younger (1515-1586) as well as numerous apprentices and journeymen. Well in excess of four hundred paintings have been assigned to Cranach and his atelier. The early works are often signed with the monogram LC, but in 1508 Duke Friedrich the Wise granted Cranach a coat-of-arms depicting a serpent with upright bat wings holding a ring in its mouth. The winged serpent probably had humanistic or hieroglyphic significance and could stand for Kronos, the Greek god of time, a pun on the artist's name in Latin as well as German. Cranach used this device of his paintings from 1508 onward. After 1534, however, the serpent's wings are those of a bird and shown folded. The new form is prevalent from 1537 onward and has been connected with the death of the artist's son Hans in 1537. The presence of the serpent with folded wings on paintings dated 1535 and 1536 undermines this somewhat romantic notion, but has been seen as an attempt by Cranach to distinguish the work of his sons.
Lucas Cranach is probably the artist most closely associated with the Protestant Reformation. He was a friend of Martin Luther who lived and taught in Wittenberg under the protection of the Electors of Saxony. Cranach and his shop produced great numbers of portraits of Luther, his wife and other Reformers, as well as depictions of such "Protestant" themes as Christ Blessing the Children and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. It should be remembered that the artist also worked for Luther's adversary, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg and in 1525 and 1527 depicted the Cardinal as Saint Jerome in indoor and outdoor settings. The range of subject matter in Cranach's paintings is, in fact, quite wide. In addition to religious works he produced a variety of mythological and secular subjects, probably intended for humanist or courtly patrons. Cranach was also an excellent portraitist.
For most of his life Cranach lived in Wittenberg in Saxony, and loyally served not only Friedrich the Wise, but his successors Johann the Steadfast and Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous. Numerous documents testify to Cranach's industry and prosperity. As one of the leading citizens of Wittenberg he owned several houses, as apothecary, a publishing firm that specialized in Reformation literature, and on several occasions served on the city council and as burgomaster. In 1547 when Johann Friedrich was taken prisoner by Charles V, Cranach joined him in exile in Augsburg and Innsbruck, and in 1552 followed him to Weimar where Johann Friedrich re-established the Saxon court. Lucas Cranach died in Weimar in 1553 at the age of eighty-one.