(Almost) Doubled: Jost Amman after Lucas Cranach

Left: Jost Amman, Drawing of St. Jerome after Lucas Cranach.
Right: Lucas Cranach, woodblock print of St. Jerome.

Jost Amman made his copy of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s print, The Penitent St. Jerome, at the very beginning of his artistic career. Scholars believe that Amman made this drawing when he was about 20, in the late 1550s. (The Met gives the date as “c. 1559.”) Amman was born in Zurich, to a family of humanist scholars, but he spent most of his career working in Nuremberg. Amman was an immensely prolific printmaker and illustrator, leaving behind an oeuvre of over 1,500 prints. One of Amman’s fascinating projects was the Book of Trades (or Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Staende auff Erden, sometimes called Das Ständebuch by modern scholars), published in 1568. It was a collaboration between Amman and the shoemaker Hans Sachs. Amman provided the illustrations, and Sachs wrote the text (a series of short verses describing the characteristics of each trade, see this example).

This drawing gives us a glimpse into Amman’s early artistic formation. The drawing is a remarkably faithful copy of Cranach’s print. Amman does his best, in pen and ink, to reproduce the distinctive line quality of a woodcut print. He uses this copy as an opportunity to study the way that Cranach described form and volume using a broad and expressive vocabulary of hatching and crosshatching. In his copy, he considers how Cranach defines the curve of a muscle or the swell of a tree trunk using sets of parallel curved lines.

Jost Amman, After Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Penitent St. Jerome, c. 1559
Pen and black and grey ink. Double framing line in pen and black ink, by the artist. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 2008 (2008.505)
Lucas Cranach the Elder, St Jerome, 1509. Woodcut print. he Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Felix M. Warburg and his family, 1941.

In both Amman’s drawing and Cranach’s print, the line does everything. So much depends on the line’s weight, its thickness, how it begins and ends, and — crucially — how it interacts with the white space of unmarked paper (whether it encloses it, crosses it, leaves it a void).

Equally telling are the moments when Amman’s copy escapes from the original, when Amman’s own hand takes over, and the copy departs from Cranach’s model. In some places, the difference is intentional. 1. Amman modifies the coats-of-arms in the upper left corner. In the Cranach print, the arms belong to the electors of Saxony. In Amman’s copy, he fills in one shield with his family’s coat of arms, and leaves the other shield blank. 2. In Cranach’s print, the pages of St. Jerome’s book are full of text. Amman replaces that print with St. Jerome’s name in Latin (SANT/IERO/NIMVS), and his own initials (IA) plus the letter Z, for Zurich. 3. Amman leaves the tablet on the lower left blank. It would originally have been filled with Cranach’s own monogram, and the date of the print. However, in the catalogue entry for the Met’s exhibition “Dürer and Beyond,” Joshua P. Waterman notes that in the drawing, the paper of the tablet is “abraded,” a state that “suggests its contents were erased by an overly scrupulous [drawing] owner who saw the references to Cranach’s authorship as somehow misleading.” If you look closely at the drawing, you can see that this person, in their efforts to erase what was written on the tablet, has also worn away some of the hatch marks around the tablet. Despite their best efforts, however, a ghostly residue of Amman’s copy of Cranach’s monogram remains.

Some of Amman’s deviations from Cranach’s original appear to be unconscious, or accidental. Some departures from the model occur where Amman loses himself to the pleasure of drawing in pen and ink, and departs from the exercise of trying to emulate the look, feel, and line quality of a woodcut.

You can really see that happening here, in the background, in Amman’s treatment of the tree branches and foliage:

Where Amman stops imitating the lines of a woodblock print and slips into the joy of drawing with pen and ink.

Other moments of deviation happen when Amman can’t quite master the technique necessary to make a convincing copy. His effort is palpable. Some of these details betray Amman’s inexperience (look at Jerome’s hands, also look at the awkwardness of the Christ figure’s draperies and halo, and Amman’s version of Christ’s face, so unconvincing). At this stage, Amman still has a lot to learn about rendering musculature and anatomy. Just look at his lion:

A cute but anatomically problematic lion, in Jost Amman’s version of St. Jerome.

Cranach might not be an expert on lion anatomy, either, but his version of Jerome’s lion suggests that he, at least, has bothered to look at a dog:

Cranach’s lion is clearly a large dog masquerading as an apex predator.

But Amman is young, still. He has time to learn, and improve, and settle into a long career. What can we glimpse, of the mature Amman, in this drawing by a young Amman? First, I think, the pleasure–and pride–that he takes in his draftsmanship, two things that are necessary for a long and prolific career as a printmaker and illustrator, whose life’s work will large depend on his ability–as well as desire–to keep drawing. And second, a work ethic — while copying after the masters was an essential part of any Renaissance or Early Modern artist’s education, there is something particularly tiresome–even exhausting–about making a drawn copy of a print. But it’s a form of drudgery necessary for anyone who wishes to work as a printmaker. And there will be moments–many, many moments–when a printmaker is called, to render on a block or plate, not a fascinating new invention of his very own, but a faithful rendering of someone else’s design. So a printmaker must be able to find joy, and fulfillment, in making after another’s hand, as well as making anew in his own.

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