CRANACH, Lucas the Elder
(b. 1472, Kronach, d. 1553, Weimar)

Portrait of Dr. Johannes Cuspinian (detail)

c. 1502
Oil on wood
Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur

The picture shows a detail of the upper right.

Behind Cuspinian there is an owl with prey in its talons being mobbed by a flock of birds; behind his wife on the right, an eagle and a swan (on its back) are locked in combat. As a humanist emblem, the owl was highly ambivalent, sometimes referring to the goddess Athena's (or Minerva's) wisdom, sometimes to its recalcitrant opposite: blind stupidity.

A figure, one so tiny as to be almost invisible, stands on a pinnacle of rock on the castle-topped mountain behind Cuspinian. Shown in an antique gesture of adoration, the figure prays to a star which Cranach has painted in real gold. The star is evidently supposed to represent the Epiphany in the teachings of the early Christian hymnic poet Clemens Prudentius, whose work demonstrably had a profound effect on Cuspinian. One can also interprets the figure as Orpheus, relating his position on the mountain to the Platonic notion of "furor poeticus", and to the mountain-cult which often accompanied the veneration of stars.