Was Lucas Cranach’s ‘Werewolf’ really a Depiction of a Werewolf?

Keywords: Werewolf, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), vagrants, criminals, wilderness

The single-leaf woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), commonly entitled Werewolf (c.1510-1512), encapsulated the fears surrounding people who resided in the land of the wolf. The print portrays a disheveled man with torn clothes, shoeless, and unkempt hair on all limbs. He appears to have lost control and his humanity in a murderous rampage with torn-up bodies that surrounds him and a baby clutched in his jaws. The tears in his trousers exposing his knees suggest that he has been crawling around the forests for some time, succumbing to hunger and madness. The sense of remoteness was illustrated by the city and castle perched on a hill in the distance. While Cranach’s print has been contextualised within the mythology of the werewolf it has also not been understood in the history of the criminal and the insane who were banished from the urban centres before the establishment of modern penitentiaries and workhouses (Coy, 2008, pp. 1-2, 9; Foucault, 2001, pp. 6, 7).

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Werewolf,  c.1510-1512,
Single-leaf woodcut,
16.1 x 12.5 cm,
London, British Museum.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Despite crawling on all fours in an animalistic way, the only discernible characteristic that Cranach’s murderous man was a portrait of a werewolf is the thick hair on his back revealed from a tear in his shirt. The thick hair is at least suggestive that the man is not quite wholly human. His hands appear slightly distorted as if they were morphing into paws (Davidson, 2012, p. 165). This could be explained, however, by the difficulty in representing hands, especially in the artistry of woodcutting. One need only look at the hands of the deceased body parts and the remaining living figures to support this. While there were accounts of werewolves during the fifteenth century in the German-speaking areas of current-day Switzerland, they were not common in Germany until the late sixteenth century. Furthermore, the representation of the two Saxon coat-of-arms at the top of the print resembles Cranach’s home of Saxony where there were no reports of werewolves. Therefore, it is not clear whether the artist intended for the murderous man to represent a werewolf but instead that of a criminal vagrant.

In the age of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, city-states persecuted socially undesirable groups to create an ideal Christian state (Stuart, 2006, p. 18). Begging and vagrancy became a crime in and of itself and a threat to the stability of society. Beggars would be arrested and found themselves cast beyond the walled cities like other criminals. Württemberg arrested people for ‘suspicious wandering’ from 1495 (Jütte, 1994, pp. 146-47). Augsburg outlawed begging in 1522, and Nuremberg and Strasbourg followed in 1523 (Kamen, 2005, p. 180). Poverty placed a financial burden on cities. However, the poor were also thought to be of low morale and were assumed to be involved in criminal activity such as stealing and cheating (Jütte, 1994, p. 158).

The change in the perception of the poor came at a time when the handling of poor relief shifted from the Churches to secular institutions. There was no longer the indiscriminate handling of the poor, but a division created between the deserving and non-deserving, which was reinforced by Martin Luther (Boes, 2013, pp. 7, 8). The idea that one’s occupation was in service of God, now commonly known as the Protestant Ethic, further reinforced the division between the poor (Macarov, 1995, p. 184). As a result, the poor were regarded with greater suspicion. The resentment towards vagrants and other outgroups can be paralleled with the perception of parasitic wolves, stealing livestock for food (Arnds, 2015, p. 5). Cranach’s depiction of the dishevelled murderous man on the fringes appears to, in part, reflect the period’s anxieties of criminal vagrants.

The image of the crazed man and the carnage surrounding him contrasts with the peaceful image of a swan on the lake in the background unaware of its deadly surroundings. The artist suggests that the beauty of the forest beholds hidden dangers and evil. This woodcut illustrates that one of the threats of the wilderness was not just wild animals, but wild people. It recalls the Latin proverb homo homini lupus ‘man is wolf to man.’ The proverb has been interpreted as a man without civilisation, is a man without peace (friedlos) (Derrida, 2011, p. 11). The man, a poor rural rustic living on the fringes of society, is also used to represent insanity and criminality. He appears to have rejected civil society, and for this reason he has been reduced to a primitive and animalistic state.

The print by Lucas Cranach is exceptional in the context of canine-human hybrid motif in that it is a single-leaf print with no accompanying text to elucidate its intended meaning. The mystery of the man’s character contributes to the print’s appeal, leading its viewing audience to decipher the intended meaning and the nature of the protagonist. It encapsulates the fear of what lurked in the forest: the peasant rustic, the exiled criminal, the lunatic, and transformative powers of the werewolf. In this fashion, the print appears to serve as an allegory, encompassing all of the above themes. The small print was likely a collectors’ item, and therefore its audience was unlikely the peasants that Cranach portrayed. As a result, the print ‘othered’ the countryside and its inhabitants, conflating the lower echelons of society with animalistic and primitive characteristics. Hence, Cranach took the theme of the city’s civilising influence and exposed those who lived on the fringes of German society, without the pretence of a moralising lesson.


Arnds, Peter, Lycanthropy in German Literature, Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Boes, Maria R. Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany: Courts and Adjudicatory Practices in Frankfurt am Main, 1562-1696, Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013.

Coy, Jason Philip, Strangers and Misfits: Banishment, Social Control, and Authority in Early Modern Germany, Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Davidson, Jane, Early Modern Supernatural: The Dark Side of European Culture, 1400-1700, Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012.

Derrida, Jacques, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol 1, ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud, trans. Geoffrey Bennington, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Jütte, Robert, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Kamen, Henry, Early Modern European Society, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Foucault, Michel, Madness and Civilization: A History of in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard, London: Routledge, 2001.

Macarov, David, Social Welfare: Structure and Practice, Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 1995.

Stuart, Kathy, Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts: Honor and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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