Most people acquainted with the general thrust of the Reformation might perceive the title “Reformation Art” to be some sort of paradox. Well, my response to that is both, “Yep, you’re right,” and “Not exactly.” Without subjecting you to volumes upon volumes of the study of Reformation iconoclasm in all its destructive violence and aggression against the idolatry of image-veneration, Reformers’ arguments exposing the “idolatry” of the iconoclasts’ worship of their own perceived righteousness, the appropriation of Catholic cathedrals for Lutheran use, and the general upstaging of the image by the “word” (in terms of Christ, and Scripture, as well any form of language), allow me to display an interesting artifact of this paradoxical world.
You can view a picture here.
This is one of the panels of an altarpiece painted by Master Artist Lucas Cranach, Luther’s dear friend and business partner. It sits, to this day, above the altar of the Wittenberg church–the very building to whose door was pinned Luther’s 95 Theses and whose pulpit was to function as the place of Luther’s preaching gabillions of sermons. It was commissioned, quite likely, while Luther was still alive, and was installed in his church shortly after his death.
Here are a few points worth discussion:
- The scene is of the daily activity of preaching and receiving the Word
- Luther is depicted as the preacher, and the artist Lucas Cranach is pictured among the congregation
- Christ crucified is communicated between preacher and congregation, and the image and viewer
- This image of sacrifice is directly above the place of the Eucharist
- Luther’s pointed finger is emblematic of John the Baptist’s pointed finger in, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
- The image is itself a confession, leaving nothing open to interpretation
Lingering questions include:
- Is it appropriate, according to Lutheran theology, that Luther is depicted in an image intended for liturgical use?
- Isn’t it somewhat bizarre that altarpieces exist within Lutheran churches so soon after the denouncing of Catholic ones?
- Is this, at the end of the day, to be considered a great work of art?
I think it is an incredibly intriguing artifact exemplifying fantastic theology, but I do have some misgivings. Leaving nothing to beauty and mystery and illumination, but putting the art entirely in the service of illustrating a very defined “word” leaves me hungering for greater depth. The theological significance and symbolism is amazingly complex and wonderful, but there’s something mechanical about it that loses the majestic, inviting essence seen in other works around this time period. One can really sense the priority of a visual depiction of catechesis over and above the valuing of visual imagery on its own terms. On the other hand, perhaps this is precisely the kind of art that belongs just above and behind the altar of a church, where the participation in the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice takes place. Really, I’m less interested in judging, and more interested in making the historical connections here.
Lastly, in what ways has today’s Protestant church inherited this complex relationship with images? Hmmm…
For more information, read: Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008).