Now That’s a Lutheran High Altar!
Plowing through my photos from the trip to Germany last Pentecost, and ran across this one I took in the great cathedral in Magdeburg. This cathedral is the oldest in Germany, and is the final resting place of the first German emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Otto the Great. The cathedral was taken over by the Lutherans in the Reformation and became one of the chief spiritual home to the Gnesio-Lutherans after Luther’s death, the "genuine Lutherans" who preserved the Lutheran confession in the face of those willing to compromise it. What struck me the first time I visited the cathedral, and even more so the second time, is how richly ornamented it was and how all the statuary is relatively well preserved. Lutherans were not iconoclasts. That means, we did not regard "reform" to require "revolution" and destruction of what is beautiful and useful for Christian piety and devotion. You see dramatic examples of the conservative nature of the Lutheran Reformation in the Magdeburg Cathedral. All the existing ecclesiastical art was embraced and used, without skipping a beat. In fact, in the cathedral the most ornate and gaudy art I saw was actually produced as memorial plaques on the wall to honor the senior Lutheran pastors who were in charge of the cathedral in the 16th century! I’ll have more to show and say about the cathedral later. But, the photo below is the high altar, made of incredibly beautiful marble, constructed in 1363. It is placed in a sanctuary that features columns brought from the older Ottonian cathedral, on which rest statues dating from 1220 showing the Apostles Andrew, Paul and Peter, then John the Baptist, St. Maurice and Pope Innocent, after 1232. Otto brought the columns from Northern Italy where he tore them out of palaces and villas dating to the Roman Empire. It was one way Otto was claiming, "Hey, I’m the heir of the Caesars!" The columns are constructed from porphyry, marble and granite, some of them have their original Roman-era capitals. If you are ever in Magdeburg, please budget enough time to take a thorough walking tour of the cathedral. They have an excellent English language guide book that explains all the artwork. And, do be sure to pay your respects to Otto. His mortal remains are still there, lying before the high altar. His grave was moved here when the "new" cathedral was finished in the 13th century or so. His tomb dates from 973! A simple single fresh flower is placed on his grave every day. Well, the point with all this is simply to underscore the fact that those who claim that Lutheranism is best expressed through a poverty of visual arts and in a manner that is stark and bare of decoration are simply wrong. Lutherans have always rejoiced in the visual arts and church decoration and ornamentation. [Wait till I show you the Reformation-era pulpit placed in the Magdeburg Cathedral!].