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Now That’s a Lutheran High Altar!

December 28th, 2006
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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!].

High_altar_magdeburg

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. Jim Roemke
    December 28th, 2006 at 21:04 | #1

    Pr. McCain,
    Something I have noticed in contemporary American Lutheranism (in particular within the LCMS) is that older pastors who tend to dabble in the “high church” are often quite liberal theologically while their stark and austere counterparts are very solidly confessional. On the other hand, it seems that pastors from my generation who are “high church” tend to be much more confessionally minded. Now, this is just a trend that I have noticed and is in no way comprehensive, however, I think it is important to note. As a matter of fact, the only president of Concordia Seminary pictured in a clerical collar was the president at the time of the walk out. Have you noticed this kind of trend at all in other periods of Lutheranism? As a soon to be pastor in the LCMS who loves the richness and beauty of traditional, liturgical and historical worship, and as a Lutheran who is committed to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, I think this is an important thing to be ware of.
    McCain: It has been the experience of the Lutheran Church in its history that revivals in confessional theology have been marked also by revivals in appreciation for the historic liturgy. I believe that the “high church” interest during our Seminex years was not however motivated by interest in confessional theology so much as interest in the ecumenical movment which often replaced an empty theology with interest in the arcane rituals of the church. Hermann Sasse has an excellent essay warning against the “High Church” danger in which he cautions against this kind of interest in liturgy. The bottom line is that no amount of beautiful ritual and ornamentation can be a Cathedral today is clouded by the sadness of realizing that in that cathedral today there is no more living Lutheranism.

  2. Greg Chudy
    December 29th, 2006 at 11:52 | #2

    Thank you for sharing this stunning photo!

  3. January 1st, 2007 at 16:49 | #3

    That is a nice picture. Good to see the saints still in the niches – in English cathedrals the niches are mainly empty, thanks to the iconoclastic tendencies of Reformers and (later) Puritans. (It’s traditional for cathedral guidebooks to point out that Cromwell’s soldiers used the nave for stabling horses during the civil war, etc etc…)

  4. April 4th, 2007 at 02:29 | #4

    Dear Pastor McCain,
    thanks for visiting our cathedral, and nice to know that you like it as much as we do!
    In fact, though, a good deal of art in the cathedral did in fact fall victim to the iconoclasts of the reformation, the most obvious example being the famous figure of St Maurice in the choir, south side, which lost its legs; in addition, the “Beatitudes” in the Lady chapel are all headless.
    The cathedral is also not in fact the oldest in Germany, it is the oldest GOTHIC cathedral in Germany; it was begun in 1209, after the previous Ottonian cathedral was destroyed by fire. The marble columns you mention in your text were rescued from the romanesque building, together with the font. Incidentally, excavations currently in progress are revealing the enormous proportions of the predecessor church, rivalling the Constantine Basilika in Trier.
    Best wishes
    Barry Jordan
    Cathedral Organist
    [Dear Mr. Jordan, thanks very much for your comment. I'm interested in your comments about the destruction of certain images at the time of the Reformation. It would be interesting to know precisely who damaged these objects: Lutherans or Calvinists. I must assume it was Lutherans who did these things. It is interesting to me to note however that unlike the Calvinists, Lutherans did not plunder and sack cathedrals and rip out all images and destroy all images. I note that if what you say is true, that the Lutherans damaged the object of superstitious veneration and worship: St. Maurice and perhaps images of the Virgin. It is interesting to study the history of Reformation era iconoclasm. Calvinists. Lutherans were much more conservative. Anyone visiting the Cathedral can see all the art that was left there very much intact and beautiful. Thanks for the comments on the predecessor church. One does not receive the understanding from the literature available at the cathedral that the predecessor building was in fact even larger than the present structure. Many thanks, again, for your comment and for visiting this web site.]

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