at the time of the Reformation and for long after commonly used
crucifixes rather than empty crosses. This was true not only for
chancel or altar crosses but also for altar paintings. One of the most
famous paintings is by Lutheran artist Lucas Cranach (the Younger).
Many images are available if you do a google image search on “Cranach
Here’s one from the Lutheran church in Weimar that
shows the artist’s father (long beard) standing next to Martin Luther.
A detailed description of the biblical-Lutheran symbolism of this
life-sized painting is available on a Lutheran pastor’s blog. Here are a couple of quotes from that blog:
What is the message of this painting? The
heart of the Lutheran Reformation: the doctrine of justification by
faith alone in Christ, by grace alone, apart from any works; indeed,
this is the very heart of the Christian faith itself. …
Dominating the painting is Christ on a
cross. The crucified Christ has the cold shadow of death across his
face. It was a real death, as horrible as is any death, but even more
so since this was not a mere man suffering and dying, but the very Son
of God. The amazing message of the Gospel is that by his death, Christ
takes away the world’s sin. His outstretched arms reminds us that He is
the world’s Saviour.
The entire explanation is worth reading and gives joy to Christians
through its explanation – really Law and Gospel in art. One does not
need to prefer this style of art to find historical and spiritual
insight from its message.
Another famous Cranach altar is in a Wittenberg church. This shows Luther preaching “Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
There wasn’t actually a crucifix hanging (in mid air) between pulpit
and people; this is the artist’s way of emphasizing the focus of
Lutheran preaching. The fact that Cranach would include this
free-floating image of Christ should come as no surprise in view of
Luther’s statement in Against the Heavenly Prophets: “… when I
hear of Christ, an image of man hanging on a cross takes form in my
heart.… If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my
heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” Luther’s Works, v40, pp99-100.
There have been some flawed explanations about use of an empty
cross. Some of these seem to have originated without knowledge of the
historic Lutheran use of crucifixes. One explanation suggests that
Lutherans have empty crosses because we emphasize the resurrection
while Catholics have crucifixes because they believe sins aren’t
completely paid for. One wonders what Luther would have said about this!
Do we emphasize the resurrection? Not in the sense above. The
resurrection is proof that Jesus is truly God and that his perfect life
and atoning sacrifice really make a difference for us. But, as St. Paul
said, “we preach Christ crucified.” This hardly means that we don’t also preach Christ resurrected. But why the emphasis on crucifixion? (In 2 Corinthians 2:2, St. Paul writes, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”)
One reason focuses on a central purpose of worship: to deliver yet
again to needy sinners the benefits of what Jesus accomplished on the
cross – the forgiveness of our sins. Worship isn’t merely about
“reinforcing ideas” or “reminding us of things we should know” or
“teaching us more deeply from God’s Word.” Worship is “delivering the
goods” – forgiveness, life, and salvation delivered yet again through
absolution, Word, Sacrament.
This focus on Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the delivery of
forgiveness through the means of grace lies behind historic Lutheran
use of a crucifix.
The decline of using crucifixes may be explained by two factors: 1)
the negative impact of Pietism on Lutheranism, and the roots of WELS in
a pietistic flavor of Lutheranism, and 2) a later resistance to
anything that “appears” to be Catholic. Those who resisted use of a
crucifix, say in the mid 20th century, may not have been aware of the
widespread use of the crucifix among early Lutherans.
Regarding the first reason above, it should be noted that some very
early WELS churches did use a crucifix, for example Grace, Milwaukee
(the founding church of WELS), St Mark in Watertown, WI (the crucifix pictured likely comes from their 1888 church, still in use today).
Usage of a crucifix in WELS churches is returning. You can see examples in the Commission on Worship’s newsletter Worship the Lord. Look under issues 18, 21, 25 and ”22 Supplement Verona”. Christian Worship: Manual,
a theological and practical guide published with the 1993 WELS hymnal,
states: “Committees are wise to consider a crucifix, i.e., a cross with
the corpus, either depicting the suffering Christ or the exalted Christ
dressed in his high-priestly vestments” (p85).
Finally, it may be helpful to review an article published in Forward in Christ, “But Isn’t That Catholic?“, and a previous Q&A post on Lutheran use of crucifixes.