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Commemoration of Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer: Christian Artists

April 6th, 2012 16 comments
CranachWeimarAltar

Note: For a very large version of this painting, click on the image.

 

Today we commemorate Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Dürer, artists. Here are portraits of them, the Dürer portait is a self-portrait, as is, perhaps, the Cranach portrait.

 

Lucas Cranach, at age 77

 

 

Albrecht Dürer, age 29

In honor of this day and their memory, here is a presentation, and explanation of, what I regard to be the finest example of the uniquely Lutheran art that resulted from the great Gospel rediscovery in the Sixteenth Century, and appropriately, what a magnificent painting to meditate on and ponder as we move toward Holy Week. Enjoy, and God bless!

Lucas Cranach the Younger finished the painting in 1555, and even after 450 years, there is a powerful luminous warmth to it that draws you in, causing you to ponder and meditate on the image it presents. The painting still stands where it was originally placed, over the altar of the St. Peter and Paul Church in Weimar, Germany. The placement of this painting over the altar is purposeful, for the Lutheran Reformation, far from casting aside the Lord’s Supper as central to the worship of the Church, restored it to its proper place as the gift from Christ that it is. Communicants coming forward to receive the Supper, would have this painting before them, so large there was no chance of missing its every detail, details which proclaim and declare the peace, comfort, joy and power of the good news of Jesus Christ, and the love of God in Christ for all humanity.

To this day, the painting that stands over the altar at the St. Peter and Paul Church in Weimar, Germany, glows with a radiance that takes the viewer’s breath away. It is the most remarkable example of the uniquely Lutheran use of altar paintings to confess the Gospel rediscovery in the Sixteenth Century Reformation. Here is a good explanation of it and its meaning.

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This is certainly true of the centre panel of the altar painting in the church of Sts Peters and Paul, Weimar, Germany. It was begun by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) and was completed by his son, also of the same name, in 1555. (To distinguish them, they are called Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger.)

The heart of the 16th century Reformation and indeed of the Christian faith, is the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ. This is how Luther expresses it in part 2 of the Smalcald Articles.

“The first and chief article is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification” (Rom 4:25). He alone is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all” (Isa.53:6). Moreover, “all have sinned,” and “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by his blood” (Rom. 3:23-25).

Inasmuch as this must be believed and cannot be obtained or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that such faith alone justifies us, as St Paul says in Romans 3, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28), and again, “that he [God] himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

If the doctrine of justification is to be properly taught, law and gospel must be properly distinguished. The Formula of Concord of 1577 says (Article 5),

“We must … observe this distinction with particular diligence lest we confuse the two doctrines and change the Gospel into law. This would darken the merit of Christ and rob disturbed consciences of the comfort which they would otherwise have in the holy Gospel …”

That Lucas Cranach clearly understood the central teaching of the Lutheran reformation and the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is illustrated by his altar painting at Weimar.

In the centre background, Moses is shown teaching the ten commandments to the Old Testament prophets. They are standing on a circle of barren path, along with a figure representative of all human beings who are under the law’s condemnation. Man is shown here being chased into the fires of hell by death (pictured as a skeleton holding a spear) and the devil (in the form of a monster wielding a club). The prophets taught, as did Moses, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut. 27:26 ESV, compare Jer. 11:13). Yet it’s not only our actual sins that condemn us, but also the prior sin that we inherit from our parents (original sin). To quote the Smalcald Articles once again,

“Here we must confess what St Paul says in Rom. 5:12, namely, that sin had its origin in one man, Adam, through whose disobedience all men were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil. … The fruits of this sin are all the subsequent evil deeds which are forbidden in the Ten Commandments …”

The good news is that God in mercy and compassion saves all who put their trust in His Son. When the people of Israel in the wilderness sinned and were bitten by snakes, God provided a way of escape that prefigured His Son’s death on a cross. All the Israelites had to do to be saved was look at the snake mounted on a pole (Num. 21:4-9). In Cranach’s painting, this is shown in the background on the painting’s left.

Directly in front, Martin Luther is standing with open Bible in hand. His feet and hands are positioned like those of Moses. His message, however, is one of gospel, not law. On his face is a look of steadfastness and serene confidence. He stands on lush grass in which flowers grow, unlike the bare, stony ground on which Moses stands. Of three passages written in German on the open Bible, the third one reads, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so also must the Son of man be lifted up, so that all [who believe] in [him may have eternal life]” (Jn 3:14).

Dominating the painting is Christ on a cross. The amazing message of the Gospel is that by his death, Christ takes away the world’s sin. The message written in Latin on the transparent banner held by the lamb in the centre foreground declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). His outstretched arms and generous loincloth are also reminders that He is the world’s Saviour. This was John the Baptist’s message, and John is shown standing underneath the crucified Christ on His left side. With right hand pointing up at Christ on the cross and left hand pointing at the lamb, John is shown proclaiming the meaning of Jesus’ death to Lucas Cranach, the painter. Cranach represents all who believe. A stream of blood from Christ’s pierced side splashes on to this head. It is as the first verse on Luther’s Bible says, “The blood of Jesus Christ purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7). Therefore like Luther, Cranach also stands confidently.

There is another verse on the open Bible, to which Luther’s finger points directly. It reads, “Therefore let us approach the seat of grace with joyousness, so that we may receive mercy within and find grace in the time when help is needed” (Heb. 4:16). Such approach is possible because Jesus is our victorious high priest. Having paid for sin, He has defeated death and the devil and now lives to intercede for us. Jesus is shown on the painting’s right as the risen One, youthful and full of life, standing on death and the devil, with the staff of his victory flag pushed in the monster’s throat. His gold-edged cloak flows toward the lamb’s banner and the cross. As a result it’s actually both banner and cloak that bear the words, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

Believe in God; believe also in me,” the Lord says (Jn 14:1). From this painting His eyes meet ours, inviting us to believe in Him. The other set of eyes that meet ours belong to Cranach, the painter. His feet face in the direction of Christ. But he has turned from his adoration of Christ to look at us also, inviting us to believe and be saved along with him.

Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession expresses the heart of Lutheran teaching this way:

“[W]e receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.”

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). This, in summary, is the message of the Lutheran reformation and of its foremost artists, Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger.

–Pastor David Buck, edited by PTM

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Closer to Van Eyck – Amazing Look at Ghent Altarpiece

February 27th, 2012 2 comments

Another incredible Internet tool: an amazing look at the Ghent altar piece. You can zoom in on the painting in ultra high definition and see, quite literally, each brush stroke.

Check it out here.

 

Categories: Art

Amazing Digital Archive of Lucas Cranach Paintings

February 23rd, 2012 Comments off

I just discovered a truly amazing digital archive of the paintings of Lucas Cranach. The collection is extensive and the digitized images are all in ultra high resolution, allowing you to zoom in and really study the detail in the paintings. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Here is the link to it. They even have different scanning techniques in place to allow you to examine corrections or earlier versions underneath the final version.

Categories: Art

An Embarassment of Digital Riches – Massive Online Art Collection

December 28th, 2011 2 comments

From the History Blog: The most ambitious digitization project I’ve ever heard of is halfway to its goal of putting every single publicly owned oil painting (plus tempera and acrylic) in the United Kingdom online. A joint effort of the Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC, Your Paintingsnow has 104,000 artworks by the likes of Degas and Reubens uploaded to the website out of an estimated 200,000. It’s the first national online art museum ever attempted. Just to give you a sense of the scale, there are only 3,000 paintings in the immense National Gallery.

You’d have to visit over 3,000 art galleries, museums, libraries, etc. to see the Your Paintings collection in person, and even that wouldn’t be enough. Some of the paintings are in private institutions like Bishop’s palaces and Oxford and Cambridge (they were deemed important national patrimony despite their technical private ownership) and aren’t on display. Even the ones in public museums are often in storage or being conserved. An estimated 80% of the 200,000 oil paintings in the national collection are not available for public viewing at any given time. Besides, even if you could access all of the paintings, it’s unlikely you’d get well-known actors and artists to take you on a guided tour of their favorite pieces and themes.

You can already search the website by artist, collection, location and thanks to the 5,000 members of the public (plus curators and experts) who have signed up to tag each painting with relevant subjects, soon you’ll be able to search the entire database by keyword as well. There are over a million tags already in the system. If you’d like to be a tagger too, sign up here.

Categories: Art

A Painting Depicting Lutheran History and Worship

December 22nd, 2011 9 comments

Take a close look at this painting and tell me all the amazing symbolism you see in it. Be sure to click on the image to see the full size version of it, details much easier to notice. Look for the means of grace depicted, and how they are depicted. Notice to the far left heretics and false teachers looking on the scene. And to the far right, the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, with John the Steadfast shown talking to the Emperor Charles V.

 

Categories: Art

Cranach Painting Luther

June 30th, 2011 Comments off

My friend, Aaron Lewis, sent me a photo he took in a museum of a painting, in Munich, depicting Cranach painting Luther, with Melanchthon looking on. Very nice! The painting is by Heinrich Stelzner, who lived from 1833-1910. He painted this painting in 1890. It is in the Alte Pinakothek museum at Munich, which, I’m told, has a general policy against displaying works from the 19th century or earlier, but they made an exception since it is such a unique portrayal of Lucas Cranach at work. I’m trying to figure out how to upload the full size version of the painting as a jpeg to this blog post, but have forgotten how to to that in WordPress. Any suggestions?

 

Here is a photo a tourist, Jaime Silva, took of Cranach in the painting:

 

Here is a shot Jamie took of the entire painting. Aaron Lewis tells me it is about four feet by six feet:

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Art

Looking to Buy an Original Cranach? Here you go!

June 8th, 2011 4 comments

Up for auction, estimated value: $110,000, titled, Lot and His Daughters. Here’s the link to the auction house. Cranach’s usually go for much more than their “estimated value.”

Categories: Art

A Painting that Preaches Christ

December 9th, 2010 Comments off

To this day, the painting that stands over the altar at the St. Peter and Paul Church in Weimar, Germany, glows with a radiance that takes the viewer’s breath away. It is the most remarkable example of the uniquely Lutheran use of altar paintings to confess the Gospel rediscovery in the Sixteenth Century Reformation. Below the painting you will find an explanation, a guided-tour of the painting. Note: For a very large version of this painting, click on the image.

CranachWeimarAltar

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This is certainly true of the centre panel of the altar painting in the church of Sts Peters and Paul, Weimar, Germany. It was begun by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) and was completed by his son, also of the same name, in 1555. (To distinguish them, they are called Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger.)

The heart of the 16th century Reformation and indeed of the Christian faith, is the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ. This is how Luther expresses it in part 2 of the Smalcald Articles.

“The first and chief article is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification” (Rom 4:25). He alone is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all” (Isa.53:6). Moreover, “all have sinned,” and “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by his blood” (Rom. 3:23-25).

Inasmuch as this must be believed and cannot be obtained or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that such faith alone justifies us, as St Paul says in Romans 3, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28), and again, “that he [God] himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

If the doctrine of justification is to be properly taught, law and gospel must be properly distinguished. The Formula of Concord of 1577 says (Article 5),

“We must … observe this distinction with particular diligence lest we confuse the two doctrines and change the Gospel into law. This would darken the merit of Christ and rob disturbed consciences of the comfort which they would otherwise have in the holy Gospel …”

That Lucas Cranach clearly understood the central teaching of the Lutheran reformation and the proper distinction between Law and Gospel is illustrated by his altar painting at Weimar.

In the centre background, Moses is shown teaching the ten commandments to the Old Testament prophets. They are standing on a circle of barren path, along with a figure representative of all human beings who are under the law’s condemnation. Man is shown here being chased into the fires of hell by death (pictured as a skeleton holding a spear) and the devil (in the form of a monster wielding a club). The prophets taught, as did Moses, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut. 27:26 ESV, compare Jer. 11:13). Yet it’s not only our actual sins that condemn us, but also the prior sin that we inherit from our parents (original sin). To quote the Smalcald Articles once again,

“Here we must confess what St Paul says in Rom. 5:12, namely, that sin had its origin in one man, Adam, through whose disobedience all men were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil. … The fruits of this sin are all the subsequent evil deeds which are forbidden in the Ten Commandments …”

The good news is that God in mercy and compassion saves all who put their trust in His Son. When the people of Israel in the wilderness sinned and were bitten by snakes, God provided a way of escape that prefigured His Son’s death on a cross. All the Israelites had to do to be saved was look at the snake mounted on a pole (Num. 21:4-9). In Cranach’s painting, this is shown in the background on the painting’s left.

Directly in front, Martin Luther is standing with open Bible in hand. His feet and hands are positioned like those of Moses. His message, however, is one of gospel, not law. On his face is a look of steadfastness and serene confidence. He stands on lush grass in which flowers grow, unlike the bare, stony ground on which Moses stands. Of three passages written in German on the open Bible, the third one reads, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so also must the Son of man be lifted up, so that all [who believe] in [him may have eternal life]” (Jn 3:14).

Dominating the painting is Christ on a cross. The amazing message of the Gospel is that by his death, Christ takes away the world’s sin. The message written in Latin on the transparent banner held by the lamb in the centre foreground declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). His outstretched arms and generous loincloth are also reminders that He is the world’s Saviour. This was John the Baptist’s message, and John is shown standing underneath the crucified Christ on His left side. With right hand pointing up at Christ on the cross and left hand pointing at the lamb, John is shown proclaiming the meaning of Jesus’ death to Lucas Cranach, the painter. Cranach represents all who believe. A stream of blood from Christ’s pierced side splashes on to this head. It is as the first verse on Luther’s Bible says, “The blood of Jesus Christ purifies us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7). Therefore like Luther, Cranach also stands confidently.

There is another verse on the open Bible, to which Luther’s finger points directly. It reads, “Therefore let us approach the seat of grace with joyousness, so that we may receive mercy within and find grace in the time when help is needed” (Heb. 4:16). Such approach is possible because Jesus is our victorious high priest. Having paid for sin, He has defeated death and the devil and now lives to intercede for us. Jesus is shown on the painting’s right as the risen One, youthful and full of life, standing on death and the devil, with the staff of his victory flag pushed in the monster’s throat. His gold-edged cloak flows toward the lamb’s banner and the cross. As a result it’s actually both banner and cloak that bear the words, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

Believe in God; believe also in me,” the Lord says (Jn 14:1). From this painting His eyes meet ours, inviting us to believe in Him. The other set of eyes that meet ours belong to Cranach, the painter. His feet face in the direction of Christ. But he has turned from his adoration of Christ to look at us also, inviting us to believe and be saved along with him.

Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession expresses the heart of Lutheran teaching this way:

“[W]e receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.”

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). This, in summary, is the message of the Lutheran reformation and of its foremost artists, Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger.

–Pastor David Buck

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Categories: Art, Lutheranism

Would Lutherans Riot Today to Keep Didactic Paintings and Sculpture in Their Churches?

May 13th, 2010 Comments off

I receive daily Google alert messages whenever certain key terms and phrases appear on the InterWebbernet. “Lucas Cranach” is one of the phrases I’m scanning for, or, should I say, that my good friend Mr. Google looks for all the time. Up popped today a journal article reviewing a recent exhibit of the paintings of Lucas Cranach Elder and Younger and their workshop. Wow, it must have been some exhibit! They had to split it up over two venues. The point of the exhibit was to show the connection between Cranach and the court of the Brandenburg rulers and the growing influence of Berlin on the art world of Germany. The first page of the article is provided, and there is a tantalizing last sentence at the bottom of the page.

Categories: Art

The Sistine Chapel Virtual Tour

March 28th, 2010 3 comments
Categories: Art

Cranach in Nashville, Tennessee

March 20th, 2010 5 comments

I was attending a publishing conference in Nashville, Tennessee and staying right across the street from the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, which is featuring an exhibit titled Masterpieces of European Painting, featuring works on loan from a wonderful museum in Puerto Rico. Some real gems are in the collection.

I approached the guide desk at the entrance to the exhibit and asked, “Do you have any Cranach’s?” They said, “Who?” and then my eye caught one in the first room in the exhibit and I said, “That’s a Cranach!” Sure enough, it was. The museum staff was duly impressed, actually, stunned that anyone would know who Cranach is and would recognize one of his works from across the room. Poor Cranach.

The painting is Judith With the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1530, one of at least a dozen versions that Cranach painted. I’ve seen others, here and here and here and here, the last link takes you to a version of the scene said to be the last one Cranach painted, in 1545.

In my opinion, by far, the one held by the museum in Puerto Rico is the best of any I’ve seen. I was able nearly literally to put my nose on the painting as I inspected it closely. It is quite a striking juxtaposition between the gory decapitated head and the tranquil young woman holding the sword. What is particularly unique about this painting is that, unlike most of the other paintings of this scene by Cranach, in this one Judith is staring directly at you.

I grabbed a photo on my iPhone, not great, but…better than nothing.

Here is more information about the subject of the painting and I’ll insert another version of the scene.

Cranach executed more than a dozen versions of the subject of Judith and Holofernes throughout his career. The main prototype appears to be the large panel of circa 1530, now in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (Friedländer and Rosenberg, Cranach, 1978, pp. 115-116, no. 230). The present work has been identified as a mature work by the artist, datable to circa 1545. It is also the most diminutive of the known autograph versions but sacrifices nothing in the quality of its draftsmanship or exquisite detail. The juxtaposition between the energetic veins in the marble shelf, the gruesome coldness of Holofernes’s severed head and the sensitivity of Judith’s features reveals the artist at his most expressive.

The subject of Judith and Holofernes became popular in the Middle Ages as an image of virtue overcoming vice or an allegory of man’s misfortunes at the hands of scheming women. Judith, a patriotic Jewish heroine, became a symbol of the Jews’ struggle against their ancient oppressors in the Near East. The Assyrian army, under the command of their general Holofernes, had laid siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia. When the inhabitants were on the point of capitulating, Judith, a wealthy young widow, devised a scheme to save them. She adorned herself ‘so as to catch the eye of any man who might see her’ (Old Testament, Apocrypha; 10:5) and set off with a maid into the enemy lines. By pretending to desert her people, she gained access to Holofernes and proposed to him a fictitious scheme for overcoming the Jews. After she had been several days in the camp, Holofenes became enamored of her and planned a banquet to which she was invited. When it was over and they were alone, he intended to seduce her but he was quickly overcome with liquor. Judith seized his sword and with two swift blows severed his head. Taking the head in a sack, Judith and her maid made their way back to Bethulia before the deed was discovered. The murder threw the Assyrians into disarray and they fled, pursued by the Israelites.

Here is information about the Museu de Arte de Ponce, a fascinating story of art collecting.

Founded in 1959 in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the Museo de Arte de Ponce (MAP) includes more than 3,600 works of art from Europe, Latin America, and Puerto Rico. Masterpieces of European Painting from Museo de Arte de Ponce presents sixty of the museum’s most extraordinary Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French, British, German, and Austrian paintings dating from the fourteenth to the twentieth century. This traveling exhibition marks the first time that an extensive selection of works from MAP has been presented in the United States. The opportunity arose from the temporary closure of the museum, which is now undergoing a major renovation and expansion.

Luis A. Ferré (1904–2003), a native of Ponce and the founder of MAP, conceived of the museum after his first trip to Europe in 1950. Ferré was a successful industrialist, philanthropist, and gifted pianist who served as governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico from 1968 to 1972. Of his many accomplishments, he considered MAP to be the most important. With a limited budget and the advice of art historian Julius Held (1905–2002), Ferré sought out and acquired paintings of high quality and displayed a remarkable lack of concern for prevailing tastes and fashions of the time. He wanted the collection to impart a sense of discovery for scholars, artists, and especially the general public. Masterpieces of European Painting from Museo de Arte de Ponce affirms the pioneering nature of Ferré’s vision. Art Museum.

Categories: Art

Attack of the Ugly Babies

March 9th, 2010 12 comments

Readers of this blog know that one of the hobby-horses I like to ride frequently is the issue of art and our worship spaces. Simply put, there has been a dreadful decline in the beauty which once marked a Lutheran place of worship. No matter how humble, Lutherans traditionally attempted to use as much art as they could possibly afford. Now I notice trends toward making our worship spaces look more like the big-box non-denominational churches we see sprinkled throughout American suburbia. It is not only stodgy confessional Lutherans like me who are feeling angst over these issues. Over on the EVANGEL blog, one of my fellow contributors put up a post well worth our attention, titled The Attack of the Ugly Babies. Here is a snippet to whet your appetite:

“A sermon ‘zinger’ used to encourage church plants instead of resuscitating old churches goes like this: ‘It is easier to have a baby than to raise the dead!’ Jesus, however, did only the latter. Evangelism is a bit more complicated than the sound bite conveys, simply because people are. Whether or not they are consciously aware of it, many non-Christians are seeking a deeper, ecclesial reality in their life, not a gospel that caters to their present one.”

~ Matthew Milliner, “Attack of the Ugly Babies,” Evangel

Behold, the Wonder of God’s Creation

March 3rd, 2010 3 comments

NASA has released new images of earth. Stunning. Absolutely. Stunning.

Categories: Art

Crucifixes and Lutherans

December 18th, 2009 3 comments
Lower Center Panel of the Altar Painting in St. Mary Church, Wittenberg, Germany. By Lucas Cranach.

Lower Center Panel of the Altar Painting in St. Mary Church, Wittenberg, Germany. By Lucas Cranach.

From The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s FAQ page….

Question:

Is the use of crucifixes a Roman Catholic practice? Doesn’t the empty cross provide a better symbol for Lutherans? How does the LCMS feel about using a crucifix in church? [Note: A crucifix is a cross with a statue of the crucified Christ on it].

Answer:

A common misunderstanding among some some Lutherans is the opinion that a crucifix, or the use of a crucifix, is a “Roman Catholic” practice. The history of Lutheranism demonstrates that the crucifix was a regular and routine feature of Lutheran worship and devotional life during Luther’s lifetime and during the period of Lutheran Orthdoxy. It was also the case among the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. If you were to visit most of the original congregations of the LCMS here in the United States you would find lovely crucifixes adorning their altars, and in addition, beautiful statues on the altar of Christ and the four evangelists, or other such scenes. There is nothing uniquely Roman Catholic about this.  Many Lutherans and Lutheran congregations use crucifixes. Crucifixes are used in the chapels of both of our seminaries.

Lutheranism has always considered the crucifix to be a powerful reminder of the sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us and our salvation, on the cross. A crucifix vividly brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s divinely inspired words, “We preach Christ and Him crucified”  (1 Cor. 1:23).

Interestingly enough, while there is certainly nothing “wrong” with an “empty” cross, the practice of using an “empty cross” on a Lutheran congregation’s altar comes more from non-Lutheran sources. At the time of the Reformation there was conflict between Lutherans and Reformed Christians over the proper place of pictures, images, statues and the like in the church. Lutherans stood with historic Christendom in realizing that such art in the church was not wrong, and was a great aid for helping to focus devotional thoughts on the truths of the Word of God, no greater truth can be found that the death of Jesus Christ our Lord for the world’s salvation.

The “empty cross” is not a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, as some say, for the fact is that the cross would have been empty regardless of whether or not Christ had risen from the grave. The point to be kept clear here is that both an “empty cross” and a crucifix, symbolize the same thing: the death of Christ our Lord for the salvation of the world. Many feel that the crucifix symbolizes this truth more clearly and strikingly. That has been the traditional opinion of historic Lutheranism, until the last fifty years ago, due to the influence we will now mention.

Some Lutherans began to move away from crucifixes during the age of Lutheran Pietism, which rejected much of Lutheran doctrine and consequently many Lutheran worship practices. At the time, Lutheran Pietists, contrary to the clear postion of Luther and the earlier Lutherns, held that symbols such as the crucifix were wrong. This was never the view of historic Lutheranism.  Here in America, Lutherans have always felt a certain pressure to “fit in” with the Reformed Christianity that predominates much of the Protestant church here. Thus, for some Lutherans this meant doing away with things such as crucifixes, and vestments, and other traditional forms of Lutheran worship and piety. It is sad when some Lutherans are made to feel embarrassed about their Lutheranism by members of churches that teach the Word of God in error and who do not share Lutheanism’s clear confession and practice of the full truth of the Word of God.

Lutheranism has always recognized that the use of any symbol (even the empty cross) can become an idolatrous practice, if in any way people are led to believe there is “power in the cross” or that a picture or representation of a cross has some sort of ability, in itself, to bring us into relationship with Christ and His Gospel. Any of God’s good gifts can be turned against Him in this life and become an end in themselves.

Lutherans have never believed that banning or limiting proper artwork in the church is the way to prevent its improper use. Rather, we believe that proper teaching and right use is the best way, and the way that is in keeping with the gift of freedom we have in Christ to use all things to the glory and honor of God. Thus, many Lutherans use and enjoy the crucifix as a meaningful reminder of our Lord’s suffering and death. It might interest you to know that our Synod’s president has a beautiful crucifix adorning the wall of his office, constantly reminding him and visitors to his office of the great love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In short, and this is the most important point of all: there is nothing contrary to God’s Holy Word, or our Lutheran Confessions, about the proper use of the crucifix, just as there is nothing wrong with the proper use of an empty cross, or any other church symbol by which we are reminded of the great things God has done for us. We need to guard against quickly dismissing out of hand practices that we believe are “too Roman Catholic” before we more adequately explore their use and history in our own church.

In Christian freedom, we use either the crucifix or an empty cross and should not judge or condemn one another for using either nor not using either symbol of our Lord’s sacrifice for our sins.

Categories: Art, Lutheranism

The Less Decoration in Our Churches the Better: This is Most Certainly NOT True

December 14th, 2009 13 comments

2578478725_ff8d06eff1I was reading around on blog sites, as is my wont, [how often do you get to use that phrase? 'as is my wont'], but I digress. I bumped into some conversations about the kind of church art, decoration and ornamentation that American Lutherans learned to associate with the Lutheran Church. For some, perhaps many American Lutherans, a “Lutheran Church” is fairly plain and “stripped down.” But as much as Lutherans think that this is somehow the “gold standard” for Lutheran churches, the fact is, this is most certainly not true. Even those Lutherans who think that their church is “plain” would be surprised by the reaction from many other Reformed and Evangelical Christians. That there is an altar at all in Lutheran churches is absolutely shocking to the classic Calvinist type of American protestant. That tradition, in its more pure forms/strands, regards any image in a church to be a direct violation of the Second Commandment, as they so number the Commandments, “Thou shalt make no graven images.”

And so, if you happen to find yourself in a conservative Presbyterian Church, chances are it will be extremely plain, with no decorations at all. This “minimalism” impacted Lutheranism, already back in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and then to an ever increasing degree under the influence of Pietism, which tended to eschew outward symbolism, and emphasized the “interior life” more. The other influence of history on American Lutheran tastes is the simple fact that most Lutheran immigrants were dirt poor and so when they constructed their places of worship, they did as much as they could, but access to artists and sculptors was limited, and funding was equally limited, so as a result, any number of smaller churches were often very plain. There are many notable exceptions, to be sure. The end results of a combination of factors: the influence of Pietism, the influence of being surrounded by American Protestants of a Calvinist tradition, and simple economics, resulted in several generations of Lutherans becoming used to Lutheran churches that are fairly plain. Consequently, there are any number of Lutherans who recoil in shock when they see a richly decorated Lutheran church interior, such as one finds in spectacular grandeur at the older city churches in both Saint Louis and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Here I’m thinking of Holy Cross here in St. Louis, or St. Paul Lutheran Church or Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. The same can be found elsewhere, in Detroit, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and so forth.

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