It may surprise us, but in the art community, the name Martin Luther is typically despised. He is seen as one who damaged the patron–artist relationship and watered the arts down to a role of instruction rather than standing as beautiful objects on their own. He took the spotlight off the art itself—as well as the artist—and put it on Christ. Some of this criticism holds true. However, to be fair, his views on church art went through some gradual changes based upon events of the Reformation era.
Church Art: Part of the Problem
In the early days of the Reformation, Luther did not care for church art because it was part of the system of indulgences. A donor could pay for a work of art to shorten his time in purgatory. Dr. Luther also condemned the potential for statues and paintings to become idolatrous, as objects of veneration. The attention had often been taken off Christ and placed onto His followers.
The reformer’s views began to change following his time of hiding in the Wartburg castle. During his absence, Andreas Karlstadt had stirred people into a mob that led a “cleansing” of the church—vandalizing and destroying all that represented Rome. Paintings and statues were defaced or destroyed. A few went so far as to defecate and urinate on church artwork. Animosity against the Pope was vented through vandalism—thinking Luther would want this. They were wrong. When he came out of hiding, he called for a stop to the madness. He was seeking reform, not revolution. Luther’s objective was to keep whatever was good and remove only that which detracted from the Gospel. The rest of his life, Luther objected to being lumped together with the radical reformers.
In the years that followed, the Reformation movement began to reclaim many of the images of the church. A portrait of a saint, for instance, would have a prayer to Peter replaced by a Bible passage. On one altar painting of the Virgin Mary, the words were added, “Mary is to be honored, but not adored.” Luther wanted to hold onto what belonged to the ancient, apostolic church. By cleansing the church images, the reformers could claim to be part of the legitimate remnant of Christendom. Even artwork that did not serve the Gospel was often preserved and then stored in a side room in the church to protect them simply as works of art.
What Should We Keep?
Now that they were in control, the young Lutherans saw themselves as stewards living in a beautiful home they had inherited. They developed a high respect for the music, liturgy, art, and architecture of the church. A mature Luther saw the visual arts, just like music, as an important instrument for serving the Gospel. Art should be simple, not overpowering what it hopes to convey, and therefore instructive for the common man, delivering the mercy of God in Christ.
May this same spirit continue to be alive among us today, as we seek to hold the wonderful Gospel of our Savior before the world in music, words, and images. To paraphrase Luther, “Even a picture of Christ can communicate God’s grace to us.”
Chaplain Don Moldstad
Bethany Lutheran College