“Images for memorial and witness, such as crucifixes and images of saints,… are not only to be tolerated, but for the sake of the memorial and the witness they are praiseworthy and honorable.” Martin Luther (AE40:91)
When you go to church, do you see crosses or banners or other pieces of artwork that serve as a “memorial” or remembrance of a Biblical event? Or do they “witness” and profess a Biblical teaching? Most certainly, yes! For most churches, even the architecture and layout (i.e. the design of the altar area and chancel or a church designed in the shape of a cross) is proclaiming an important message to those in attendance. The use of artistic design and of visual images is one way that the churchgoer is edified and uplifted.
This was also the case during the Reformation. The visual arts played an important role in the Reformation and also for Luther personally. Though it is true that Luther emphasized the role of music in the church far more than the use of visual arts, he considered the visual arts to be helpful and useful tools in communicating God’s Word to the people. This was in contrast with other reformers during Luther’s time who wanted to destroy and eliminate the liturgical artwork of the church. They sought to destroy religious images that they considered to be heretical, an effort known as iconoclasm.
Luther opposed these radical reformers and defended the use of liturgical art. Certainly he was cautious, not wanting the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church to persist in Evangelical churches through paintings and sculpture. Yet Luther believed that much of the liturgical art that already existed in the churches should remain— that it should be reinterpreted and reapplied with proper, Biblical teachings. He also encouraged the production of new art and even assisted in designing works of art that helped instruct the people.
Luther’s close friendship with one of the premier artists of northern Europe, Lucas Cranach, was also tremendously important to the cause and spread of the Reformation. Cranach, along with his prolific workshop, was vital in connecting Luther and the Evangelical movement to the masses through the use of visual arts.
Over the course of this year, we will take a look at some of the most important pieces of visual art within the Lutheran Reformation. We will consider Martin Luther’s impact upon the visual arts within the church and the impact that the visual arts had in the Lutheran Reformation.
Reverend Luke Ulrich
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church & School