Nearly everyone presumes that the Lutheran Reformation shifted the senses from the visual to the aural, from what is seen to what is heard. It would be hard to argue against the primacy of the word, at least from the words of Luther the Reformer. And yet this Reformation also fostered a rich tapestry of arts from music to painting to architecture. Though the more radical voices of the Reformation of the sixteenth century were iconoclasts who insisted upon purifying the landscape of piety so that it was only aural, Luther was not among them. Their purifying zeal tore down statue and broke glass and reduced to rubble the once great treasures of art in their churches (not in the least vestments), but not Luther. Martin Luther is falsely charged with iconoclasm and some of his theological heirs have attempted to hide or distract from the secret that he was not simply indifferent to the arts but an avid supporter. Around the Lutheran territories after the Reformation there was not only the renewal of the spoken, preached, and written Word (sermon, catechism, prayer book, hymnal, and Bible) but a visual culture that flourished.
The flourishing of Lutheran visual culture during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries remains a closeted truth even among Lutherans. From the Cranachs to the Bachs, Lutheran patrons commissioned costly image and ornamented music as well as richly decorated churches. Look at the architecture that was left in testament to the Lutheran love of beauty in such achievements as Dresden’s Frauenkirche, built between 1726 and 1743. Look at the altarpieces that celebrated in paint the words spoken and preached. The seeds of such a rich visual culture (the Lutheran baroque) are the direct fruit of the seeds planted by the great reformer himself. Luther became a defender of the arts and condemned the iconoclasm of those in his age and era, calling them fanatics. Though it could be said that Luther was taking a stand for Christian freedom in this matter, Luther understood the role and value of the right graphic to accompany the Word. He knew the power of the beauty seen by the eye to help communicate and teach the faith. His 1534 German Bible was filled with rich and elaborate illustrations, woodcuts that gave form to the Word and even served as means of interpreting the sacred text.
This was not simply due to Luther but to the culture and fabric of the day in which the arts were not on the fringes of people's lives but more toward the center of it all. Images became the rallying points for those who, after the Reformer's death, sought to replace the conservative Lutheran reformation for a radical one. In city after city the cry arose from those who kept the faith in part by resisting and condemning the Calvinists who sought to undo Luther's theology by the slash and burn of the images and arts and ceremonies preserved and even encouraged. In 1615, Berlin’s Lutheran citizens even rioted when their Calvinist rulers removed images from their city’s Cathedral. Yet, the iconoclasts were only slowed and were not stopped. By the time of the mid-twentieth century, American Lutherans were not only indifferent toward the visual image but downright antagonistic toward anything that contradicted form that followed function. Lutherans began to give up their churches to stark and empty utilitarian buildings before they began to surrender their liturgy and music until Bach became a stranger to those who were his heirs.
Princes, nobles, and the burgeoning middle class openly competed for a role in adorning Lutheran visual culture with arts befitting the noble place of the Word. In seventeenth-century Saxony, Lutheran patrons chose artists who introduced the visual idioms of the Catholic baroque into their Protestant painting and sculpture. To be sure, there were places where a Calvinist court and the prominence of Pietism held in check the ornamentation of the Lutheran baroque (Brandenburg-Prussia). Try reading some of the history of this all in Ernst Walter Zeedon's Faith And Act - The. Survival Of Medieval Ceremonies In The Lutheran Reformation or Bodo Nischan's Prince, People, and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg, among others. As it has oft been said, Lutherans are inheritors of an astonishingly rich tradition but we have often acted with indifference or embarrassment against it.