Thursday, May 17, 2018

If it ain't baroque. . . 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.
Images were not incidental even to Pietism, a new form of Lutheran piety promulgated during the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by such key figures as Johann Arndt. The crucifix in particular became an important and powerful devotional image. Crucifixes were the most hated objects of the Calvinist iconoclasts and yet they were part of the essential piety in Lutheran churches and homes.  Lutherans prayed, meditated, wept before them, and were comforted by them in their last moments on earth.  At least until Lutherans became strangers to their own past.

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.


Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

I have just the book for you, Larry, unfortunately it is insanely expensive, but is a real gold mine that proves beyond any shadow of your doubt that you have so correctly indicated in this article.

In fact, the single most important image for orthodox Lutheranism, in print, mixed media, paint and sculpture was the .... CRUCIFIX.

Here's the book:

A Magnificent Faith
Art and Identity in Lutheran Germany
Bridget Heal

The first comprehensive history of the Reformation origins and seventeenth-century emergence of the Lutheran baroque, thoroughly grounded in art, religion, and politics
Invites readers to rethink the relationship between Protestant piety and visual media
Incorporates visual evidence into the broader frameworks of Reformation history, using images to illuminate current debates about religious culture and identity
Based on extensive engagement with archival and printed texts and with images and artifacts
Bridges the traditional disciplinary gaps between history and theology, and history and art history
Accessibly written and richly illustrated, drawing on simple printed images (woodcuts) and magnificent church interiors

Joanne said...

The very earliest implementations of the visual arts in Lutheran liturgical space, were of course in the German Renaissance style of the 16th Century. I'm rather partial to the style, myself. I continue to recommend the website,, a huge database of church buildings in Germany. One may spend hours snooping around Lutheran churches in Germany online.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed a moving away from graphic, literal depictions in Christian art, e.g. removing of Christ’s body from the Crucifix and claiming, “Why seek the living Lord among the crucified. Christ has risen and is no longer nailed to the cross.” Crosses have become more abstract with added dimensions and geometry to make them more aesthetic and appealing to the eye. There is no sense of its former cruel and lethal purpose. The building architecture has also emptied itself of graven images and icons becoming stark and theatrical, closing out the natural light of day and preferring instead stage lighting, sound amplification, and fog machines. Stained glass is a relic of the past or so it seems.

If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston courtesy of Crosspointe Architects:

It is an absolutely stunning counterpoint to all the “big box” warehouse churches that have become so popular. It’s worth a look-see.

Joanne said...

Tens of thousands of people have been crucified in the course of human history. Only one of those crucifixions has effected the forgiveness of sins for the whole human race. We put a depiction of this God-Man's body with the precise title sign (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) on a cross to identify this one and only one crucifixion of God. This counters in powerful iconography many false ideas about the Christ, His body, His blood, and His work upon the cross. Orthodox Lutheran theology has no discomfort with this way of depicting the body of the Christ. It's a simple and powerful image of incarnation very similar to the image of Jesus in the crib at Bethlehem.

Joanne said...

Follow up on "Magnificent Faith" (our copy is on its way):