Law and Grace

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace, 1529. Tempera on linden wood,  Schloss Friedenstein Museum, Gotha, Germany.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (circa 1472–1553) was a German Renaissance painter and court artist to the Electorate of Saxony—a State of the Holy Roman Empire. He was chiefly known for creating works for the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, which was led by Cranach’s close friend Martin Luther. One element of the dispute between Catholics and Luther’s followers involved issues concerning salvation. The Catholic Church espoused that believers could ensure salvation by attending to the sacraments, as well as making financial donations. Luther believed that salvation was open to all of the faithful independent of their actions. Shown here is an influential artistic theme of the Reformation movement—the allegory of law and gospel—which portrays Luther’s belief in the importance of Scripture in his understanding of salvation. A tall tree bisects the composition with elements of the law depicted on the left and the gospel on the right. The left side of the composition shows a dying tree with the episodes of the garden of Eden and the brazen serpent from the book of Numbers in the background. A skeleton and a fearsome creature prod a naked man into the depths of hell as Moses and a group of prophets point to the tablets of the law, held by a figure that appears to be Luther himself. (Cranach consistently depicted Luther and other Reformers in his portraits alongside biblical figures.)

On the right, John the Baptist directs a naked man towards both Christ on the cross and to the risen Christ in the upper right. Rather than insinuating that the Law, or the Hebrew Scriptures wither in comparison to the Gospel of the New Testament, Cranach’s work ably demonstrates Luther’s understanding that the Law is essential to salvation. The left or Law side of the composition is meant to reveal that the Law, prepares one for the Gospel, as the viewer “reads” the altarpiece from left to right.

 

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace. Tempera on linden wood, 1529. Schloss Friedenstein Museum, Gotha, Germany.

A mode of writing, reading, or interpreting that operates on a symbolic, rather than literal, level.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

German cleric usually considered to have formally launched the Protestant Reformation with his list of 95 "theses" itemizing grievances against the Roman Catholic Church, especially its sale of indulgences claimed to absolve individuals' sins.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A sixteenth-century movement in Europe that questioned the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

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