Renewing Appreciation for Lutheran Art

In 2021, the seminary received as a gift a reproduction of the altarpiece at St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany. St. Mary’s was the church at which the Luther family worshiped and where Luther often preached. The original work was designed and installed by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the well-known painter, engraver, and printer, and dedicated in 1547, a year after Luther’s death. Cranach’s shops were located in Wittenberg, and he and Luther became close friends; he was a witness at Luther’s wedding and sponsor for Luther’s first child.

The St. Mary’s reredos* consists of four paintings that depict the use of the means of grace by leaders of the Wittenberg Reformation: Philip Melanchthon baptizing an infant; Luther receiving Holy Communion; Johannes Bugenhagen, the congregation’s pastor, using the binding and loosing keys; and Luther preaching. Because of the altarpiece’s subject matter and its wide familiarity in confessional Lutheran circles, the gift is a significant addition to the works of art displayed on
the seminary campus.

A representation of the Cranach altarpiece became a hoped-for project after the renovation of the seminary chapel in 2006 enlarged the library foyer. Two graduating classes (2009 and 2013) presented the seminary with single paintings in the hope they would eventually be included in a completed project. Unfortunately, the two gifts were not proportionately matched, and the project stalled. In 2019 the work began again. Three new pictures were purchased to match the proportion of the gifted central panel (the 2009 gift hangs at the entrance of the library). The pictures were framed by a local professional, and the entire frame was designed, crafted, and painted by Matthew Staude. The work is a 35% reproduction of the Cranach original and hangs on a west wall of the seminary library.

Lutheranism’s contribution to religious art lies primarily in music. Luther’s love of music and his musical abilities led him to extol music as an effective vehicle for gospel proclamation. His interest in the visual arts is less familiar. Early on he criticized the Roman Church’s massive artistic expenditures but was just as critical of the iconoclasm he saw in Reformed circles. Luther came to value painting, engraving, statuary, and architecture for their ability to communicate gospel truths and encourage Christian devotion. Over the centuries, Lutheran congregations in Europe and America followed Luther’s example and set aside significant resources for the purchase and use of both musical and visual arts.

The seminary was slow to offer artistic experiences to its students despite their liberal arts background and their future leadership roles in WELS congregations. Finances were the usual limiting factor. The chapel in the 1929 seminary in Mequon was not equipped with liturgical art or even an organ until the 1940s. The artistic influence Professor Johannes Koehler would have brought to the faculty and student body was minimized by his departure from the seminary
soon after the new campus’ dedication. As time passed, class pictures covered walls that might have displayed religious art. Occasional paintings and pictures gifted to the seminary usually reflected the personal interest and experience of the donors and were not noteworthy works
of religious art; many were secular and not religious at all.

The donors of the altarpiece have expressed the hope that their gift might encourage the display of additional works of significant religious art in seminary spaces and hallways. There is no need to place art and mission into an adversarial relationship since Lutherans have long understood
that sight and symbol serve the good news as surely as speech does.

*An ornamental screen or partition covering the wall at the back of an altar but not attached directly to the altar.

Retired professor James Tiefel serves as pastor of St. John’s and Trinity, both in Mequon, Wisconsin.