Lenten Midweek 6
“The Saints of Lent”
Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Durer – Artists (April 6)
As our midweek series on the “Saints of Lent” comes to a close, we might look back for a moment to those we have considered in these 6 weeks: Matthias, the replacement apostle about whom little is known, who nevertheless faithfully fulfilled his appointed office. Perpetua and Felicitas, early Christian martyrs who died while firmly refusing to renounce their faith. Patrick, a great missionary who returned to Ireland to preach Jesus to his former slave masters. Joseph the Guardian of Jesus, obedient and faithful, protector of Mary and Jesus. And then Joseph the Old Testament patriarch – a model of forgiveness and a shadow of the Christ who was to come. They are men and women from various walks of life, different vocations, in different times and places. And by their very diversity they remind us of the far-reaching scope of salvation, that our God is the redeemer of all people of all times and places who would trust in him, and his Son Jesus Christ. Looking forward or backward. Showing that faith in life and in death. The saints are, all, in the end, all about Christ.
So too for today's examples - 16th century artists Lucas Cranach and Albrecht Durer, commemorated in the Lutheran Church on April 6th. These contemporaries of Martin Luther and the reformers were prolific and well-respected artists even in their own days. But why, exactly, do we make a point of remembering them? And what do their lives teach us about the faith? How do they point us to Christ crucified for sinners? Today we'll take a closer look.
For starters, perhaps a general word about how Lutherans have understood Christian art. Lutherans were conservative reformers, and unlike some who thought we didn't go far enough away from Rome. Some protestants, to this day, espoused an iconoclasm – literally, a burning of images – in their zeal to put distance between themselves and Roman Catholicism. It's why many protestant churches today are rather void of artwork, bare and austere. You won't see stained glass or sometimes even a cross in certain churches, because they consider these “graven images” and against the commandments. They would even re-number the commandments so that the warning about graven images is its own commandment.
Clearly not all artwork or imagery is of the devil. The church never understood this to be the case for at least the first 1500 years. Scripture itself shows examples in which artwork adorned even the tabernacle and temple furnishings. In Phillipians 4, Paul encourages us, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” David made glorious music and poetry in other forms of artwork – some of which we even include in the canon of Scripture – the Psalms!
We can understand the danger. Not only in the Old Testament time did humans fall victim to the temptations of worshipping images, created things. Some Christians today seem to have a toe in that water with an over-emphasis on the use of iconography in worship. For the Eastern Orthodox, for instance, they say that when an icon is venerated, "the praise and veneration shown to the icon passes over to the archetype”, that is, whatever or whomever is depicted.
But Lutherans neither despise nor venerate artwork. Nor do we consider art to be among the “means of grace”. We hold that these things fall into the realm of Christian freedom, and that godly visual art, and also music (another form of art) may serve to glorify God by its beauty. And to the extent that the art comports with Scripture, it may well reinforce the doctrines taught there. We don't worship artwork any more than we worship the saints. But we can see in it faithful instruction and confession of the Christian faith, much the same way we can see God working through the lives of the saints.
Now, I don't want to turn this into a history lesson or biography on either of these men, but there's much that could be said about their lives and work. I'll give a very brief synopsis of each of these men, and then encourage you to read deeper if you have the interest.
Albrecht Durer (born in 1471 in Nurenberg, Germany) was perhaps the more famous of these two men, and was in contact with the likes of Raphael and DaVincci. A very learned man, himself, he is most well-known perhaps for his woodcuts (like the example on your bulletin), though he also produced watercolors, landscapes, altar-pieces, portraits, and wrote an autobiography. One of his most famous works is a simple drawing of praying hands. While it is clear from both his work and his writings that he was an admirer of Luther, and even held some sympathy toward the Reformation movement, he never formally renounced Roman Catholicism.
Lucas Cranach (born in 1472) was certainly more closely associated with Luther and the Reformation. In addition to working as an artist for the various Lutheran princes, Cranach was also a close personal friend of Martin Luther. He was present when Luther was engaged to his wife Katherine, a former nun. Cranach was godfather to Luther's first child, and painted several portraits of Luther. His artwork, increasingly through his life, conveyed some of the themes of Reformation theology. Some of it was even a bit polemical, for instance, showing Jesus driving the pope and the Roman Catholics out of the temple. Cranach had two sons, one of them an artist himself who finished his most famous work (which we'll talk about in a moment). And he also had a daughter who became an ancestor to the famous German poet Goethe.
As I said, this brief synopsis of both men's lives is about all I can do in a sermon. Moreover, in a sermon, I can't show you many visual examples of what they produced. But we have, on your bulletin today, one example each of some of their more well-known works.
Perhaps Cranach's most famous work is this altarpiece from Weimar, Germany. It's the color piece on your bulletin, and a poster of it also hangs in the hall between here and the narthex. It was completed in 1555, after Cranach's death, by his son Lucas Cranach (the Younger). It is still displayed in St. Peter and Paul church in Weimar, Germany.
This piece, too is a crucifixion scene, but much more. It's too small to see on this version, but there are depictions of Moses preaching the Law, and of a Skeleton chasing man into the fires of hell. You might see yourself in the painting here, as a sinner, reminded of God's law and its terrors. But there, also, too small to see – are the bronze serpent raised up in the wilderness, an Old Testament foreshadowing of Christ, and the Angels announcing Christ's birth in Bethlehem. Cranach, it is clear, knew both the accusations of the law, but also the comforts of the Gospel as revealed in Scripture.
The focus of the piece, is of course, Christ crucified. A second figure of Christ is depicted there on the left, driving a spear through Satan, depicted as a dragon Christ tramples Satan with one foot and death (a skeleton) with another. This is the risen Christ! And that's not just any spear, but it is the flag of victory that Jesus has won over his enemies and ours.
A third nod to Christ is the lamb, depicted before the cross – reminding us that Christ was the perfect sacrifice for all. John the Baptist is portrayed there, pointing with one hand to the lamb, and the other to Christ. Remember it was John who said of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Standing next to John are the artist himself, Cranach, and wee see the blood of Jesus flowing directly out and onto his forehead. In this way, the artist both confesses his own faith, and stands as an “everyman” representing all Christians. We could imagine ourselves standing there with Cranach, as we too are washed clean in the blood of Christ. May his blood ever be upon us and on our children!
Then, of course, next to Cranach you have Martin Luther. Luther holds a bible, and points us to the word. If you look on a larger copy, you can see that Bible is open to the passage from Hebrews we heard as our reading tonight. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
The cross is, in a sense, that throne of grace. It is that place where Jesus is most glorious, most kingly, most gracious. It is that place where he won help for us in time of need. It is that demonstration of both God's justice and mercy. It is the hub of all history, the crossroads of time, as the Old Testament looked forward and we in the New Testament times look back. It is the most important event, not just of all artwork ever depicted, but of all eternity – that in Jesus Christ, God died for the sins of the world. When we draw near to the cross, and to Christ who was crucified for us, when we look to him in faith – we indeed find that mercy and grace.
Thank God for Christian artists who faithfully confess the truth of this Christian faith - in whatever form that artwork takes. May we also be moved to use the gifts God has given to us for his greater glory, and in service to our neighbor.
And as this Lenten season comes to a close, and we turn our eyes to Holy Week, give thanks not only for the saints who have gone before us, but that through Jesus Christ, through his suffering, death and resurrection, we too are made holy and righteous. May you find blessing in his Word, and in his Sacrament in this holy season, and forevermore. In Jesus' Name. Amen.