Friday, October 23, 2015

Cranach Confessions

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In a little more than a week the Church will be celebrating All Saints Day. It is festival in which we thank God for His blessings showered on those who have gone before us with the sign of Faith, and for the blessings bestowed on us through their confession of the Gospel. It is both joyful and sobering to recognize this intersection of time and eternity. The reality of saints departed brings both sorrow and the knowledge of its eventual remedy. Today we won’t address ALL the saints – just one.

We can now call him simply Saint Lucas, though before he left this world he was like you and I – a sinner/saint. He came into the world naked and filled with sin as you and I did. He put on his pants – as my Father used to say – one leg at a time, just like you and I. Okay, maybe they weren’t technically pants; maybe they were Renaissance hose, but you get the gist.

Lucas Cranach the Elder was a talented artist, successful businessman, wealthy landowner, schmoozer of royalty, and a friend of Martin Luther. He was a mover and shaker in Germanic society of the Northern Renaissance. But Cranach realized he was something much less: A sinful human very much in need of a Savior.

The artist left us a monstrous trove of art. Some of it shows his deep devotion, reflected in confessional images. Other portions show an amazing portrait portfolio of those close to him, without which we would be bereft of the face of the Reformation. His studio also produced the more mundane images of classical antiquity that the Renaissance appetite demanded. But there is one image which, perhaps more than any other, defines this master of Northern Renaissance art as a confessor of Divine Truth, and it is one of my favorite images.
“Crucifixion” [Detail of “The Weimar Altarpiece”]
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Younger.
1555. (Stadtkirche Sankt Peter und Paul, Weimar, Germany)

The Weimar Altarpiece, located in the church of Saints Peter and Paul, was not entirely done by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The artist was commissioned to create an altarpiece that would act as an epitaph for John Frederick of Saxony and his family, but Cranach died in 1553 – two years before the altarpiece was finished. It was completed by the artist’s son and artistic progeny, Lucas Cranach the Younger. So much of it was worked by Cranach’s son that the Altarpiece is often attributed to him alone. We must assume, however, that the basic composition and imagery reflect the thoughts, if not the hand, of Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The central panel of the altarpiece is packed with heavy theological imagery. Beginning with the left background, a demon and death push a man away from the tablets of the Law, which condemns man, toward the flames of hell. The right background prefigures the Divine plan of salvation – the bronze serpent is lifted up, offering salvation for the children of Israel wandering aimlessly in the desert. Behind this is a vignette of angels heralding the Gospel to shepherds watching their flocks.

As is common for visual narratives of the period, some figures are repeated. Christ is shown in victory on the left. Death and Satan, which once dogged man, are defeated under the wounded feet of a resurrected Christ. A second figure of the Christ crucified dominates the composition, and His corpus is underscored by John the Forerunner who, in a twist of time, points his living finger at the dying Lamb of God. A weighty figure of Martin Luther points to a weightier edition of Scripture, emphasizing that all of the inspired writings point to Jesus Christ. And between John the Baptist and Martin Luther stands a likeness of the artist – Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The artist’s presence would normally be missed in similar altarpieces, where patrons and their families typically show up on the fringes of such sacred settings. But the Weimar Altarpiece contains a singular device that stares the viewer in the face – the flow of Christ’s blood directly onto the head of the artist.

Cranach has painted the profound, for the issue of blood is, in this case, exclusive – it neither touches Luther, nor the Baptizer nor anyone else. It is personal. It is deeply confessional, nearly ignoring Christ’s sacrifice for sinful mankind, showing lack of any action or merit on a man’s account, and pointedly highlighting The Savior’s sacrifice for sinful Lucas. The altarpiece was intended as a epitaph for nobility, but, in reality, it is a noble epitaph for Lucas Cranach the Elder, and an even greater witness to The Christ and His redeeming love for the individual. Seeing the artist in a simple, inactive pose, helplessly receiving the blood of our Savior, we mentally step into that painting and beg of The Savior the same redeeming flood.

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