Friday, September 9, 2016

A Rose by Another Name

Copyright © Edward Riojas
An early woodcut of Luther’s Rose
that includes the reformer’s initials


Luther’s Seal has come down to us as a time-honored emblem of Lutheran identity. For nearly 500 years, it has shown up in publications, on school walls, church banners, jewelry, and seemingly every nook and cranny of the denomination’s existence. It is who we are. And it is old.

Perhaps it is too old. After a while, folks become immune to its significance and ignorant of its meaning. Consider this, therefore, a refresher course in the symbolism of Luther’s Seal, otherwise known as Luther’s Rose.

Martin Luther didn’t have the benefit of a multi-billion dollar agency specializing in corporate identity branding to develop a logo. There were no focus groups or test markets. The reformer only had his wits, a designer friend, and a knowledge of heraldry.
This artist’s interpretation of the early
woodcut, produced for a lectionary
series, available at higherthings.org


Being one to keenly recognize the finer differences between tradition and truth, Luther didn’t totally ignore visual traditions of the day. Family coats of arms – identifiers on the battlefield – had been in use for generations, and were not only emblazoned on ‘team uniforms,’ but were also used as visual proof of ancestral lineage. There were countless, individual heraldic images, but it was the combination and permutation of those individual images that meant something.

From 1461 to 1485, Edward IV wore as his badge the White Rose of York, known then as the royal rose. After the War of the Roses, the Tudor Rose came into prominence, with its combination of a red Lancaster rose superimposed by the white York rose. Luther certainly knew of these heraldic devices, and borrowed the white rose for his seal.

In a letter to Lazarus Spengler, who apparently designed the seal in the first place at the request of John Frederik of Saxony, Luther explained, “[It] places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels.”
A contemporary version
painted on wood by Tanya Nevin,
available from the artist at
vangoghsearpaintstudio.com
or through adcrucem.com


The white rose, however, is not central to Luther’s Seal – the cross is. A black cross “Mortifies and ... should also cause pain.” Luther’s explanation here uses the older meaning of “mortify” – the cross does not embarrass us, but instead subdues the old Adam and subjugates us to our Father’s Will.

It is curious that the heart on which the cross is placed was originally closer in shape to a natural organ and not of the schmaltzy, Valentine variety. Luther emphasized this in his choice of color: “[The black cross] leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. "The just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17) but by faith in the crucified.” Thus, the heart represents a beating one.

Luther placed his rose on a field of blue, signifying “That such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed.” We look not simply at the blue sky, but at what lies beyond.

The reformer then encircled the whole with “A golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal.”

It is well that Luther’s letter to Spengler laid out the meaning of his own symbol as a theological one that “Hit the mark.” Luther’s application of color even side-stepped the traditional meaning of heraldic tinctures and pressed them into use to his own advantage. In doing so, he made a profound statement through what he referred to as his “Compendium theologiae.” While contemporary devices claimed lineage through sometimes-questionable ancestry, Luther claimed sonship in Christ through The Savior’s Redemptive act, and adoption into the royal family of God. By Grace, we [still] do the same.

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