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Archive for October 30th, 2013

This posting is a follow-up to the previous one regarding Lucas Cranach the Elder‘s painting, “The Allegory of Law and Grace“.

There is not one painting with the theme of Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach the Elder, but many paintings and in addition his drawings and woodcuts on the same theme.  This theme was so popular that another German artist, Hans Holbein the Younger painted the same allegory.

Lucas Cranach and his family were friends of the Luthers.  Their friendship in Christ is most likely responsible for the differences between two paintings of the theme Law and Grace by the artist.  Note the differences below.  The first one is the earlier Prague painting, the next one is the later Gotha painting.  What are the differences?  

“Prague”

“Gotha” Type

Let’s first look at the less obvious change.  In the “Prague” painting, on the Law side we see depicted a group of tents in the background illustrating the narrative of the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8-10  ) which our Lord used to describe His Messianic role, see John 3:13-15 Note that in the second painting the “Gotha” panel it has been moved into the Gospel side.  John Dillenberger in his book, Images and Relics in the time of the Reformation and the Renaissance, notes the high probability, given the friendship between Cranach and Luther that Cranach  made this change of  depiction, because Cranach had bee more fully catechized by Dr. Luther.  But why the change?

 Luther did not distinguish between law and gospel in terms of Old Testament and New Testament, for there was law in the New Testament, and gospel in the Old. The other subjects fell easily into either the Old or New Testament divisions. But law and gospel did not easily fall into one or the other testament, thus requiring a decision. The scene of the serpents that devoured the people, who then were saved by their looking at the elevated serpent, is recorded in the Old Testament; but it is actually the symbol of grace. The church had interpreted the serpent being lifted up as a prefiguration of Christ having been lifted up. Luther, looking at the Cross, could…speak of the “brazen serpent Christ,” thereby showing his radical reading of the Old Testament from a Christological perspective.[1]

A correction on the quote above:  the Church did not interpret the bronze serpent being lifted up as a prefiguration of Christ’s crucifixion, no, Christ did! Again, Luther did not come up with “his radical reading of the Old Testament” from the perspective of the accomplishment of salvation in Jesus Christ  (“christological”) on his own.  St. Augustine centuries earlier said that the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. This unity of Testaments in Jesus Christ is inherent in the texts of both Old and New Testaments,  Dillenberger is right on target, though, that the notion that the OT   equals Law and NT equals Gospel/Grace is incorrect.

Now to the obvious difference in the paintings:  the Man, that is Adam, in the earlier painting is smack dab in the middle.  In the later painting, he is on both sides. Dillenberger in the quote above correctly wrote that the earlier painting suggests a decision by Adam as to which side he wants to be in.  Indeed, Luther may just have corrected his friend!

“…the Gotha panel becomes the norm, perhaps because it was closer to what Luther meant. It provided a picture of the ramifications of law and gospel for each person, rather than a demand that either law or gospel be accepted.[2]

It sure looks like in the earlier panel Adam, that is all of us, needs to make our decision for Christ.  The panel of the Law shows the depth of sin, death and the power of the devil.  Only the spiritual use of the Law, showing us our sin, can we know the depths. First, given the graphic illustration of the Law, it’s a “no brainer” as to a decision!  But even so the Old Adam tenaciously will hold onto the “dearest souvenirs of hell”(C. S. Lewis). And the subtle serpent will not present himself so baldy, but in disguise as “light”. We can not make the move by our decision from the left panel to the right panel:  only the Lord can and has through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel does the Holy Spirit literally transfer us from Law to Grace:

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14/ emphasis my own)

So that, we are not under Law but under grace:

 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6: 13-14)

The Law is necessary in the second panel to show us our sin and point us ever to our Savior lifted up on the Cross, so we do not present our “members” as instruments for unrighteousness, but      “…to God as instruments for righteousness”, because as the Apostle plainly states, “SINCE,  you are not under law but under grace.” (emphasis my own).  Luther posted his 95 Theses on purpose on the eve of All Saints Day, November 1.  The second painting depicts more closely the Scripture and the verses cited.  It is a wonderful reminder not only of God’s grace in Jesus Christ but the power of His overwhelming  Sacrifice which alone, ALONE transfers us  in His rule and reign, saints by grace, not our works, so that by His grace we will produce fruit pleasing in His sight. So note, the tree in the middle is fruitless on the law side, but fruitful unto salvation in Jesus. 

By grace! None dare lay claim to merit;
Our works and conduct have no worth.
God in His love sent our Redeemer,
Christ Jesus, to this sinful earth;
His death did for our sins atone,
And we are saved by grace alone

Blessed Reformation Day and All Saints Day!


[1] Pages 98-100, Images and Relics by John Dillenberger (Oxford University Press, 1999)

[2] Page 100, ibid

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