Art and the Reformation - Martin Luther and the Plastic Arts

Tim Schmeling (Mankato, Minnesota USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Dr. Timothy R. Schmeling, Professor of Exegetical and Historical Theology at Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, Mankato, Minnesota, received his PhD from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He has also studied at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, MN, and at the Lutherisches Theologisches Seminar in Leipzig, Germany. Dr. Schmeling edited Lives and Writing of the Great Fathers of the Lutheran Church and was a guest lecturer at the Lutherisches Theologisches Seminar in Leipzig, Germany. His wife Annette (née Habben) grew up in Japan and is a registered nurse. They have two children, Sophia and Andreas.
Many today might still be surprised to learn that Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) did not share the iconoclastic (Greek, "image breaker") tendencies of the Reformed and Radicals. Even if this myth has started to fade, does not Luther's stress on the preached Word of God and his theology of the cross preclude a positive view of the plastic arts (painting, sculpture, and film), not to mention any real theological aesthetics? Luther provides a preliminary response to this question in his 1525 Against the Heavenly Prophets.

"I have myself seen and heard the iconoclasts read out of my German Bible.... Now there are a great many pictures in those books, both of God, the angels, men and animals, especially in the Revelation of John and in Moses and Joshua. So now we would kindly beg them to permit us to do what they themselves do. Pictures contained in these books we would paint on walls for the sake of remembrance and better understandings, since they do no more harm on walls than in books. It is to be sure better to paint pictures on walls of how God created the world, how Noah built the ark, and whatever other good stories there may be than to paint shameless worldly things. Yes, would to God that I could persuade the rich and the mighty that they would permit the whole Bible to be painted in houses, on the inside and the outside, so that all can see it. That would be a Christian work." [1]

This essay maintains that Luther not only has more to say about the plastic arts than was once surmised, but that he has some important thoughts about theological aesthetics as well.

Luther's contributions to music and poetics are already well known. They are greater than his artistic contributions because of his own deep familiarity with them. Since music was a part of the medieval educational system (quadrivium), Luther learned it early on and came to excel in it. In addition to singing in choirs and playing the lute, he penned famous tunes and settings for hymns and the Lutheran mass. At university, Luther was exposed to Renaissance humanism, a new educational approach and methodology, which further honed his philological, poetic, and historical skills. The fact that Luther would bring nothing into the friary except his Virgil and Plautus is a sign of its early impact on him. Luther's own poetic talents are evidenced in his hymns, translations, and edition of Aesop's Fables. But his true artistic masterpiece was the German Bible. It translated God's Word into eloquent and accessible German that endeared it to the people and fundamentally shaped the German language for generations to come.

Luther's criticisms of images and statues are generally found in his early polemics against the false doctrines and abuses of the late medieval Latin Church. The medieval church had fostered the notion that the veneration of images and the funding of their creation was a good work that merited a reduced stay in purgatory. Since Luther rejected the pagan notion that God's fallen creature (man) had anything to offer his perfect creator, Luther opposed the work-righteous use of images and statues, but not images and statues themselves. Reflecting on Romans 1:17, Luther eventually rediscovered that only the imputation of Christ's passive righteousness (i.e., the crediting of Christ's holiness to the believer in justification) could recreate man's lost relationship with God. Had not Christ stated that a bad tree cannot become a good tree by trying harder to bear good fruit? The true purpose of active righteousness (i.e., good works), conversely, was to thank God by serving one's neighbor and caring for the creation through vocations in the home, church, and society/state. This new relationship with God, Luther further rediscovered, was only re-created through God's very same Word that once had the power to bring the universe into being and the same Word that assumes oral, written, and sacramental forms today.

However, the Radicals and Reformed did not think Luther went far enough. Appealing to the prohibition against making graven images (Exodus 20:4), they began to destroy icons and statues as idolatry. Eventually they would also assert the so-called regulative principle of worship, namely that anything not commanded in the Bible must be forbidden in worship. Recognizing that idolatry was really a matter of the heart, Luther would challenge these iconoclastic ideas on exegetical, hermeneutical, and incarnational grounds. Much like John of Damascus (ca. 675 - ca. 750), Luther showed that God had at times actually commanded the making of religious images (e.g. Cherubim Mercy Seat of God on the Ark of the Covenant) as well as the making of images of God himself (e.g. Bronze Serpent that foreshowed Christ), albeit as God veiled himself in Scripture (e.g. Holy Spirit as a Dove). Drawing on the hermeneutics of St. Paul, Luther distinguished between proscription and description in the Bible. He then argued that where God does not proscribe, the Christian has Christian freedom. In contradistinction to the Gnostic tendencies of the Radicals and Reformed, Luther reasserted the goodness of God's creation. He pointed out that God often masks his providential care in the vocations of Christians and the civil righteousness of unbelievers. Luther insisted that God saves mankind through material signs like the letters on the page of a Bible, water, wine, and bread. He encouraged the use of religious art as a means of teaching the Word of God as indicated above. That said, images always remained adiaphoron for Luther (i.e., they were neither required nor forbidden). [2]

It is certainly true that Protestantism as a whole changed the Divine Service from a multi-sensory encounter with God's grace to a strictly auditory event. This is not true of Lutheranism despite Luther's stress on the church being a "mouth house." [3] Luther not only cherished the sacraments, but he recognized the power of iconography and sculpture for conveying the faith. Furthermore, Luther's focus on the preached Word of God was not so much a marginalization of iconography, as a call to fully recognize the power of the manifold images evoked by God's performative Word. God cannot be "seen" apart from the Word. Thus, Luther recognized that language is embodied in images which the mind and heart in turn process. After all, what else is a letter, but an image? Luther writes,

"But it is impossible for me to hear and bear [the works of God] in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will to or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ on my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?" [4]

On the other hand, Luther did not approve of some of the pronouncements of the VII Ecumenical Council (787) that laid out the medieval theology of icons. He had little time for the Platonism that undergirded the theology of icons. The council's attempt to distinguish the veneration given to images from the adoration offered only to God was so often blurred in practice. Still Luther insisted with the council that anyone who denies that Christ can be depicted is de facto denying the incarnation itself. What is more, God's Word does not just take oral, written, and sacramental forms for Luther, but even mental and visual forms as well. He even suggests that that a crucifix could convey God's grace insofar as it is a visual form of God's Word.

"Thus I believe that our dear Lord preserved many of our forefathers in the gross darkness of the Papacy. In that blindness and darkness so much still remained that a crucifix was held before the eyes of the dying and that some laymen would urge them: "Behold Jesus, who died for you on the Cross!" This induced many a dying man to turn again to Christ, though previously he, too, believed the lying wonders and was given to idolatry." [5]

In his Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal, Mark Mattes argues that Luther did not embrace the classical Neo-Platonic aesthetics of the medieval theologians. Luther did not determine beauty on the basis of proportion, light or color, and integrity or perfection (much less a Kantian notion of the sublime). The medieval theologians tended to think about beauty in terms of metaphysical degrees of closeness to God. Instead Mattes shows that Luther articulates a Biblical conception of beauty grounded in the goodness of the created order and the grace of God. God's proper work (Gospel) is beautiful; beauty is a received beauty. In the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther writes, "The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it.... Therefore, sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive." [6] With this in mind, even the contorted, diseased, and crucified Christ, portrayed in the famous Isenheim Altarpiece, becomes a thing of beauty. The altarpiece, which originally hung in a monastery of a religious order focused on care of the sick, depicts a twisted Christ who quite literally takes on man's infirmities to heal him. Still the painting is beautiful because it reflects the unmerited grace of God to the human race in spite of man's loss of proportion, light, and integrity with God.

Luther's views on art were given concrete expression in the work of one of his closest friends Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 - 1553), the Electoral Saxon court painter and Wittenberg entrepreneur. The friendship proved mutually beneficial. Luther affirmed the value of art. Cranach used his political connections and art to advance the Lutheran Reformation. Cranach shaped the image of Luther in his portraits so effectively that his workshop could hardly keep up with the demand for pictures of the Reformer. He ensured that German Lutheranism and the German Renaissance would be anything but visually stunted. Cranach illuminated and explicated Luther's pamphlets, prayer books, Bible, and catechisms with striking pictures. Above all else, he captured the theology of the Reformation in visual form. His Law and the Gospel (1529) concretized the fundamental Lutheran hermeneutic of the Bible. The goodness of creation, vocations, and human sexuality are affirmed in his domestic themes and nudes. Long before Lutherans attempted to confess the Augsburg Confession in art, the Wittenberg Altarpiece (1547) confessed in a much more aesthetically pleasing fashion the centrality of Christ Crucified as well as the sole re-creative power of God's Word in all its forms.

To be sure, a few incidents of iconoclasm did occur among some poorly informed Lutherans. Pietism tended to downplay the arts as well. Truth be told, Lutherans preserved much of the medieval and renaissance visual art of Northern Europe. They even created a new Lutheran iconography and continued to cultivate the plastic arts in their lands. Sad to say, some of that art was destroyed in wars, but much of it still remains to be experienced.

Clearly the old myth that Luther had little positive to say about the plastic arts has been sufficiently put to rest. I hope this essay has also sparked the reader's interest in further exploring Luther's theological aesthetics, which largely remains unexplored. With that, Luther himself will have the last word, "Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like all the arts, especially music in the service of Him who gave and made them." [7]


[1] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut Lehmann, and Christopher Brown (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Publishing House, 1955), 40:99.

[2] Luther, "Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, (1522)," LW, 81 - 86 especially; Luther, "Against the Heavenly Prophets, (1525)," in LW 40:146 - 47.

[3] Martin Luther, "First Sunday in Advent, Math. 21:1 - 9," in The Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. and trans. John N. Lenker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 1:44.

[4] Luther, "Against the Heavenly Prophets, (1525)," in LW 40:99 - 100.

[5] Luther, St. L., XIII:2575, quoted in Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, trans John Theodore Mueller (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950 - 57), 3:106n9. Pieper adds, "Furthermore, the Gospel is such a means of grace in every form in which it reaches men, whether it be preached (Mark 16:15 - 16; Luke 24:47), or printed (John 20:31; I John 1:3 - 4), or pictured in symbols or types (John 3:14 - 15), or pondered in the heart (Rom. 10:8), and so forth."

[6] Luther, LW, 31:57.

[7] Luther, "Preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal (1524)," in LW, 53:316.

Further Reading

Anttila, Mikka. "Die Ästhetik Luthers." Kerygma und Dogma 58, no. 4 (2012): 244 - 255.

Hofmann, Werner, ed. Luther und die Folgen für die Kunst. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1983.

Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016.

Lutherhandbuch, s.v. "Bildende Kunst." 3rd ed. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017.

Mattes, Mark. Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Menuge, Angus J. L. "The Cultural and Aesthetic Impact of Lutheranism." In Where Christ is Present: A Theology for All Seasons on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, edited by John Warwick Montgomery and Gene Edward Veith. 209 - 231. Irvine: NRP Books, 2015.

Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, s.v. "Martin Luther's Theological Aesthetics." Accessed August 15, 2017. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.350.

Ozment, Steven. The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the Making of the Reformation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Preuss, Hans. Martin Luther der Küstler. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1931.

Stolt, Birgit. Martin Luthers Rhetorik des Herzens. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000.

Streier, Richard. "Martin Luther and the Real Presence in Nature." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 37 (2007): 271–303.

Thiemann, Ronald F. "Sacramental Realism: Martin Luther at the Dawn of Modernity." In Lutherrenaissance Past and Present, edited by Christine Helmer and Bo Kristian Holm, 156 - 173. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

Tonkin, John. "Word and Image: Luther and the Arts." Colloquium 17 (1985): 45 - 54.

Weimar, Christoph. "Luther and Cranach on Justification in Word and Image." Lutheran Quarterly 18 (2004): 387 - 405.

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Judy Kuster 2017-10-27 6:08:28pm
Thanks for giving me an opportunity to grow;-)

Your interesting paper challenged me

to search for words and terms like
theological aesthetics, philological, polemics, Gnostic tendencies, plastic arts, Lutheran hermeneutic, and many more

to search for events and people
Heidelberg Disputation

to Google images where I could see paintings mentioned that I wanted to see
Isenheim Altarpiece
Wittenberg Altarpiece
Cranach's paintings of Luther and "domestic themes and nudes"

Other things I'd never heard of before
like Luther's Aesop's Fables

But don't test me on this;-)
Timothy Schmeling (Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary) 2017-10-28 3:43:27pm
No worries, there is no test. I enjoyed contributing to this conversation. It was exciting to discover that Luther’s conception of aesthetics and the visual arts was far richer than is often thought.
Erin Malsack (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-08 10:36:13pm
Thank you for the interesting read. I had not previously considered how Martin Luther's artistic views had shaped theological practices. It does lead me to wonder what present Lutheranism would look like if Luther had taken a more extreme view of iconography. Would a more radical view be more commonplace, or would a moderate approach still develop and gain popularity? I would be interested to hear your opinion.
Timothy Schmeling (Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary) 2017-11-09 5:25:30pm
Thanks for the response. If you mean an Eastern Orthodox/Roman Catholic theology of icons by “a more extreme view of iconography,” Luther and the later Lutherans would have objected to the Neoplatonism undergirding of those views. They would also find the veneration (honor) offered to the saints through icons problematic, especially because it was so often conflated with the adoration (worship) due God. That said, Luther’s defense of religious iconography/art was actually embraced by the next generations of German, Scandinavian, and Slavic Lutherans. In fact, they not only retained medieval religious art, but they also produced new religious art. For example, see Dresden’s Frauenkirche, the Bertel Thorvaldsen’s (1770–1844) Christus, etc. Some of Luther’s theological aesthetics can be found in Johann Georg Hamann (1730–88).The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Repristination Theology and the Luther Renaissance would help rediscover Luther’s theology.

However, I think you are asking why subsequent Lutherans became disconnected from a number of aspects of Luther’s thought. One major reason was because the Reformed (Calvinist) Reformation and the Radical Reformation continually challenged Lutheran theology. This was complicated by the church-political situation in the Holy Roman Empire. After 1555, only two religions were legal in the empire, the so-called Ancient Faith (Roman Catholicism) and the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran). Since the Reformed faith (Calvinism) was not legal until 1648 in the Holy Roman Empire, Reformed pastors often attempted to turn Lutheran lands Reformed in theology, while at the same time maintain that they too were Adherents of the Augsburg Confession to retain legal status. Thus, Reformed pastors infiltrated Lutherans lands, telling people that Reformed iconoclastic theology was real Lutheran theology and that the Lutheran pastors were really closet Roman Catholics. In some German territories (states) like Brandenburg, the Lutheran Elector converted to Calvinism and then attempted to suppress religious images and Lutheran theology. Later these same electors marginalized the University of Wittenberg and championed Pietism as a means of fusing Lutheranism and Reformed theology. See Bodo Nischen, Prince, People, and Confession: The Second Reformation in Brandenburg (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994); Bodo Nischan, Lutherans and Calvinists in the Age of Confessionalism (Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 1999).

By 1817, Brandenburg-Prussia forced Lutherans and Reformed into a united church called the Prussian Union that suppressed many aspects of Lutheran teaching. The modern Evangelical Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), where the Lutheran, Reformed, and Union state churches are united in confederation, was the final victory of the Brandenburg electors’ religious policy. These attempts to suppress Lutheranism brought many of our Germany Lutheran forefathers to America. They wanted to recover authentic Biblical Lutheranism. The struggle in America was that Lutheranism (theology and liturgical practice) did not look Protestant/Evangelical enough. (This is a bit ironic because Lutherans are the original Protestants and Evangelicals). In addition, Evangelical Christianity of the Great Awakenings so dominated American thinking and the connotation of English religious language that Lutherans had to work twice as hard to get back to the Biblical meanings of even core Biblical concepts like “faith,” “justification,” etc. As Lutherans began to really speak English, WWI came along and it was very unpopular to speak German. Thereafter, American Lutherans became more and more unable to read German/Latin Lutheran theology because little had been translated into English and less and less understood German/Latin. Apart from a few very small collections of Luther’s writings, the first major English translation of Luther’s German/Latin writings began in 1955. See Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut Lehmann, and Christopher Brown (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Publishing House, 1955–).

I hope this explains how a Lutheran understanding of images is different from Roman Catholic or Protestant/Evangelical views. I hope that it also explains how Reformed/Evangelical thinking, etc. kept Lutherans from fully realizing the aesthetic potential of Biblical Lutheran Christianity. As more and more of Luther fathers are translated into English, these writings will no doubt help up dig deeper into other aspects of God’s Word as well as help us better articulate the faith in America and elsewhere. After all, good historical theology always drives back in the Sacred Scriptures. Blessings.
Isabella Lattery (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-13 11:27:52am
Thank you for the interesting read. What a great essay on Luther's thoughts towards the arts. I love how this put to rest the misconception that Luther hated all art, but instead saw a great use for it.