Art and the Reformation - The Lutheran Visual Heritage

Luke Ulrich (Mankato, Minnesota USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Luke Ulrich serves as pastor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church and School in Mankato, Minnesota. Having studied Art History at Bethany Lutheran College, and taken an interest specifically in the visual arts of the Lutheran tradition, Pastor Ulrich wrote a series of articles featured in The Lutheran Sentinel titled “Visualizing the Reformation.” He enjoys spending time with his wife, Rachel, and three children. Other interests include bicycling, cooking, and traveling to places with great art museums.

We can be honest with ourselves: our Lutheran Church does not have the most storied history, nor do we possess a very impressive body of work, in regard to the visual arts. We might consider the works of Cranach or late Dürer, as the high points of Lutheran art. But how do these compare to the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Bernini, Caravaggio, and countless other masters, who have produced works for Roman Catholicism? Even since the Reformation period it seems, generally speaking, that the visual arts within the Lutheran church have been found lacking in quantity and quality. Is this because the Lutheran Church has not been supportive of the visual arts?

There are different factors that give insight to why our visual heritage is found lacking. First of all, Martin Luther himself had a greater passion and natural ability for music than for the visual arts. He and other reformers felt that God's Word could be more clearly and powerfully proclaimed through music and song than through the use of the visual arts. And so, within Lutheranism, the visual arts have been overshadowed by the musical arts. Greater value and appreciation has been assigned to the great Lutheran chorales than to the great Lutheran masterpieces. This is due in part to practicality. It took less time to write a hymn than to paint a masterpiece, and a hymn could be mass produced and widely distributed — uniting people across the land — whereas an altarpiece, no matter how beautiful or how powerful its message was, would affect only those who came to see it. Also, there is the issue of paying for the work. Roman Catholicism had sources of income that the Lutherans had rejected, such as indulgences and the sale of masses. Instead of painting the wealthy patrons into the wings, Lutheran artists painted the common people into their work. They did this for the sake of the message rather than for the sake of money.

So, has the Lutheran Church been a hostile environment to the visual arts and to Lutherans who desire to produce visual art? One might argue that it is not a helpful environment. On the other hand, one might also argue that because of Luther, and especially his emphasis on the doctrine of vocation, Lutheran artists have been freed to produce more and varied work, as demonstrated by the wide variety that is found within this show.

A "Lutheran Art Show" does not need to include only liturgical art (for the specific purpose of promoting and sharing the Word of God) though such work will be found here. But an artist who is Lutheran is free to paint images that are also secular in nature. Certainly, any Christian would want to avoid images that are disrespectful, crude, or sinful; but by producing such work as landscapes, portraits, or even abstract works, the artist is producing art that serves their neighbor. By serving their neighbor in this way, they fulfill their God-given vocation as an artist, regardless of whether the work is religious in nature or not.

The artists participating in this show were invited under this premise. As Lutherans, we understand that even if their work is not explicitly religious in nature, the fact that they are producing their work to the best of their abilities, and to the service of their neighbors, they are thus serving God in their vocation. Can a Lutheran serve in the vocation of "liturgical artist," while another Lutheran serves in the vocation of "landscape artist" or "portraitist"? We must answer: "YES!" Both are good and pleasing to God!

As you look at the wide variety of work within this show, realize that all those participating are of the same fellowship, members of the ELS and WELS. We confess the same teachings and beliefs that are drawn from Scripture and confessed in our Lutheran Confessions. We come to the table with similar worldviews and yet, the work that you see varies greatly! This is designed to force the viewer to be challenged and will lead you to ask questions — important questions that are worth discussing: "What is a 'Lutheran Artist'?" "What makes this art 'Christian' in nature?" "How can we as Lutherans support those among us who are artists, who by their work and influence are helping to 'sanctify the arts and culture'?" "How might we, as Lutherans, moving forward into the next 500 years, better support the visual arts in our midst?"

It is our hope and prayer that this unique show, at the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, might inspire us to appreciate — and encourage us to better support — the visual arts within Lutheranism.

Soli Deo Gloria

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Ben Lundsten (Christians Forward) 2017-10-23 6:58:26pm
Thank you for writing about this topic. I've often dreamed of a world where our churches could commission pieces like those you mentioned. Who wouldn't want an epic statue by Jason Jasperson or the Christ slaying the dragon painting by Jonathan Mayer displayed in their church? I'll never forget when I took my boys through the YFAC to look at all the art. My five-year-old son spent the entire fifteen minutes we were there staring at that Christ painting.

As important and impactful as hymns can be, paintings or great artwork can serve a similar and even complementary purpose. Imagine a church adorned with multiple paintings that have the physical scale and emotional energy conveyed in Jonathan's painting! What wouldn't five-year-old wouldn't gain something from that? Even if it means just sitting still for a bit longer than usual. I wonder if part of the reason we don't value art in the way it once was is due to the fact that spending is looked at through the lens of business. There needs to be a return on investment and in the world of art that return is very subjective or at least not something you can put in a spreadsheet.

I would love to discuss possible solutions to the lack of bold large-scale art in our churches!
Pr. Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church - Mankato, MN) 2017-10-24 3:25:35pm
"There needs to be a return on investment and in the world of art that return is very subjective or at least not something you can put in a spreadsheet." I agree that people look at it in this way. And realistically, our little churches are often much better off making sure that they can keep the doors open and get the bills paid rather than invest in a large-scale piece of artwork. Although it's a point that I try to stress that for these little churches they can still support the liturgical arts and our Lutheran Artists without the huge cost or commitment of an epic piece--i.e. I appreciate Jon Mayer's prints and also the woodblock prints that Jason Jaspersen has been producing. I wish we would see far more of these hanging in our churches, replacing the fading Warner Sallman lithographs & Dali crucifixes. We need to start showing people that good art in the church is valuable! And this can and should be done first of all on a small scale (...maybe you could see to it that there are some quality additions to all those new, empty walls at your church?)... If this is emphasized and appreciated then perhaps people heading forward will want the large-scale piece.

Certainly there are churches out there (even smaller churches) that are committed to the large-scale pieces...(that have some familiar looking disciples in it... ;) ) Maybe it's a question we should go ask that pastor and church in Waterville...How did you get the support from the congregation to commission and hang this huge Last Supper painting by Bill Bukowski?! What can we learn from these people & the others who have given our artists larger commissions?

I think there is a big responsibility upon our larger, highly functioning establishments to set the example and to work to support our artists...And this has been and continues to be done--especially at Bethany (With Bukowski's large-scale work in the Chapel & in Meyer Hall) and at MLC (with the aesthetic qualities of Christ Chapel). But our larger, established congregations (like mine and yours)--should also step forward and make an investment in this way!

The perceived "subjective return" on an investment in liturgical art is definitely not helpful for the production of new liturgical art. In response to this, I would point out that in the history of our own church bodies, we see and value the decisions that our forefathers made to beautify their churches and to have liturgical art present...People are welcome to prove me wrong, but I'm not aware of any churches that regret a decision to invest in a piece of Liturgical Art. But on the other hand, I do know of churches (like my own, Mt. Olive--and our "Jesus Welcomes the Children" stained glass window) who couldn't imagine NOT having that certain piece of Liturgical Art that their forefathers had decided to invest in.

There is probably a longer "art theory and criticism" discussion we could have about subjectivity in secular vs. liturgical art... but I'll save that for another day...
Ben Lundsten (Christians Forward) 2017-10-24 5:11:09pm
I would love to talk with the church that commissions Bill's latest work! I would imagine it started with the pastor who understands the value something like that has.

There are so many different ways to fund art and it's also something that doesn't need to happen asap. A plan could be put in place by deciding on the medium, a painting or a sculpture or even possibly a series, and just putting a fund out there say $10,000. Once that much is raised the art is commissioned, even if it's a few years. The beauty of it is paintings like Bill's or stained glass windows like those at Mt Olive will outlast us like you pointed out. It's an investment not just for us and our children, but our children's children. If $10,000 sounds like a lot for some large-scale paintings or a beautiful sculpture just imagine that lasting for generations. Suddenly the price doesn't seem so steep.

Also, to be clear I wanted to point out that I do not come from the viewpoint of "there needs to be a return on investment", I just think it may be a stumbling block for some people who hesitate to invest in artwork. One other thing to point out is the importance of investing in GOOD art. Yes, there are artists who are truly gifted and those who lack the same talents. If a fund for 10k was raised it should not be spent on the artist who comes the cheapest, but instead, choose the best artist you can find and get what you can for $10,000.
Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church - Mankato, MN) 2017-10-31 12:08:39pm
Ben- You identify very well several of the common difficulties that people in churches face when it comes to the question of whether or not they should invest in some visual arts. I think it can be terrifying to the average common person--it is viewed as huge risk to put down a sizable amount of money. How do they judge the return on their investment?! How do they know it's going to be good? What if it's not?! If we only paid 10 bucks for it, no big deal...but if we paid $10k and everybody hates it, "Whoops!" What then?!

Prof. Bukowski has pointed out before that if there is a single individual who is willing to be a patron and pay for the piece, usually everyone goes along with it. Later on then, people come to see and appreciate what they have. SO in many cases it takes bold individuals who have money. But I also think (as was the case in the example at St. Peter's Bell Church outside of Elysian, MN) the people there knew and appreciated what the visual arts could offer and so they wanted to preserve that for future generations. So they hired Prof. Bukowski to repair and renew the artwork in their sanctuary AND (because of their influence?!) the nearby churches also have commissioned new, original work from him as well.

I wonder all the time, "How can we get good art into the hands of the people, so they see it's value and will be encouraged to support it and put it in their churches in the future?" This was really the impetus of the series "Visualizing the Reformation" in the Lutheran Sentinel (ELS' bi-monthly magazine). But certainly there could be much more done... This is where I am brainstorming ideas and would welcome ideas from anyone else!
Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church - Mankato, MN) 2017-10-31 12:21:13pm
ALSO - I agree that funding art doesn't need to happen asap... It might be as simple as starting a "Liturgical Art Fund" at your home church... Many congregations have an established "Organ Fund" to put money away slowly for the time when a new organ will be needed... When memorials or other special offerings come in they are sometimes given toward the "Organ Fund"--maybe a congregation could be so bold as to have a "Liturgical Art Fund" that could slowly be built up until enough is there to fund a larger-scale work for a special occasion, etc. There are times when people do come and ask--what can I give to? Where can this extra gift go? This isn't too radical of an idea... It might just be that someone simply has to give an initial-seed gift to their church earmarked towards "Liturgical Art Fund" to get it started...
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2017-10-27 12:58:08am
I agree that Christian artists ought to be encouraged and supported with more commissions. But if most Lutherans are like me, we need to be educated, because most of us have no experience with these things. Certain basic questions quickly arise, maybe the first about money. Are we talking hundreds? thousands? tens of thousands of dollars? How do we shop around for an artist? Would we be insulting her if we offered too little? And then there is the fear that comes from not seeing what we are "buying" before we pay for it - what if we end up not liking what the artist produces? To an artist these are probably "dumb questions," but they might reflect kinds of thinking that are barriers to commissions. Would it help Christian artists if they could develop some means of educating us lay people, teaching us everything we ought to know about commissions?
Jason Jaspersen (Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School) 2017-10-30 11:58:16pm
Tom, I launched a website to help answer your Lutheran patron questions about 12 years ago. Jonathan Mayer has done an awesome website redesign and helped with some content. We would be glad to have more traffic when someone wishes to explore commissioning a Lutheran Artist. Have a look at LUTHERANART.COM
Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church - Mankato, MN) 2017-10-31 11:36:00am
Thanks Jason! This is a great website resource...And I didn't even know it existed! (FOR SHAME!!!!) How might we better promote it? I'll start brainstorming and using my connections and outlets...Seriously though, Thanks to You and Jon for having this in place...
Aaron Schultz (Martin Luther College) 2017-11-01 1:55:12pm
Rev. Ulrich,

I enjoyed reading your post on visual arts and Lutheran heritage. I hadn’t realized that there was a lack of visual art because of Luther’s emphasis on music, but what surprised me the most was, in your words, “because of Luther, and especially his emphasis on the doctrine of vocation, Lutheran artists have been freed to produce more and varied work, as demonstrated by the wide variety that is found within this show.” I enjoyed your explanation on how a Lutheran artist can serve God in whatever he does, whether it be religious or secular.

As I was reading, a question came to mind: Since art is such an amazing form of media we can use to proclaim God’s message, why don’t we use it that often? Other than what you have stated about music being Luther’s strength, could a “Lutheran Art Show” help foreign countries better grasp the idea of God’s work?

Thank you for your insight to this topic!
Pr. Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church - Mankato, MN) 2017-11-06 10:30:20am
Thanks Aaron!

I agree with and echo your question--Why don't we use art as a form of media to share the gospel more frequently? Our hope is that the Lutheran Art Show--currently hanging at Bethany, and described/found in this online conference can highlight the talents of artists within our fellowship--and spur people on to support the visual arts as a way to share the Gospel.

I feel like it is a "culture thing"--can the "culture" of our church bodies grow to include a greater appreciation for the visual arts? We want people within our churches to see and to be inspired by great art and the Gospel message it proclaims. Then they might be willing to support the visual arts and our artists by commissions and by willingly hanging their work in our churches, schools, and homes.

And so, YOU can help! Support our artists! Many (i.e. Jason Jaspersen, or Jon Mayer) produce prints that can fit even a Called Worker's budget. Hang them in your home. Donate one to your church. This supports our artists and encourages them to keep producing work in a field that is otherwise very challenging and often-times disheartening (when not supported)!
Brenna Thoma (Martin Luther College ) 2017-11-01 10:07:48pm
. This topic is very enlightening and it is something that I became aware of only very recently, in taking the Fine Arts class at Martin Luther College. One of the topics we discussed at great length was how important it was to have both the musical arts and the visual arts represented in the church. We even had a final project that incorporated aspects of this topic in presentations about the use of both media in our own churches. The beauty and the message of the Gospel can be shared effectively through both forms of media, and it can be our goal as future ministers and laypeople to encourage the increase of visual arts in churches. We are blessed with quite a few talented visual artists in the Lutheran world in addition to the large number of musical talents that we are blessed with. We can utilize both as tools to serve the Lord, to praise Him and as reminders for us of all that he has done and continues to do for us. Do you have any recommendations regarding how or what kind of visual art would be specifically effective in the church as a whole? Or is there one type that you admire in churches that you have seen? Thank you for your insightful knowledge and thoughts.
Pr. Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church - Mankato, MN) 2017-11-08 2:11:34pm
Thanks for your comments Brenna!
I am excited to hear that you see a growing emphasis on making use of the Visual Arts as media to let the beauty and message of the Gospel be shared! I know that this is a growing discussion and emphasis especially at MLC! So Kudos to MLC for promoting the visual arts along with the musical arts. I feel that especially with your beautiful Chapel of the Christ--and in it, the attention to detail and rich inclusion of visual arts (with the Schuette Altarpiece & Croce Dipinta--to the details on the Altar)--there is a change of attitude concerning the visual arts and the value of it in the worship life of our church bodies... Whatever we can do to continue to foster this appreciation among our people--especially our lay-people--would be a benefit and give us wider opportunities to share the Gospel with more people! Thanks again for your comments!
Eric Rukamp (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2017-11-04 3:47:24pm
Pastor Ulrich,

Your article was an exciting view into the role of art in Lutheran churches versus the role in other, Catholic churches. It prompted some new thoughts in me as I read: "Within Lutheranism, the visual arts have been overshadowed by the musical arts. Greater value and appreciation has been assigned to the great Lutheran chorales than to the great Lutheran masterpieces. This is due in part to practicality."

The idea of art value is something that IS subjective from religion to religion, and from congregation to congregation. Some see it as a great donation to the church to commission an art piece, while others may see it as an unrealistic burden. However, I feel that as a Lutheran, I have come to appreciate the various forms art takes within the church. I have seen beautiful art depicted in the paintings and sculptures of Frauenkirche Cathedral in Munich, much as I have heard the beauty of the art of Luther's hymns in my home WELS church. Both of them evoked great love and praise in me, reminding me from whom these gifts came. That seems to be the biggest concern: do you go to the church for the message, or for the art itself? In the end, whether it be beautiful music or beautiful painting, it made me realize that art takes so many forms, and that it can all be used to the purpose of praising God. Remembering the source often can remind us of the tremendous value our hymns and own art have, even if it isn't as grandiose as Michelangelo's Creation of Adam . What are your thoughts on helping others understand the proper role of art in church?
Pr. Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church - Mankato, MN) 2017-11-08 2:38:24pm
Eric- Thank you for your insightful comments!

I'd like to first focus on a brief statement you made concerning the various forms of art and the source of them--when you say: "From whom these gifts came." I have come to look at congregations as "corporate identities" who each possess their own unique "vocations"--that is: "callings," "making use of the talents and gifts that God has bestowed upon them--for serving God and loving their neighbors." So each congregation is going to be unique in their interests and in their ministries--based upon the different members who make up the congregation. Some churches may have people who possess a real love of the visual arts, are gifted craftsmen and artists, and are able to support them; other congregations might have talented musicians and singers. Obviously at face value the culture within these congregations are going to be different. But (getting to your question) the message is the same. We value that Gospel message as the most precious, important, "one-thing-needful" --and so (to borrow an illustration from painting,) the frame that we put around the message, which serves to focus attention on the message will vary from congregation to congregation--but it should all be in service to the Gospel message!

Are there times and places where art can take away from the message? Sadly this can happen. We want to guard against this. I would argue that "Art for Art's Sake" is not valid within Liturgical Art purposes, such art would be detrimental within worship and the church. Liturgically speaking--within the Church, art is to be as you put it: "used to the purpose of praising God." Liturgical Art is to serve a Ministerial--NOT Magisterial role--as it relates to the message of the Gospel. All forms of art within the church must serve the Gospel.... Certainly art in the church (in any form) can become idolatrous--BUT (...before all the Iconoclasts bust out their pitchforks and torches...) we must also acknowledge that art, when used properly, is a valuable tool in helping to proclaim, share, and spread the Gospel message.

Thanks for your thoughts Eric!
Tessa MacPherson (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-09 5:56:01pm
I love what you said about how Lutherans do not have a very impressive body of work, historically, but that doesn't mean we have to stop producing works of art.
Pr Luke Ulrich (Mt. Olive Lutheran Church) 2017-11-12 10:54:32pm
Thanks Tessa! You rock! Keep on producing!
Isabella Lattery (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-13 11:37:49am
Thank you for this amazing article. This article serves as great reminder that Landscape artist and Portraitist can still be christian artist because they are fulfilling their vocation of serving people. I think it is very important to encourage christian art, and this article is spot on with the reasons why.
Emma Hislop (Bethany Lutheran College) 2017-11-14 12:54:32am
I found this article interesting as I am currently writing a paper about Luther and how the Reformation affected Art. I've wondered why art doesn't seem as appreciated or wanted in the Lutheran church, but considering that Luther was more a musician than artist, I guess it makes a little sense. Luther did use the visual arts when needed to create thing such as Luther's Seal, but his emphasis was on music. It never occurred to me that practicality may play a part in this. Luther wanted to proclaim the Gospel message to the people, and he wanted to do it in the easiest, fastest way. Music is an easy way to communicate the message to a person, who then can pass it on to another. Art wasn't so easy to share, especially at the beginning of the Reformation, but as it progressed, art became more private and works were able to be done in print so that copies were available for individuals. However, music was Luther's go-to. Interesting!