1500 – 1600
End of the Renaissance and the Reformation

Cranach's Wittenberg Altarpiece

Cranach, Wittenberg Altarpiece

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Wittenberg Altarpiece (1547)

This altarpiece is the focal point of the City Church in Wittenberg; three-paneled altarpieces like this -- called triptychs -- were meant to aid and inspire worship in churchgoers.  It is also a work of religious propaganda -- a clear illustration of the effects of the Reformation on Northern European art.

The Reformation was the formation of the Protestant church by Martin Luther after splitting from the Catholic Church (click here for a longer explanation).  Lucas Cranach, the artist, was in fact a friend of Luther’s and painted portraits of him and his wife Katharine; he was also a devout reformer who produced many religious works.  

Cranach, Wittenberg Altarpiece

What Does it Show?
The front panels show Lutheran sacraments (rituals deemed essential to following the religion) as well as the traditional Christian scene of the Last Supper.  Portraying all of these subjects on one altarpiece is meant to say to the viewer, 'Luther’s church is the REAL religion, in the spirit of Christ.'  Of course, the art of the Counter-Reformation in the south was saying just the opposite!

On the left front panel, a Protestant colleague of Luther’s is shown baptizing followers into the new faith (the sacrament of Baptism). The right panel depicts a Wittenberg minister leading the sacrament of Confession, and the center shows the Last Supper of Christ (Communion). The three panels are harmonized by subject matter, color, and repeated shapes. Look at the round baptismal font, the round table, and the rounded arches which frame and embrace the tops of all panels. These tie separate events and times into one graceful scene.

The Historical Context of the Reformation

In the bottom panel, Cranach shows Luther presenting the crucified Christ to a group of followers. This scene is not meant to be taken literally, but as a metaphor for the Protestant message- that Luther was seen as the teacher and leader of the new church. He places one hand on a book of scripture, driving home the message of scriptural authority over traditional Church authority; Protestants believed that people should read and interpret the Bible on their own. The relative simplicity and somberness of dress and appearance is typical of this period of Reformation art, as opposed to the more sensual, muscular figures seen in Counter-Reformation and Baroque art from Italy (such as the slightly later Carracci and Caravaggio).  For further comparison of the diverging styles, see Smarthistory's overview of the Baroque.

By Elizabeth Massa-MacLeod

Your Comments (5)

Previous Comments

Tom Lynch wrote on Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hello, Do you have any idea which apostle is which in this last supper scene? Tom

Eva Cronsioe wrote on Monday, May 09, 2011

Very interesting presentation - but I think Elizabeth Massa-MacLeod has missed the point of the bottom panel of the Wittenberg Altarpiece. I does not primarily show Luther as the leader of the reformation, but illustrates the very central concept of the WORD in the lutheran worship service. According to Luther

Carla wrote on Tuesday, May 15, 2012

There is no sacrament of Confession in the Lutheran Church-only two Sacraments--Baptism and Holy Communion.

Gene White wrote on Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The bottom panel depicts something missed in the explanation. Luther is preaching to the congregation, consisting of family and friends, but notice that the very center of the piece is the cruxified Christ. That is what he is preaching by pointing to the cross. Christ must be at the center of proper preaching. Another point could be that as the cross is the center, neither the congregation or the preacher is any closer to Christ than the other.Actually, I am looking for a theological explaination of each panel as I think there is more there than just what has been said above.

Nick Thompson wrote on Friday, August 03, 2012

Carla, although Luther did not regard confession as a sacrament later in his career, the Lutheran church in Germany and in some other places retained the practice of private confession to a pastor as an extension of the sacrament of baptism and an expression of the

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