New Testament in Art: Weimer Altarpiece
The Weimer Altarpiece is a painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger, son of the famous Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose works revolve around religion and mythological paintings. Both the Elder and the Younger are noted for their emphasis on the Lutheran Reformation and protestant focused religious portraits and scenes. However the current piece is one of the Elder’s much more traditional paintings and was actually finished by the Younger in 1555. Both the Younger and the Elder had a strong bias against what they perceived to be dogmatic catholic traditions and thus this particular piece was intended to shift the focus of the altar away from the sacrament and towards the sacrifice. The piece emphasizes the gift of Jesus as the center of the people’s worship. The painting currently resides in the St. Peter and Paul Chruch in Weimar Germany and (as indicated by its title) is placed directly above the altar so all who receive communion would appreciate the gravity of the sacrifice.
The painting itself is broken into a number of contrasting scenes which drive the focus from Old Testament to New Testament themes. This dichotomy is used to emphasize the progressive nature of the Reformation and aligns the Lutheran ideals with the New Covenant.
First and foremost, the center piece is a large picture of Jesus death on the cross. It dominates the frame and puts his sacrifice above all other elements of the piece. His side is pierced and blood is flowing onto the head of one of three men standing to the right of him. The blood represents his sacrifice and the movement onto the head of one of the onlookers indicates how believers are washed with the blood of Jesus.
Something interesting to note is the contrasting scene in the background. Above the heads of the three men, there is a group of tents with a snake on a cross-like beam. It’s a scene from Numbers 21:6-10 where people afflicted with a snake bite would look at the image and be healed. In a similar fashion, believers stand before the Christ and are “healed” by his sacrifice. In both instances, some disease was beaten by an emblem on a cross. The artists are portraying Jesus as an evolution of the “snake on a cross” concept.
Above and to the left of the snake scene, is a group of shepherds being addressed by an angel who is holding the words (very difficult to read but put in by the artist) “Glory to God in the Highest” as a reference to Jesus birth in Luke 2:14. In the forefront and to the far left is the open tomb of Jesus, indicating the fulfilled sacrifice. The tree growing on top of the tomb suggests that stone cold “death” of Jesus leads to new life as the tree grows towards the heavens.
Then, to the left of the cross, is a small picture of a man being chased by a skeleton and a beast wielding a club. The beast is intended to be Satan and the skeleton represents Death. Man is shown running away from Satan only to be confronted with Death and forced into the fires of Hell to the left. It exemplifies the hopelessness of mankind. But then in the left forefront, the figure of Jesus is wrapped in a cloth and is standing over both Death and Satan. He has emerged from the tomb behind him and has triumphed over mankind’s greatest adversaries. Again, this focuses on how Jesus sacrifice changed the people’s connection with sin and death.
Finally, the three men up front are contrasted to the group of men behind them. From left to right is John the Baptist, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Martin Luther. In back is Moses with the Ten Commandments and a group of Israelites. While Moses gave the people the Law, the men up front are demonstrating the change with the gift of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist is explaining to Cranach the Elder what the blood on his head means while Cranach the Elder is supposed to represents all believers. Martin Luther is then supporting the words of John the Baptist through two verses, John 1:7 and Hebrews 4:16, which declare the purifying blood of Jesus as the mercy and grace to help the people “approach the seat of grace”.
John the Baptist is also making a connection between Jesus and the Lamb through his hand gestures. The Lamb is holding a banner which reads in Latin “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world” (John 1:29). John’s relation of the two suggest Jesus is that Lamb. This once again furthers the connection between Jesus and the gift of his sacrifice.
Also, it’s important to note that both Jesus and Lucas Cranach the Elder are looking at the audience. The eyes of Jesus are intended to invite the audience to believe in his sacrifice, since he defeated Death and Satan for the people. Cranach the Elder’s eyes serve as his confession, saying this is what he believes.
The whole piece then is essentially an argument for the power and gravity of Jesus’ sacrifice. It contrasts doctrine from both the Old and New Testament through related scenes and uses two prominent front figures to directly connect with the audience and emphasize the gift of Jesus death.
Noble, Bonnie. "Chapter 4 - Holy Visions and Pious Testimony:Weimar Altarpiece." Lucas
Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation. Lanham, Md.: University of America, 2009. 139-49. Print.