This painting started by Lucas Cranach the Elder who died in 1553 and finished by his son Lucas Cranach the Younger in 1555 is one of the best examples of the ideas and beliefs of the Lutheran Reformation. The painting’s focus is to demonstrate the transition and movement from the old covenant to the new covenant through the death of Jesus Christ for all mankind. Another objective of this painting was to distinguish the Reformation’s focus of God’s grace from the Catholic Church’s focus of the sacraments. This painting is one of the best examples of the Reformation’s core driving beliefs that fueled the protestant movement.
Lucas Cranach the Elder was a faithful supporter and believer in the teachings of the Lutheran Reformation in the 16th century. He wanted to paint a work of art the stood above the alter, to remind those taking communion that the focus is not on the sacrament but on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. The painting to this day stands over the alter, at the St. Peter and Paul Church in Weimer, Germany. The painting shows the dichotomous relationship between the Law and Gospel in the Bible. The point of representing both the Law and Gospel was to show the focus used to be on the old covenant of the Law but after Jesus sacrifice is now on the Gospel and the new covenant. This focus on the new covenant and the Gospel was the heart and driving force of the Reformation.
Two prevalent stories from the Old Testament, the snake on the cross and Moses with the Ten Commandments, are shown in this painting. Moses and the prophets of old testified that those who were not able to uphold the laws of God and the Ten Commandments would be condemned to hell. This condemnation is shown with the figure of a man being driven into the fires of hell by death, the skeleton, and the devil, the monster with a club. The covenant of old in Moses days was one of works to try and uphold the law. The other scene from the snake on the cross was from an Old Testament story were snakes were sent by God into the camp of the Israelites. The snakes killed many people and in order for those bitten to be saved from death they had to look upon the snake on the cross which Moses had set up in the camp. The snake on the cross foreshadowed the coming of Jesus and his death on the cross. Just as the bitten Israelites were saved by looking up at the snake on the cross all people are saved by Jesus death on the cross for the sins of the world.
Towards the forefront of the painting is Jesus on the cross along with Jesus conquering death and the devil on the right of the painting with John the Baptist, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Martin Luther on the left. Right underneath the cross is a pure white lamb holding the banner of Jesus with the words “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” John 1:29. The simple message of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb for all whom by his blood we are all saved is the focus of this painting. This theme is also conveyed by the pouring out of Jesus blood from his side onto the head of Lucas Cranach. On the far left is Martin Luther who is positioned like Moses but instead of the Ten Commandment he is holding open the Bible with three verses written on it. These three verses are as follows: “The blood of Jesus Christ purifies us from all sin” 1 John 1:7, “Therefore let us approach the seat of grace with joyousness, so that we may receive mercy within and find grace in the time when help is needed” Hebrews 4:16, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so also must the Son of man be lifted up, so that all who believe in him may have eternal life” John 3:14. These passages from the New Testament testify to the fact of the new covenants replacement of the old through Jesus death on the Cross.
I believe this painting is a significantly clear statement of the Reformation’s focus on the grace of Jesus death on the cross. It is by his death alone that the sins of all mankind were forgiven and for that unconditional loving act we should be joyous. Jesus is focusing on the viewers of this painting inviting them to believe in him and what he has done for us sinners. Cranach’s feet point towards Jesus signifying his importance yet looking at us again as an invitation to Jesus. The focus is simply that Jesus death fulfilled all the prophecies of the Old Testament. He fulfilled all the requirements of the old covenant and created the new covenant in him, through which all are saved by his grace.
• 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.