Caroline Di Orio

The reformation sparked a rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church and the corruption within it. Martin Luther inspired many reformers with his radical writings against the papacy and the structure within the medieval church. His theological views inspired many artists at the time and one of the most well-known artist of the reformation was Lucas Cranach. One of his most celebrated pieces of art work is the Wittenberg Altarpiece displayed in the church where Martin Luther regularly preached at. This altar symbolizes most of Luther’s theological views that were differed from the Medieval Church. The “Wittenberg Altarpiece: Communal Devotion and Identity” by Bonnie Noble gives a great depiction of the entire altarpiece but my paper will consist of the center portion that is placed above the altar in the Wittenberg Church. The altarpiece portrays Luther’s three main theological themes such as the theology of the cross, communion of both kinds, and the true sacraments.

full wittenberg alterpiece
Lucas Cranach Wittenberg altarpiece, front view of the art work within the Wittenberg church

The center of the Wittenberg Altarpiece is full of Luther’s theological views using symbolism. Cranach expresses Luther’s most impactful theological nuances that gave light to the reformation. In the top three panels of the altarpiece Cranach paints the sacraments recognized by Luther. On the left, it the sacrament of baptism and on the far right is the sacrament of confession. The center of the altarpiece has Cranach’s version of the lord’s supper and underneath this picture we see Jesus dying on the cross while Luther is preaching to an engaged audience. All aspects of this altarpiece highlight major changes of the church during the reformation. The most significant of which is at the center of the altarpiece and symbolizes Luther’s belief in communion of both kinds as well as his theology of the cross.

Portrayed in the center top panels of the altarpiece Cranach painted a Lutheran influenced version of the lord’s supper. In Cranach’s version Jesus is not dining with the disciples but with Luther, Melanchthon, and other people with common German features.[1] According to Nobel, having unnamed figures with German features was no accident. She states that this was a strategical approach so that the German lay people, also known as commoners and peasants, could relate to the painting and in turn relate more to the reformation itself.[2] In the painting Luther is seen receiving a chalice which is symbolic for his theological belief in communion of both kinds. Before the reformation only the priest and the nobles could have communion of both kinds. [3] Which means that they could review both the body and the blood of Christ, while the lay people could only receive the body of Christ. This tradition enraged Luther because it denied the lay people from being able to participate in the entire sacrament of communion. Although Luther believes that you can only receive grace by ingesting the body of Christ, he also believes that both the body and the blood should be offered to everyone. This is primarily because communion is a gift from God given to all not just the rich and powerful in the church. So, it is not in the priest’s authority to withhold partaking in communion of both kinds from the lay people or anyone who desires to partake.

last supper image of wittenberg alterpiece
Center image of the Wittenberg altarpiece, portraying the last supper with reformation leaders within the painting to represent Luther theology of communion of both kinds

The central argument is that the sacrament of communion, or just sacraments in general, are gifts from God not for the papacy so they have no right to withhold these gifts from those whom they deem unfit to receive them. Martin Luther was also very keen on lifting the little man and helping those who are considered to be at the bottom of the food chain. The lay people were being taken advantage of in many ways by the papacy. One of these ways was by depriving them of partaking in communion of both kinds and not being able to receive the sacrament as it was intended.

Now turning to the bottom panel on the Wittenberg altarpiece, in the center of this painting Jesus is being crucified on the cross, while Luther is to the right or him preaching to a crowd that is intrigued with Luther’s words while he is pointing at Jesus. This symbolizes how Luther constantly pointed to the cross though his preaching. He continually tells Christian’s that “God can be found only though suffering and the cross.”[4] We must become humbled through the suffering we endure on this earth to become ready for the kingdom of God and give the Glory to Christ. Now using the crucifix in art was not a new artistic view that Cranach added, it was a very popular even in pre-reformation art. The importance of the crucifix is that Luther is pointing to it while Jesus is dying for our sins showing that Christ is the only thing we can turn to because he is the reason we are saved. Luther believes that we must always turn to Christ. It is by the grace alone given to us though Christ crucifixion and resurrection at we are saved this is known as Luther’s theology of the cross.

bottom half of wittenberg alterpiece
Bottom image of the Wittenberg altarpiece, expresses Luther’s theology of the cross and his belief of preaching

Although the crucifix has already been present in several aspects of art, Lucas Cranach is presenting it in such a fashion that it symbolizes Luther’s theology of the cross.  This theology did not coincide with the typical universal themes of God we so often categorize him with such as God being good, just, beautiful, and wise. There are a lot of positive connotations we inflict upon God, but the cross was a warning sign used by the Romans to scare people by showing them what the Roman empire does to criminals. Their cross represented death, crime, and torture. These are themes that were certainly not thought of as being associated with God. Therefore, most people during the medieval period would search for God in the high or beautiful places of the earth. Luther is challenging this though by saying “No!” he says that God is not present in theses place because they are already at a good standing. Luther claims that if you truly want God to be revealed to you then you must go to the poor and broken in this world. That is where God’s work is being done and that is where God will be revealed to you. If you have ever done any service work, where you get to interact with the people you are helping, then you know what it feels like to have the holy spirit consume you through good works. This is what Luther is talking about, through these actions and in these places, the holy spirit is present and working. Therefore we must search for him in those places and only then is God going to be revealed to us.

Luther infringes on this aspect so diligently because Christian’s are continually searching to better themselves in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God through good works. While Luther is emphasizing that this is not the point, God is to receive the glory. Look to the cross and be humbled by it so that your works can bring glory to God not yourself. However, we can turn to the cross for guidance and answers because that is where God is present. Luther states that we are the folly of God because we “misuse the knowledge of god through works,”[5]

Even though God can be revealed to us through the hurt of this world Luther claims that we will never be able to truly know God. In the book of Genesis even Moses never got to see God’s face or know God’s name. When he asked God what his name was he replied “I am who I am”. When Moses asked God to show him his face he said you cannot see my face but you can see my back as I walk by you. Moses was one of the major prophets, the one who led God’s chosen people out of Egypt and he never even got to truly know God. Luther views our knowledge of God as being a sort of ascendant/descendant relationship. The more you get to know God the less you understand and the more you realize that there is so much more to God and being a Christian than any human could ever grasp.[6] Luther also argues that “the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, Justice, goodness, and so forth,” and seeing aspects in the world does not make one “worthy or wise,” of God. Rather, that we will never be good enough to know God fully or be wise enough to understand God in his entirety. It is for this reason that Luther believed no one could ever truly be able to know God.[7]

We are a selfish, vengeful, greedy species. It is impossible for us to live a life without sin. Luther argues it is through Christ’s death on the cross that Jesus takes on our sin and in turn we take on his righteousness. According to “On Being a Theologian of the Cross”, Gerhard O. Forde claims that “theologians of the cross see things differently.”[8] While they recognize the universal themes of God they also realize that these are the reasons Jesus was crucified. It is because of Christ’s Greatness that he endures the pain and suffering present in this world. Our righteousness does not come from our “good works” we claim to do, but it is God’s sacrifice and Christ’s death that we gain righteousness and our sins are abolished.

The Wittenberg Altarpiece was finished a year after Martian Luther died and placed in the church where he frequently preached. Although most of his sermons were against the papacy he would also preach about his theological views such as the theology of the cross. He would partake in giving the three sacraments within The Wittenberg Church where he gave communion of both kinds. While these two theological ideas may not see as radical in the twenty first century in the early fifteen hundred it was. Luther was the first person to speak against the church and its traditions, to gain a large following, and to not be killed in the act of creating this new denomination of Christianity. The theological view he defended and faced death for are now proudly being displayed in the center of his church. Personally, I believe this is a wonderful commemoration of Luther and his works. Even though he did pass away before the piece was finished it carries on his legacy to light the fire under fellow Lutherans of that time and to this day. Diving into the symbolism behind the gorgeous painting has helped me further understand Luther’s theological views and things he might have given a sermon on during his time at the Wittenberg church. I am very excited to go and see Cranach’s beautiful work this summer since it has impacted my faith as I am sure it has impacted and will continue to impact others.







Forde, Gerhard O. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflection on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.


Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Edited by Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell. 3rd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.


Nobel, Bonnie. “The Wittenberg Altarpiece: Communal Devotion and Identity.” Chapter Three to Lucas Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation, 97-137. N.p.: University Press of America, 2009.



[1] Bonnie Nobel, Lucas Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation (University Press of America, 2009), 106.

[2] Nobel, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 106.

[3] Nobel, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 101.

[4] Timothy F. Lull, Martian Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012) 22

[5] Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 22

[6] Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 22

[7] Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 22

[8] Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflection on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997) 77