The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century has long been associated with a reprioritization of the senses; a shift from visual to verbal piety, and from religious images to words. In many parts of northern Europe, the rich visual culture of the late-medieval church — sculptures, altarpieces, paintings, stained glass, and ecclesiastical treasures—fell victim to the purifying zeal of iconoclasts. Martin Luther was himself no iconoclast, but even in Lutheran territories religious life after the Reformation was built around the spoken and printed word: around the sermon, around the use of catechisms, prayer books and hymnals, and around Luther’s translation of the Bible.
How, then, are we to explain the flourishing of Lutheran visual culture that occurred in Germany during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? Why did Lutheran patrons commission costly images and richly decorated churches? How can we reconcile Lutheran emphasis on the simple hearing of God’s Word with magnificent visual monuments such as Dresden’s Frauenkirche, built between 1726 and 1743?
The seeds of this rich visual culture—of the Lutheran baroque—were sown in the sixteenth century by the reformer himself. Although he was no great fan of religious images, Luther was moved to defend them by the iconoclasm of some of his fellow evangelicals, the ‘fanatics’, as he termed them. Images became, for Luther, a matter of Christian freedom and a sign of moderation in the face of radical threat. Luther also recognized that images could help Christians to understand and experience faith. Many of his key religious texts, including his 1534 complete German Bible, contained elaborate illustrations, woodcuts that served not only to visualize but also to interpret the texts that they accompanied.
However, the writings of theologians can go only so far towards explaining the evolution of confessional consciousness and the shaping of religious identity. Lutheran attachment to religious images was a result not only of Luther’s own cautious endorsement of their use, but also of the particular religious and political context in which his Reformation unfolded. After the reformer’s death in 1546, the image question was fiercely contested once again. But as Calvinism, with its iconoclastic tendencies, spread, Germany’s Lutherans responded by reaffirming their commitment to the proper use of religious images. In 1615, Berlin’s Lutheran citizens even rioted when their Calvinist rulers removed images from the city’s Cathedral.
Images also came to play a key part in the new forms of Lutheran piety promulgated during the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by figures such as Johann Arndt. The crucifix in particular became an important devotional image. Crucifixes—which had been objects of particular hatred for Calvinist iconoclasts—adorned Lutheran churches and homes, and Lutherans prayed, meditated, and even wept before them.
The flourishing of Lutheran visual culture was fostered not only by transformations in Lutheran piety but also by patrons’ desire for representation. Princes, nobles, and prosperous burghers sought appropriate forms of visual commemoration for themselves, their families, and their wider communities. In seventeenth-century Saxony, Lutheran patrons chose artists who introduced the visual idioms of the Catholic baroque into Protestant painting and sculpture. Elsewhere, the quest for modern, stylish representation took other forms. In neighbouring Brandenburg-Prussia, for example, the presence of a Calvinist court and the prominence of Pietism held the exuberance of the Lutheran baroque in check. The development of a rich Lutheran visual culture was not, as these two examples suggest, pre-determined by the events and ideas of the Reformation itself, but was rather the result of long-term changes and of particular local circumstances.
As historians of religion increasingly turn their attention from doctrine and devotional life to the broader examination of mental worlds shaped by a sense of religious belonging, the importance of images as a source will continue to grow. Images provide a lens through which to examine what it meant to be Lutheran at different times and in different places; they serve as a yardstick to measure the development of confessional consciousness. Nothing conveys the contradictions inherent in early modern Lutheranism, and the complexity of the Reformation’s long-term impact, as effectively as a quick trip to Dresden’s Frauenkirche.
Featured image credit: Interior of the Frauenkirche in Dresdenby Gryffindor. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.