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Cranach, Law and Gospel (Law and Grace)

By Dr. Bonnie Noble
Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)

How to get to heaven?

How exactly do you get to heaven? Good deeds? Can you get yourself to heaven on your own merit or do you have to sit back and let God do the work? These questions caused international controversy, mass looting, vandalism, and killing in the sixteenth century. One casualty of the violence and chaos was the destruction of thousands of works of religious art. Iconoclasts (breakers of likenesses/images) stormed through churches, destroying every work of art they could get their hands on. How did heaven get to be so controversial?

The most influential image of the Lutheran Reformation

These questions are answered in a surprising kind of picture called The Law and the Gospel, originally painted by the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1529. The Law and the Gospel is the single most influential image of the Lutheran Reformation. The Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, was originally an attempt to reform the Catholic Church. However, reform quickly became rebellion, as people began to question the power and practices of the Catholic Church, which had been the only church in western Europe up until Luther.
John the Baptist pointing a man toward Christ (detail), Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
John the Baptist pointing a man toward Christ (detail), Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)

The role of art

A decisive difference between Catholics and followers of Luther was the question of how to get to heaven, and what role, if any, religious art could play. The Catholic Church insisted that believers could take action to vouchsafe their salvation by doing good deeds, including making financial donations and paying for elaborate art to decorate Christian churches. Luther, however, insisted that salvation was in God’s hands, and all the believer had to do was to open up and have faith. As people became disillusioned with Catholic teaching, they grew angry about the ways the Catholic Church became rich in money, art, and power. When reform became impossible and rebellion the only course of action, furious, frustrated believers directed their anger at works of art, an easy and powerful target.
Other reformers followed Luther’s example and staged rebellions against the Catholic Church. Some reformers took a strong position against religious art, forbidding it entirely. Luther however was more moderate, and believed that some religious art was acceptable provided it taught the right lessons, and this is where The Law and the Gospel comes in.

Luther's ideas in visual form

In consultation with Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder produced The Law and the Gospel. All of Cranach’s Lutheran painting rests upon this pictorial type, which also influenced other artists. The Law and the Gospel explains Luther’s ideas in visual form, most basically the notion that heaven is reached through faith and God’s grace. Luther despised and rejected the Catholic idea that good deeds, what he called “good works,” could play any role in salvation.
Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
In The Law and the Gospel, two nude male figures appear on either side of a tree that is green and living on the “Gospel” side to the viewer’s right, but barren and dying on the "law" side to the viewer’s left. Six columns of Bible citations appear at the bottom of the panel.

Right ("gospel") side

On the "gospel" side of the image (the right side), John the Baptist directs a naked man to both Christ on the cross in front of the tomb and to the risen Christ who appears on top of the tomb. The risen Christ stands triumphant above the empty tomb, acting out the miracle of the Resurrection. This nude figure is not vainly hoping to follow the law or to present a tally of his good deeds on the judgment day. He stands passively, stripped down to his soul, submitting to God’s mercy.
Demon and skeleton force a man toward hell, while prophets stand on right (detail), Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
Demon and skeleton force a man toward hell, while prophets stand on right (detail), Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)

Left ("law") side

In the left foreground a skeleton and a demon force a frightened naked man into hell, as a group of prophets, including Moses, point to the tablets of the law. The motifs on the left side of the composition are meant to exemplify the idea that law alone, without gospel, can never get you to heaven.
Adam and Even eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, with Christ above in judgment (detail), Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
Adam and Even eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, with Christ above in judgment (detail), Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
Christ sits in Judgment as Adam and Eve (in the background) eat the fruit and fall from grace. Moses beholds these events from his vantage point toward the center of the picture, his white tablets standing out against the saturated orange robe and the deep green tree behind him, literally highlighting the association of law, death, and damnation.
Taken together, these motifs demonstrate that law leads inescapably to hell when mistaken for a path to salvation, as the damned naked man demonstrates.

God judges and God shows mercy

The Law and the Gospel is concerned with two roles that God plays, to judge and to show mercy. On the one hand, God judges and condemns human sin; but on the other hand, God also shows mercy and forgiveness, granting unearned salvation to sinful believers. As Reformation scholar Bernhard Lohse explains:
"The Word of God encounters people as law and as gospel, as a word of judgment and as a word of grace…. It is certainly true that there is more law than gospel in the Old Testament and more gospel than law in the New Testament. Luther’s distinction between law and gospel, however, referred to something other than the division of biblical statements into the two parts of the biblical canon. This distinction rather describes the fact that God both judges and is merciful." [1]
Luther’s idea of law is multifaceted, and bears a complex relationship to his idea of gospel. Though law alone will never make salvation possible, it remains indispensable as the way the believer recognizes sin and the need for grace. Law paves the way to salvation by preparing the way for grace.
Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel, c. 1529, oil on wood, 82.2 × 118 cm / 32.4 × 46.5 in (Herzogliches Museum, Gotha, Germany)
Although The Law and the Gospel includes events from both the New and the Old Testaments, it is not a simple contrast of Christianity and Judaism. If The Law and the Gospel simply distinguished between the Old and New Testaments—or even more broadly between Judaism and Christianity—then it would not be specifically Lutheran or new, art historically or theologically. Instead, The Law and Gospel concerns two aspects of the relationship between humanity and God, a relationship based on human action on the one hand, and divine power on the other. The Law and Gospel describes events throughout the Bible which reveal the dual aspect of God’s relationship to people.
The Law and the Gospel is Lutheran because it represents Cranach’s pictorial translation of Luther’s unique understanding of salvation. The painting interprets the roles of law, good works, faith, and grace in the human relationship to God.
Note: The Law and the Gospel is frequently called Law and Grace, a title which derives from a version of the painting in Prague, where the terms “Gesecz” (Law) and “Gnad” (Grace) are boldly painted and plainly visible.
Note
[1] Bernard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, Fortress Press, 1986.

Additional resources

Essay by Dr. Bonnie Noble

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    What is the symbolism of the figure being naked on both sides of this work of art? I understand on the right it says "This nude figure is not vainly hoping to follow the law or to present a tally of his good deeds on the judgment day. He stands passively, stripped down to his soul, submitting to God’s mercy."

    What has the figure on the left done that is so wrong? I don't see it...
    (10 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Steve Lamb
      The nakedness of both of the nude figures symbolically associates them with the nude figures of Adam and Eve and symbolizes their standing as sinners ("...there is no difference, for ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God." Rom. , 23). Both are equally naked. What distinguishes them is not what they have done, but their apprehension of the death (cross), burial (tomb) and resurrection (glorified figure) of Christ, "...Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification" Rom. .
      (29 votes)
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user ChrisPardo28
    So the Great Schism(Eastern Orthodox vs. Roman catholic) and the Protestant reformation were two completely different splits of the Catholic Church? Im confused
    (6 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The church started dividing long before the great schism. In the 5th century there were schisms over the role of Mary and the nature of Christ, dividing off central Asian (Nestorian) and African (Coptic and Ethiopian) Christianities from those in Western Asia and Europe. The great schism in 1054 divided Eastern (Greek) and Western (Roman) Christianities in Europe, and the Reformation in the 16th Century divided Protestant and Roman Christianity from one another. Fragmentation continues even today, though various ecumenical movements have brought mutual recognition and respect back into the world in many places.
      (16 votes)
  • mr pants purple style avatar for user Josue
    Could someone tell me the six bible quotes that lie in the painting?
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user James Wetzstein
      Here you go:
      Concerning the rainbow and judgement: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” – Romans
      Concerning the Devil & Death: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” – 1 Corinthians “For the law brings wrath” – Romans
      Concerning Moses & the Prophets “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” – Romans “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John,” – Matthew
      Concerning humanity “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” – Romans &
      Concerning the Anabaptists “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” – John & “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ” – 1 Peter 1:2
      Concerning Death & the Lamb “Death is swallowed up in victory.”– 1 Corinthians
      (11 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Tyler Parrish
    What do the tents represent? If you look closely at them you can see dead people on the ground and a cross with a serpent on it, do they have any significance?
    (5 votes)
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    • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Benzion Chinn
      The left side represents the Old Testament. So you have the camp of the children of Israel. In Numbers, God smites the Israelites with a plague and then has Moses construct a bronze serpent to cure the people. This has traditionally been read by Christians as foreshadowing the cross.
      (7 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user http://facebookid.khanacademy.org/590553972
    Can't this painting be seen as an allegory of law/grace in society itself apart from religion? We chafe at or run away from authority, but acquiesce to kindness? I also see Cranach's painting as an allegory of parenting in that good parents need to set rules/guidelines/boundaries which need to be maintained by children. When these are inevitably broken there also needs to be understanding and forgiveness from the parents rather than unquestioned authority a la the Catholic church.
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Karen
      That's the beauty of paintings and art in general. Even though this painting is clearly intended to be an allegory of the law and Grace in Christianity, it can still have many other meanings taken away from it. Beauty (and meaning) are in the eye of the beholder.
      (3 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Nicole Ng
    what's the difference betwwen judism and chrstianity
    (2 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Addah Rosen
      There are, of course, a great number of differences between Judaism and Christianity. and fare far too numerous to cover here. However, for me it can be summed up at its most fundamental - the Hebrews believed that a great Messiah would come and deliver them- the Christians believe that Christ was that Messiah and son of God - Judaism contends that Jesus may or may not have been a Jewish prophet but was not the Messiah and are still awaiting his coming.
      (8 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jin Park
    <Allegory of Law and Grace> listed in AP Art History is made out of woodcut and letterpress, but this essay has the one drawn by oil paint. How come there are two of this?
    (2 votes)
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    • ohnoes default style avatar for user Yasmine Yuma
      I did a research but I couldn't find any explanation, my only guess is the woodcut was created in order to make the subject of the painting more accessible to people outside of Wittenberg and Germany and thus proselytise. You know how, via the newly discovered print process, at this point in history ideas were spread faster and more effectively (especially speaking of Protestantism...).
      (4 votes)
  • winston baby style avatar for user O'ConnorLenny
    My biggest question is, through, the "naked truth," how did that symbolize rebirth, or forgiveness of sins in Heaven? And, aren't Catholics baptized to forgive the First Sins of Adam and Eve? And they were symbolized in the nude, which is confusing me to the nude figure in Heaven, verses the one in the underworld, which I can understand.
    (2 votes)
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    • mr pants purple style avatar for user Josue
      The nudity is to represent their sinful nature, both men in each side are sinners. You must remember that Martin Luther point was to reform the church, he, and as do I, says that salvation adn forgiveness of sin comes only through Christ, through our Godly-given faith in Jesus's sacrifice. God's forgives our sins, but we still struggle with our sinful nature, thats why he is still naked.
      (4 votes)
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user stpatrick749
    What's the thing in the bottom right? Near the sheep?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Drew Simon
    who's the demon in the painting law and grace?
    (1 vote)
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