Reformation Imagery: Pastor and Congregation

The Wittenberg altarpiece here, painted by Lucas Cranach, is one of the most important monuments of the Reformation. It was erected in 1547 (the year after Luther’s death) in the church in Wittenberg where Luther had preached. It was presumably Luther himself who devised its theological content. The altarpiece depicts the most important elements of Luther’s theology. From left to right there are the Lutheran sacraments of christening, both forms of Holy Communion (bread and wine), then the confession that preceded Holy Communion. At the bottom the sermon - another crucial part of a Christian life - is depicted.

We see the leading theologians of the Reformation in Wittenberg performing their duties as pastors among members of the congregation. To the left Philipp Melanchthon christens a baby, to the right Johann Bugenhagen receives confessions, and below Luther himself preaches to the congregation. Cranach represented new perceptions of the priesthood. The pastor was seen as an ordinary human being and was therefore to be normally dressed and not deviate from the other members of the congregation. Even Luther in the pulpit is wearing typical 16th-century clothing of the kind worn by university doctors. The pastor was thus one among many members of the congregation and not, as in the old church, dressed in priestly robes symbolising the privileged relationship he had to God.

The central section shows Luther at the Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples. Jesus is sitting to the left, and Luther is being served wine by a servant to the right. By combining two historical periods in the same image – the time of Christ and lifetime of Luther – the new Lutheran pastors presented in the other images are linked to the first priests of the early church, i.e. the disciples. Lutheran pastors are seen as the true heirs of the disciples, unlike – by implication - the priesthood of the old church. And the people participating in Holy Communion in Wittenberg and looking at the altarpiece are also part of this new community, in which everyone is in principle a pastor. 

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