Luther and Reformatory Ideas: Images and Art at the Time of the Reformation

The Reformation changed the use of religious images. According to Luther, images were to be used in a way that did not lead to the idolatry he claimed was practised in the Catholic Church. Here icons of the Virgin Mary and saints played a major role. In the late Middle Ages people believed that the Virgin Mary and saints interceded for those who worshipped them, and the worship of icons of saints in special side altars of the church was therefore important in the individual practise of their faith. In the Lutheran church images had the same value as everything else in the church, including music, furniture, sculptures and architecture. Their sole function in the new church was to visualise and mediate Christ as the word of God. Luther did not oppose images as such, but he did oppose what he considered to be their wrongful use. Images were not necessary to establish a relationship to God, but they could help illustrate and show the point of Christianity. New motifs were developed to show the theological points of the new faith, but many of the images of the old church could also easily be used. Where necessary the motifs were reinterpreted in accordance with the new theology.

Luther was far more positive about the use of religious images than the reformatory theologians Zwingli and Calvin, both of whom upheld the ban on graven images or likenesses in the Ten Commandments and did not believe that any visualisation of the divine would ever be able to capture or express the true greatness of God. They did, however, approve of images of stories from the Bible, but thought it would be far too risky to have them in churches or other religious contexts. They were afraid that people would start to worship them again. Images with religious themes were only allowed to hang in worldly surroundings, so there were no images on the walls or altar of a reformed church.