Reformation Imagery: Art and Images at the Time of the Reformation

The new secular understanding of the image, which defused the power imagery had had in the old church, meant that the meaning images had had in the past could be replaced by a new one in accordance with Luther’s theology.

Luther himself provides an example of this new kind of interpretation in a sermon he held in 1529 where he referred to an image of Saint Christopher, one of the most popular motifs at the time. Its popularity can be ascribed to the legend and superstition that those who saw an image of Saint Christopher would be protected against a sudden death the same day. In the sermon, Luther emphasised that neither images nor saints can have this kind of effect. Images of Saint Christopher should rather be understood as an allegorical representation of a Christian life. Christopher lived this life, standing in the midst of the roaring river of life bearing a heavy burden on his shoulders. He only had a staff to support him – a staff Luther interpreted as the word of God – and his faith and trust that God would help him. In this way, Luther challenged the understanding of the old church that a holy picture possessed any inherent power. For Luther, the holy picture should not be understood as having any protective power in itself, but rather as a reminder of the Christian meaning of faith.

Cranach’s woodcut of Saint Christopher, dated 1509, was printed repeatedly, also after the Reformation. During the 1550s it was published with a long, rhyming German text alongside the image defining the new Lutheran meaning of the image.