The Reformation and Danish Society: Art and Imagery at the Time of the Reformation

What impact did the Lutheran Reformation have on art? First and foremost it changed the way images were used in religious contexts. Luther, unlike other reformists like Calvin and Zwingli, allowed the use of images in churches and similar contexts.

But in the future images were to be used in a way that did not lead to the kind of idolatry the reformists considered to have taken place in the old church. Here images had been believed to possess a divine power that made them capable of helping those who prayed to them. Images were holy – or could be.

In a Lutheran context, images were objects on an equal footing with other objects. Their primary role was to remind Christians about the word of God in the Bible, and of faith as the foundation of all things. The power of images in the old church was reduced to remembrance. Images no longer had the power to help or protect. They had become worldly objects.

The images of the old church, which were after all hanging in churches and many homes, could also be used in the new Lutheran church. They often remained where they were – or were moved around – but were used in a new way.

Luther’s understanding of images, and especially his theory of symbols, also opened up for the reinterpretation of old images, making it possible for them to mean something different than they had done in the past. In this way the meaning images had had in their former Catholic context could be revised to fit their new Lutheran context.

Some of the old church’s images, however, had become so theologically irrelevant that they could not be reinterpreted in any meaningful way, and could therefore not be recycled – images like the Crowning of the Virgin or pictures of Purgatory. But there was no need to destroy them. Such images were stripped of meaning in a religious context and gradually removed to another cultural sphere called ‘art’, becoming, with time, artworks.

New images that could visualise the new creed’s theological points more clearly were also made. One of the most famous is the so-called Law and Gospel painting by Lucas Cranach of Wittenberg in the late 1520s, probably in collaboration with Luther. With an almost cartoon-like clarity, it depicts how the Lutheran Christian could be saved by turning always from the law of the Old Testament where outer deeds were the path to salvation (left) towards the gospel of the New Testament, where faith in Christ was key (right).

The text on the image is typical of the new Lutheran paintings, where it was important that the meaning of the image be clear and simple. The texts states what the image means, and how it should be understood. Any openness to interpretation inherent to imagery was to be reduced to an absolute minimum. Explaining the meaning of the image reduced the risk of the viewer ‘misinterpreting’ it – i.e. interpreting the image in any other way than according to the authorized Lutheran version.

Most images in religious art could be used by both the old and new church – they just meant something different in each context. And relatively few decidedly Lutheran new motifs were painted. It is therefore often difficult to identify exactly what makes a religious image ’Lutheran’. The primary different between the two creed’s images is functional, i.e. it lies in the way the images were used.