The heat of obligation and the cool of acceptance are contrasting currents that generate an interior storm in human experience.
The third chapter of Romans records the Apostle Paul’s famous division of these mixed dynamics, and in this archetypically Protestant image, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) offered the most noteworthy visual attempt to do the same. In both Paul’s letter and Cranach’s art, Jew and Gentile humanity, prodded by the devil and death, are driven by Moses’s tablets into a furious swirl of condemnation (Romans 3:23, 27 is inscribed in the German vernacular in the bottom left of Cranach’s composition). On the right, however, this accusation is silenced by the righteous flow of Christ’s blood that covers the relieved sinner (Romans 3:28 is printed just below the composition-unifying tree).
Working closely with Martin Luther, Cranach began his law and gospel series in 1529, for which he created so many variations that no two panels are completely alike. This particular woodcut version responds to the compressed spatial demands of a portable print, adding a Deësis (John the Baptist and Mary flanking Christ) on the side of law, but also a Virgin Mary on a hilltop on the gospel side, to illustrate grace. John the Baptist is here less prominent than in other versions, turning more of his back to the viewer as if to illustrate his humility: he is not to be the focus of our attention.
Unlike Cranach’s other attempts, the encampment of the brazen serpent (Numbers 21:4–9) has here migrated to the gospel side of the panel, perhaps to illustrate that the distinction between law and gospel is not as simple as the division of the Old and New Testaments. Another surprise is the inclusion of the dove, reminiscent of Luther’s statement, ‘The Law never brings the Holy Spirit; therefore it does not justify, because it only teaches what we ought to do. But the Gospel does bring the Holy Spirit, because it teaches what we ought to receive’ (Pelikan and Lehmann 1955, vol. 26: 208–9).
Dillenberger, John. 1999. Images and Relics: Theological Perceptions and Visual Images in Sixteenth-Century Europe (New York: Oxford University Press)
Noble, Bonnie. 2009. Lucas Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation (New York: University Press of America)
Pelikan, Jaroslav, and Helmut T. Lehmann (eds.). 1955–1986. Luther’s Works, 56 vols (St Louis: Concordia)
Rosebrock, Matthew. 2017. ‘The Highest Art: Martin Luther’s Visual Theology in Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio,’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary)
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, 10as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11no one understands, no one seeks for God.
12All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one.”
13“Their throat is an open grave,
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15“Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16in their paths are ruin and misery,
17and the way of peace they do not know.”
18“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. 28For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. 29Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. 31Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.