The Old and the New Testament (Allegory of the Law and the Gospel) by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach the Elder

The Old and the New Testament (Allegory of the Law and the Gospel), c.1530, Woodcut , 270 x 325 mm, The British Museum, London, 1895,0122.285, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

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Justified by Faith

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Matthew Milliner

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).

References

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)