** Cranach’s Wittenberg Altarpiece

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This altarpiece is the focal point of the City Church in Wittenberg; three-paneled altarpieces like this—called triptychs—were meant to aid and inspire worship in churchgoers. It is also a work of religious propaganda—a clear illustration of the effects of the Reformation on Northern European art.

A triptych altarpiece. The left panel depicts a baptism. The right panel depicts a confession. The center panel depicts the last supper. In a painting below the triptych, we see the crucifix.

Figure 1. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Wittenberg Altarpiece (1547)

The Reformation was the formation of the Protestant church by Martin Luther after splitting from the Catholic Church. Lucas Cranach, the artist, was in fact a friend of Luther’s and painted portraits of him and his wife Katharine; he was also a devout reformer who produced many religious works.

What Does it Show?

The last supper. Christ and the twelve apostles sit around a circular table. A bench encircles nearly the entire table, but Christ is sitting on a chair separate from the apostles' bench.

Figure 2. Altar center panel

The front panels show Lutheran sacraments (rituals deemed essential to following the religion) as well as the traditional Christian scene of the Last Supper. Portraying all of these subjects on one altarpiece is meant to say to the viewer, “Luther’s church is the real religion, in the spirit of Christ.” Of course, the art of the Counter-Reformation in the south was saying just the opposite!

On the left front panel, a Protestant colleague of Luther’s is shown baptizing followers into the new faith (the sacrament of Baptism). The right panel depicts a Wittenberg minister leading the sacrament of Confession, and the center shows the Last Supper of Christ (Communion). The three panels are harmonized by subject matter, color, and repeated shapes. Look at the round baptismal font, the round table, and the rounded arches which frame and embrace the tops of all panels. These tie separate events and times into one graceful scene.

The Historical Context of the Reformation

In the bottom panel, Cranach shows Luther presenting the crucified Christ to a group of followers. This scene is not meant to be taken literally, but as a metaphor for the Protestant message—that Luther was seen as the teacher and leader of the new church. He places one hand on a book of scripture, driving home the message of scriptural authority over traditional Church authority; Protestants believed that people should read and interpret the Bible on their own. The relative simplicity and somberness of dress and appearance is typical of this period of Reformation art, as opposed to the more sensual, muscular figures seen in Counter-Reformation and Baroque art from Italy (such as the slightly later Carracci and Caravaggio).