I first saw this painting by Lucas Cranach (circa 1529) when I went to the Luther exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minneapolis a couple of years ago. Luther found that because of the Protestant Reformation, people had to be educated on the difference between law and grace. This painting, entitled “The Law and the Gospel,” was Cranach’s attempt to do so. He and Luther consulted on the imagery and this painting is considered the single most influential image of the Lutheran Reformation. Many other works of art are based on it.
The left side of the painting represents the law. Notice the skeleton and a demon (perhaps Satan himself) pursue a desperate naked man who is being forced into hell as a group of prophets, including Moses, point to the tablets of the law. This exemplifies the idea that law alone, without the gospel, can never save you.
Further back, Adam and Eve eat fruit and fall from grace. In the clouds above them, Jesus sits as Judge with his left hand raised, which is a gesture of damnation. Also notice that the part of the tree in the left panel is barren, whereas the tree, in the right panel, flourishes.
In the background, we see the cross with a serpent upon it and many dead people. This is considered to be a reference to the Numbers 21, where God sends serpents to bite the ever-complaining people of Israel. To be saved, the people needed only to look upon a bronze serpent held up by Moses. Whoever looked to the bronze serpent lived. A reminder that we need only to look to the cross of Christ to be saved.
The right side of the painting represents the gospel (grace). Instead of being forced into hell, the same naked man stands beside John the Baptist who points him to the crucified Christ. Notice under the cross we see a lamb trampling a skeleton, representing death, and a grotesque creature, representing evil and/or the devil. Both have been defeated by Christ’s action on the cross. Blood flows from Christ’s body to the sinner with a dove (the Holy Spirit) flying along its path.
In the sky, the risen Christ stands triumphantly above the empty tomb, showing us the miracle of the resurrection. His fingers point to the heavens, indicating that Jesus points us to God.
The panels along the bottom of the painting are scriptural references to the scenes depicted.
Being Human connection: We can learn a lot from art. Thanks for allowing me to share my love of it with you. May the GRACE of God be with you!