This painting stands where it was originally placed – above the altar of the St. Peter and Paul Church in Weimar, Germany. The painting was begun by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) and was completed by his son, also of the same name, in 1555. (To distinguish them, they are called Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger.)
Cranch allows the worshipers at St. Peter and Paul Church to visualize their justification in Jesus. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ was at the heart of the Lutheran Reformation.
This article about justification by faith (as the Apology says) is the chief article [see Apology IV 2-3] in all Christian doctrine. Without this teaching no poor conscience can have any firm consolation or truly know the riches of Christ’s grace. Dr. Luther also has written about this:
If this one teaching stands in its purity, then Christendom will also remain pure and good, undivided and unseparated; for this alone, and nothing else, makes and maintains Christendom. … Where this falls, it is impossible to ward off any error or sectarian spirit [Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article III, par. 6].
Unfortunately, the clear doctrine of justification had become clouded over by indulgences, penance and purgatory in the Roman Catholic Church. It had fallen and therefore there were a plethora of errors and deceiving spirits. God used Reformers like Martin Luther and artists like the Cranachs to bring the doctrine of justification in Jesus out into the light. God used his truth to once again set his people free (John 8:32).
There is a great deal of Christian symbolism and significance in Cranach’s painting. Each image alludes to salvation alone in Jesus. In the center background, to the right of Jesus’ feet, Moses is teaching God’s Law contained in Ten Commandments to the people of the Old Testament. To their left, Death – represented by a skeleton holding a spear – and Satan – pictured as a beast wielding a club – are chasing a man into the fires of hell. Together these images express the hopelessness of mankind living under the Law’s condemnation. “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out” (Deuteronomy 27:26).
“Here we must confess, as Paul says in Romans 5:12, that sin originated from one man, Adam. By his disobedience, all people were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil” [Smalcald Articles, Article 1, par. 1].
It is terrifying being chased by Death and Satan into the pit of hell. However, there is still Good News for all those who look to God’s Son for salvation. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, they sinned so God caused them to be bitten by snakes. Yet, God in his abounding grace, also allowed them to be spared by looking at the bronze snake mounted on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). This is illustrated in the background in the right of the painting. Just as the snake was lifted up on a pole, so the Son of Man was lifted up on the pole of the cross (John 3:14).
Above and to the left of the snake scene, is an angel proclaiming the Gospel to a group of shepherds. The angel is holding the words, “Glory to God in the highest,” which was the Christmas Gospel announced to the shepherds outside the little town of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:14).
Dominating the painting is Jesus Christ on the cross. Everything else in the painting is illustrating the importance of the sacrifice of Jesus. The painting illustrates the importance of Christ alone. The Reformers stressed the importance of Christ alone. The Scriptures proclaimed the importance of Christ alone.
The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in his blood (Romans 3:23-25). …
Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us” [Smalcald Articles, Article I, par. 1-3, 5].
In the painting, Jesus’ side is pierced and blood is flowing onto the head of one of the men to his left. The blood represents Christ’s sacrifice and demonstrates how believers are washed with the blood of Jesus (Revelation 7:14).
John the Baptist is pointing up at Jesus, while at the same time pointing at the lamb at his feet. John is declaring to the world, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
John is sharing the meaning of Jesus’ death to Lucas Cranach, the artist, who is on John’s left. Cranach represents all who believe in Jesus. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). Cranach is being washed by the blood of Jesus. It is reminiscent of the hymn verse, “Let the water and the blood From thy riven side which flowed; Be of sin the double cure: Cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r” (Rock of Ages, Augustus M. Toplady).
At Cranach’s left is Martin Luther. He has an open Bible in his hand. Luther’s hands and feet are positioned like Moses. However, where Moses was pointing to the Law, Luther is pointing to the Gospel. his Bible is open to John 3:14, where Jesus speaks of how he is the fulfillment of the snake on the pole.
Luther is pointing to another Bible verse that reads, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). John, Cranach, Luther, and all those who believe are able to approach the holy throne of our heavenly Father because of the vicarious and victorious work of Jesus Christ. Having paid for sin, he has defeated death and the devil and now lives to intercede for us.
Jesus is shown doing just that on the left of the painting. He has risen from the dead from the open tomb behind him. He is pictured standing with his right foot on Death and his left foot on the devil. He is pushing the staff of his victory flag into the monster’s throat. Jesus has conquered mankind’s greatest adversaries! The same adversaries who were chasing man into hell have now been defeated once and for all by Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession expresses the heart of Lutheran teaching this way: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By his death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in his sight (Romans 3 and 4) [Augsburg Confession, Article IV, par. 1-3].
This is a wonderful summary of the message of the Lutheran Reformation and of its foremost artists, Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger. We are justified in Jesus.