Cranach’s artistic confession of faith

We had been discussing Lucas Cranach’s seal of the winged serpent, crowned with a ring, and what it might mean.  Thanks to Tom Hering for digging up this scholarly article by Wayne Martin, professor of philosophy of the University of Essex, who offers a reading of the artist’s “Eden” in the Courtald Gallery in England.  As a reminder, art in Cranach’s day was charged with meaning, unlike the preoccupation with abstract forms of today, but  that meaning was rendered visually.  Prof. Martin points out that Cranach this time puts his signature seal not at the bottom in a corner, where it usually goes, but right on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  (You can just make it out below the snake.)  The squiggly curves of the stylized seal are echoed in the similar squiggly curves of the snake and in the curls of Eve’s hair.  Thus, the artist is identifying himself with temptation and with sin.  But those squiggles are also echoed in the vine, laden with grapes, a symbol of Christ (“I am the vine”): specifically, His sacrificial blood as given for us in Holy Communion (“This is my blood of the new testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins”).  In the painting, the vine covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness, just as Christ’s blood covers the sinfulness of Lucas Cranach and all of us.

Prof. Martin doesn’t quite understand the Gospel of the evangelical Reformation.  He professes “shock” that a pious Christian would “identify himself with evil.”  Like many people he assumes that being a Christian means being good, rather than facing up to one’s true sinfulness and receiving Christ’s forgiveness.  He is also confused about different covenants and the pre-lapsarian state.  Still, even despite himself,  he discerns Cranach’s ubiquitous theme of Law and Gospel.


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