LUTHER AT THE LAST SUPPER
The Thirteeth Apostle or a Stinking Afterthought
One of Martin Luther’s friends and supporters in Wittenberg was a local artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder. As a Reformation artist his contribution to history has been immeasurable because his representations of the German Reformer have preserved the form and appearance of Luther. One of his most famous, and from the perspective of Reformed Protestants, controversially, is his fresco of The Last Supper, which sits above and behind the altar at the Reformation Memorial Church, Wittenberg. The artwork is controversial because it contains an image of Christ, something that surely contravenes The Second Commandment. This is especially so, as the fresco is behind the altar and therefore has an association with worship, perhaps even designed to be a stimulus in worship. With the judgement of charity, however, we can overlook these indiscretions on the part of our early Lutheran Brethren. These men were pioneers taking the Christian Church into territory where she had not been for over one thousand years. Therefore elements of Roman superstition clung to them like limpets. This we can readily understand and excuse.
Setting this aside, however, Cranach’s fresco of The Last Supper from an historical point of view is fascinating, showing the new spiritual maturity in Wittenberg. In contrast with traditional Roman paintings the characters do not wear halos. This emphasises that all Christians are Saints and that the Apostles were mere men. The absence of a halo even around the Saviour emphasises His very real humanity, in the days of His humiliation. In the room where Christ and his Apostles are celebrating The Last Supper, is a window and the student will discover that the place is not Jerusalem. Unmistakably, the skyline is Wittenberg with the old Augustinian Monastery, known as The Black Cloister, dominating the view. This was where Luther poured over the Scriptures and where he discovered that glorious truth which revolutionised a continent, “The just shall live by Faith”. In later years after his marriage to Katherine Von Bora, The Black Cloister became Luther’s home as well as a lodging house for students. Therefore the connection between The Last Supper and Luther’s Protestantism is beginning to figure most prominently in this painting. Now we set about considering the characters who sit with Christ at the table. John is unmistakable reclining his head on Christ’s breast. Judas is unmissable, curiously portrayed with red hair and clutching his bag. Around this table, however, are gathered not twelve men but thirteen. Who might the thirteenth be? With the Wittenberg skyline and Luther’s home in view, the thirteenth member of this illustrious company is Martin Luther, the German Reformer. He is receiving the cup and he appears in the bearded disguise that Cranach had earlier painted him with, during his exile in the Wartburg.
Cranach was not foolish enough to believe that his friend, Dr Luther, was present at The Last Supper, nor was he sacrilegiously suggesting that the Protestant Reformer was equal to the Apostles. What then was his purpose? By connecting Wittenberg with The Last Supper, Cranach was suggesting that the teachings of Dr Luther were more in keeping with Christ and early Christianity that that which was in vogue in Rome. While the Pope claimed Apostolic Succession, Cranach was perceptively illustrating that the truths which Luther rediscovered, were the true Apostolic Gospel. Yes, we can go further and claim that while Paul was commissioned as one born out of due season to carry the Gospel to First Century Europe, Luther was ordained to take up that baton and set Sixteenth Century Europe alive with the very same Gospel. While the Calvinist may well struggle with the concept of religious art, especially within the context of worship, we cannot but admire the ingenuity with which Cranach presented the true Church in his famous fresco.
What did Luther make of it all? The work of art was not complete until after Luther’s death but it is inconceivable that he did not know of Cranach’s plans. In 1540 when dining with the Elector of Saxony, Luther was quite offended when he was compared to the Apostles. He is said to have protested with the words:
“No, they were great true persons. At the most God lets me stand behind the door and be His servant. And I am not even quite that.”
Peter Stanford in his modern biography “Catholic Dissident” suggests, however, that the other version of the story has words which “sounds more like his turn of phrase”:
“a stinking afterthought”.
Reference: Peter Stanford – “Catholic Dissident”