The Highest Art: Martin Luther’s Visual Theology in Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio

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Martin Luther had a vivid way of speaking that becomes clear to anyone familiar with his writing. Yet, most scholarship to date has not thoroughly connected this observation with his position on images. Rather, his visual way of speaking and his position on images are often portrayed as irreconcilably at odds with one another. In this dissertation, I suggest that Luther’s theology itself is visually oriented and that this orientation is well suited for the connection with the artwork of Lucas Cranach the Elder.

My method for this claim is the use of Luther’s approach to theology and Scripture: Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio (prayer, meditation, temptation [Anfechtung]). Interaction with the text, hermeneutically speaking, is inherently phenomenological in such a way that lends itself to the formation of images. I contend that these “three rules” shape the practice of Luther’s visual theology by continually leading him to the text of Scripture as the foundation from which images are to be drawn, gazed upon, and tested. My chosen area of investigating this claim is Luther’s Lectures on Galatians of 1531/35. In these lectures, both Luther’s threefold practice and his visual imagination converge in the image of Christ derived from the text. It has been noted by John Dillenberger that many of the verbal images contained in the lectures correspond directly to Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Law and Gospel paintings. However, no further reason is offered, nor is it noted that the first paintings were completed two years before Luther’s lectures. I argue that an important link in making this connection is that Cranach’s painting of the Law and Gospel theme is a visual practice of Luther’s theology, wherein Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio plays a prominent role. Moreover, the three rules might also be a helpful way of describing Cranach’s artistic practice itself, in which the theme was continually reworked in several renditions in the attempt to arrive at a satisfying composition. Resonances between Cranach’s artwork and Luther’s theology can even suggest how seeing these images may have affected Luther. That is, Luther may be pulling from his mental reservoir of these images in his expositions of texts and preaching.

The significance of this work is a weaving together of the disciplines of reformation theology and art history in order to shed light on the resonance between theological and artistic practices. Impoortant to Luther’s study of Scripture and theology is not merely deal with abstract propositions but with naturally connected to an embodiment of the text—that is, a personal and spiritual engagement that expects the teaching of the Holy Spirit—that necessarily challenges, shapes, and creates images. Because of this nature, Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio may provide helpful insights for a modern-day Protestant visual exegesis.

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PHD in Theology

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Dyrness, William A.

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Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, Prayer, Meditation, Communication and the arts


Missions and World Christianity


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