How God Uses Art to Preach His Word

Reading Time: 5 mins

In the Reformation, as in the tabernacle, God gave skill, artistry, and craftsmanship to put his Word in images so that through art, his Word would be revealed.

When it’s family game time at our house, a simple game called Story Cubes is one of the regulars to hit the table. Each player takes a turn rolling the nine six-sided story cubes, or dice. The dice feature different images on each of their sides. Roll the dice. See the pictures. Craft your words. Tell a story.

Story Cubes provides a great example of how images can give birth to words and how words then unpack the images. When we turn to the Scriptures, we find the same pair of God’s gifts – words and images – at work in the lives of his people. In the beginning, God spoke his creative Word, and whatever he said – whether it was light, vegetation, or animals – those things were created, or imaged, into existence. His creations became living pictures of his handiwork.

Words and Images in the Old Testament

In the book of Exodus, when God instructs Moses to build the tabernacle, he establishes it as a place where he would dwell in the midst of his people. The tabernacle was a place where many things happened all at once. It was a place of God’s presence, peace, and promise. A place of sacrifice, thanksgiving, and praise. A place of redemption, atonement, and holiness. It was where God’s Word was sung, prayed, proclaimed, and heard, and it was also a place rich in artistry. When Israel would go to the tabernacle and later the temple, it was a feast for ears, as well as the eyes. God’s house was a house of his gifts of theology and artistry, both of which revealed and reflected his steadfast love.

To be sure, the tabernacle was a place of sacred theology. It was God’s dwelling place; heaven on earth. Which meant it also was a place of great beauty, artistry, and craftsmanship. The lampstands needed metalworkers. The altars needed stone masons. The curtains needed sowers. The tables needed carpenters. The tent structure needed an architect. The ark needed goldsmiths. And so on. God called artists, Bezalel and Oholiab, filled them with skill, and used their creativity, imaginations, and craftsmanship to serve his people and point them to his promises (Ex. 35:30-35).

Behind all of this craftsmanship stood the greatest architect and artist of them all, the Lord himself, working his promises through his Word and revealing his Word in the images surrounding the tabernacle. Words and images. Images and words. When both are held captive to the Word of God, they work together to reveal his promises to his people.

Words and Images in the Reformation

The same was true centuries later during the time of the Reformation. It’s easy to think of the period of the Reformation solely in terms of its rich theology. You might think of Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel and the restoration of the clear preaching and teaching of the doctrine of justification, or the comforting words that sinners are declared righteous by grace through faith in Christ. It’s true there would be no Reformation without God’s Word. And yet, the 16th century also provided a reformation of the arts in service to the gospel for God’s people.

Over the centuries, the church had turned God’s good gift of images and artistry into idolatry. The hearts, eyes, and minds of God’s people turned away from Christ-crucified and towards focusing on and relying upon relics, statues, and other images for comfort. The church had fallen into the same sinful trap Israel had fallen into with the golden calf.

In the days of Moses and the exodus, God’s people had Bezalel and Oholiab. In the days of the Reformation, God continued his work of inspiring artists and craftsmen to put their skills and vocation to use in service of the gospel. Artists such as Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Lucas Cranach the Younger (one of Cranach’s sons) placed the Word of God in the form of images to teach, proclaim, and reveal the beauty of the gospel for God’s people.

The Reformation’s rich, biblical theology gave birth to a renewal of sacred art. This artistry revealed the gospel preached from the pulpit and written with the pen through pictures.

Luther used woodcuts to teach various parts of his Small Catechism, including his explanation of the Ten Commandments through the illustrations of applicable bible stories. Luther’s German Bible also contained various images depicting the story of God’s saving work on behalf of his people.

One of the most famous images of the Reformation was Luther’s coat of arms, also known as Luther’s rose, which Luther explained in the following way:

“There is first to be a cross, black and placed in a heart, which should be of its natural color [red], so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. For if one believes from the heart he will be justified. Even though it is a black cross, which mortifies and which also should hurt us, yet it leaves the heart in its natural color and does not ruin nature; that is, the cross does not kill but keeps man alive. For the just man lives by faith, but by faith in the Crucified One. Such a heart is to be in the midst of a white rose, to symbolize that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace; in a word it places the believer into a white joyful rose; for this faith does not give peace and joy as the world gives and, therefore, the rose is to be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and of all the angels. Such a rose is to be in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in the Spirit and in faith is a beginning of the future heavenly joy; it is already a part of faith, and is grasped through hope, even though not yet manifest. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that in heaven such blessedness lasts forever and has no end, and in addition is precious beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable and precious metal.”

Some of the best artwork in the Reformation era not only taught or illustrated parts of Scripture, but also proclaimed the gospel in picture form. What ears heard in the preaching of the gospel, eyes could also see in the form of sacred artwork. Not only do God’s Word and promises ring true, but they are also beautiful when displayed.

Perhaps one of the most famous artists of the Reformation was Lucas Cranach, purveyor of the Cranach studio in Wittenberg, Germany. Two of his workshop’s most famous paintings are the altarpiece in Wittenberg and Weimar. In the Weimar altarpiece, Cranach is painted below the cross with the blood of Christ pouring onto his head, a visual proclamation that what Christ did on the cross he did for Cranach and for all. In the Wittenberg altarpiece, Cranach makes a cameo again, along with several other Wittenberg citizens and some of Luther’s own family, as Luther stands in the pulpit, pointing his hearers to an image of Christ crucified at the center of the painting.

While Luther was known as a man of the written and spoken Word, Cranach was known as a man of the illustrated and artistic Word. What Luther taught and preached, the truth of the gospel of justification for sinners, Cranach illustrated in his artwork. What Luther did in service to the church in the Reformation using words, Cranach did in service to the church using God’s gift of art and imagination. Cranach and other artists in the Reformation did what God called Bezalel and Oholiab to do back in Exodus by placing Scripture’s teachings before the eyes of people.

In the Reformation, as in the tabernacle, God gave skill, artistry, and craftsmanship to put his Word in images so that through art, his Word would be revealed.

None of this should be surprising. After all, God is the greatest artist, architect, and craftsman. As J.R.R. Tolkien says, we make in the image in which we are made. And if all of that wasn’t enough, God’s handiwork goes one step further. God the Creator joins his creatures in a fallen creation to save us. God the artist steps into his broken painting to restore what was lost in paradise. God the Word becomes flesh, the very image of God incarnate. And in Jesus, you, along with your words and imaginations, are redeemed, restored, and set free to be of service to God’s people.