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Read A Painting

Back in the day, and by “back” I mean 500 years back, most regular folks could not read or write.  But stories still got shared and passed from one person to another, even down through generations.  Some of it was simple oral tradition.  Tell a story and keep telling it.  Set it to verse and music and it’s easier to remember and pass along.  And of course, those who were able to read could read one of the few books to the others in group settings.  

But another very key way people learned was by reading pictures.  We think we are all fancy now with our ability to read and write and send messages at the speed of light via messenger, text and email, and we often feel like we know a lot more than those “illiterates.”  But most of the people in the Middle ages had a skill many of us have lost: they could read a picture.

Oh sure, it’s easy to look at a picture. But can you read it?  Folks then knew that if a man wearing armor is riding a horse and slaying a dragon, it’s George, and if that man has wings, it’s Michael.  They knew that if a woman carried two loaves on a platter it was Agatha, but if instead of loaves, the platter held eyes, then it was Lucy. And if a putti holds his thumb between his first two fingers behind the head of Zechariah who resembles Pope Julius II, well let’s just say regular folks could read paintings and luckily Il Papa Terrible was nearsighted. For those of us looking at paintings today, much of that meaning is missed.  We might say, “Nice colors,” and “clever composition,” or “what an accomplished technique,” but we rarely say, “Is that true?” or, “What an incredible story,” let alone, “How scandalous!” It’s simple. Unless we’ve intentionally learned the skill, we cannot read (a painting).

In the midst of the Reformation, Lucas Cranach, and his shop, told the story of the Reformation, the key figures, their actions, and the implications of their derring-do and the new theology. Have a look at this Cranach altarpiece which you can see in person on the altar of St. Mary’s Church, aka the Town Church in the center of old Wittenberg.  Who are those people?  What story does it tell? 

If someday you visit Wittenberg, the City of the Reformation, you can read this painting and others, visit Cranach’s shop to find out more about the work of Reformation artists, and perhaps also take the opportunity to read whole buildings or learn how Reformation theology impacted, and continues to influence, the very design of cities themselves.

Michael Bridges