The visual language of the new faith – the first Reformation altar by Lucas Cranach

The Church of St. Wolfgang is one of the large, bright late-Gothic churches in Saxony and owes its existence to the rich reserves of silver in the Erzgebirge mountains during the 15th and 16th centuries.

View of Schneeberg, GermanyThe church was almost completely destroyed during an air raid on 19 April 1945. The only art- works that could be saved were eleven of the twelve panels from the Cranach altar, and these can be seen together on the winged altar today. Work was carried out on the church until 1996 to restore it to its former glory.

The Reformation altar in Schneeberg is one of the most extensive works by the Cranach family. It was commissioned in 1532 and was not completed by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop until 1539. The altar has a fixed iconographic programme that sets the most important biblical stories in a theological context.

The side of the altar normally on display (Werktagsseite) shows the well-known theme of Law and Gospel, which Cranach painted in different variations. Our gaze is drawn to Christ, through whom man is granted salvation – this was the central belief of the reformers’ theology. Man is "justified" ("just") before God through Christ’s redemption and enters into a new, liberated relationship with God, his fellow men and himself. In terms of iconography, this notion is visualised by the figure of Adam standing upright under the cross.

The side displayed on feast days (Festtagsseite) is characterised by the powerful image of Christ’s crucifixion in the centre. It is flanked with panels showing Elector Johann Friedrich of Saxony and Duke Johann Ernst of Coburg. The altar predella, which is always visible, shows a depiction of the Last Supper.

On the reverse of the Reformation altar the side panels show the Old Testament stories of The Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. The message of the resurrection, salvation after death, is on the central panel. When members of the congregation receive Holy Communion during the Mass, they pass around the altar and also see the reverse side.

Places to visit

St. Wolfgang with Cranach altar Guided tours of the church with commentary on the altar are organised by the rectory on request.

Further Information on Schneeberg in English ...