Hearing Law, Seeing Gospel: A Mockingbird History of Art - Matthew Milliner

About This Episode

It doesn’t take long at Mockingbird before one hears about… yes, here it comes… Law and Gospel. It is the name of the book after all. And while most of the fun is to be had in observing this versatile skeleton key to the human condition illustrated in everything from Finding Dory to David Bowie, or from Black Mirror to Axl Rose, the original Law/Gospel illustration, of course, came from Martin Luther’s BFF, Lucas Cranach the Elder, as evidenced below. On the left, expectation and obligation – with help from sin and death – send a helpless streaker toward an unwelcome barbeque (that’s Law). On the right, expectation is met by fulfillment. As the good news sinks in, a super-soaker of imputing blood jet streams from a side-wound, while sin and death get busted by a deputized sheep (that’s Gospel).

It would be perfectly serviceable to offer an extended talk on such wonderful illustrations, one of which bedazzles the front of Paul Zahl’s Short Systematic Theology. Cranach, after all, painted several variations, each of which convey different nuances to Law/Gospel dynamic. Nevertheless, addled as I am by the oppressive law of academia, with its merciless demand for originality, I am incapable of delivering something so straightforward, which, at any rate, has been done well in several top-notch publications.

Instead, I thought I’d look to artists from whom one would not expect such a message. Indeed, at the tenth anniversary conference I shall contend the Law/Gospel message can be found concealed in artists a long way from Wittenberg. The thrilling truth of grace emerges in art history just where you’d expect to hear something different (hence my title, “Hearing Law, Seeing Gospel”). What if the dynamic famously painted by Cranach could be found incognito in Orthodox icons, peeking from the unsurpassable achievements of Michelangelo and Pontormo, concealed in Catholic kitsch, even shining through the cult of creativity in contemporary art?

It’s all succinctly conveyed in the witty title, “camouflage Cranach,” really, but my wife said that sounded terrible.