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Fall and Redemption of Man

School of Lucas Cranach (1472–1553), Fall and Redemption of Man, early 16th century, oil on canvas, 38 x 106 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Karel Waterman.


Using symbolic figures and narratives, this painting asserts the Lutheran doctrine of salvation by faith through grace over the opposing Catholic belief in the validity of works as a means to salvation. At center, a young man—representing everyman—sits between two bearded figures that beckon for his attention. The prophet Moses, on the left, represents the concept of law and works, as the Law of Moses stressed enacting works to obtain salvation. On the right, John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, indicates the Law of Christ, which focused on the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ in receiving salvation.

Scriptural narratives and motifs from both the Old and New Testaments emphasize the deadness of the law of works and the redemptive power of grace. A skeleton and Adam and Eve, on the left, allude to man’s fallen inheritance. They are contrasted on the right by the figure of Christ, who rises from a grave and definitively subdues death and the devil. Scenes of Christ’s suffering and death further reference the necessity of Christ’s mercy and goodness in redeeming mankind. At the upper left, Moses kneels in a heavenly vision receiving the old law, while on a mountaintop at right Christ kneels in Gethsemane, invoking a new law as He accepts the cross of His sacrifice that the angel brings to Him. The narrative of the Israelites and the brazen serpent—a continuing commentary on the incomplete power of law alone to save—contrasts with the angels declaring glad tidings of the Gospel, the fuller Law, to the shepherds.

This visual discourse championed the teachings of reformer Martin Luther. It reminded contemporary viewers that any other theology would lead to spiritual death, indicated by the dead tree and landscape on the left as opposed to the verdant Tree of Life and landscape on the right. This composition is similar to several influential paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a contemporary and close friend of Martin Luther and one of the foremost illustrators of Lutheran doctrine.

Curricular Resources

The MOA has created suggested discussion prompts and assignments for BYU CIV faculty and students to use. Each assignment is based on themes that correspond with GE learning outcomes.

View Curricular Resources Related to This Work:
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