Early Lutheran Church Architecture
by James Wetzstein, appearing in Volume 33
Hartenfels Castle Chapel in Torgau was dedicated in 1544, the first newly constructed Lutheran space. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Andreas Praefcke
The architectural implications of the Augsburg Confession were probably not top-of-mind for those who signed it in 1530. The Confession was a presentation of Lutheran teaching, most significantly on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. It was the theological statement of the political leaders who had been convinced of the Lutheran position, a position whose initiation has been marked by Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in October 1517.
While the Augsburg Confession makes no mention of church design or art, it does define the Church unequivocally as “the congregation of saints.” In so doing, the Lutherans located any notion of sacredness, not in a specific institution or place, but in the gathering of believers — wherever it may occur — who come together around God’s word and, consequently, in the presence of Jesus Christ. This definition, a ramification of the doctrine of justification, drove Lutheran church design.
Lutherans didn’t build many churches in the first century following the start of the Reformation. In the lands that came to be identified as Lutheran, existing churches were merely given over to Lutheran use, in most cases, with minimal change. These spaces were usually conservatively modified in order to ensure that all could hear the preacher, witness baptisms and receive the Lord’s Supper. Typically, the use of devotional candles before images of saints was discontinued. In some cases extra-biblical religious art was removed or covered. Frequently new, didactic Biblical art was introduced.1
Luther’s own conservatism regarding the liturgy, art, and environment of worship was itself a reaction to what he saw as the excess of the iconoclastic Andreas Karlstadt. During Luther’s self-imposed exile of 1521, Karlstadt instituted sweeping reforms to the liturgy and removed all images from the church in Wittenberg.
The new churches that were built took a variety of forms, yet all display a commitment to the gathering, the centrality of Sacramental life — Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper — and the authority of Scripture. Most make extensive use of images, though in didactic rather than devotional ways. None were perceived by their communities as sacred in any way that could be distinguished from the sacredness of all creation which had been consecrated by the Word of God in the act of creation.
What follows are descriptions of three early church buildings, offered as manifestations in design of these core Lutheran commitments. Hartenfels Castle Chapel in Torgau, built in 1544, was the first newly constructed Lutheran space. It might be called the Lutheran archetype. The town church of Freudenstadt, built in 1608, was one of the first newly created Lutheran churches. Holy Cross Church in Augsburg, built from 1651 to 1653, was the product of civic competition with the Catholics, and the creative use of an oddly-shaped space the city gave them.
The Lutheran Archetype
The Castle Chapel at Hartenfels Castle in Torgau was dedicated on October 4, 1544. This first newly constructed Lutheran space is an archetype for Lutheran church architecture, both embodying Luther’s ideas about the nature of worship and influencing, if not in design details, in core values, the design and construction of Lutheran churches in Germany and across Europe.
The chapel is a renovation of the east wing of the castle, commissioned by Johann Frederick I and designed and constructed by Nickel Grohmann. Torgau was the seat of German reformation political power. Luther consulted on the design and Lucas Cranach contributed both sketches for the bas-reliefs that mark the pulpit and the color scheme for the whole room.2
When Luther preached at the dedication, he made a statement about the nature of Christian worship that has been formative for Lutheran liturgical theology. “The purpose of this new house may be such that nothing else may ever happen in it except that our dear Lord himself may speak to us through his holy word, and we respond to him through prayer and praise.”3 For Luther, Christian worship is people gathering to receive the gifts of God’s grace, namely life and salvation through the proclamation of God’s word and the administration of the Sacraments to which God’s word had attached the promise of the gift of righteousness.
What is fundamental for Lutheran architecture is the gathering around the Word of God and the congregation’s collective response. The primacy of Scripture, even in the context of the Sacraments, and the fact that Scripture was shared for the sake of the gathered community, required both the visual and acoustical presence of the speaker and a specific place in the speaker’s presence for the gathered community. The baptismal font and altar must be close to each other because they too were places from which the Word of God was shared.
That said, everything for Luther is about function for the community. The place itself is but a concession to the need to have a communally identified place of gathering. How is this seen in Hartenfels Castle Chapel?
A sculpture of the removal of Christ’s body from the cross is located above the entrance to the chapel at Hartenfels Castle. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Kolossos
As a renovation and re-purposing of an existing castle wing, the chapel is not identifiable from outside the building, save for the sculpture by Simon Schröter over a door that opens to the ground floor of this three-story space — a depiction of the removal of Christ’s body from the cross. The doorway pierces the exterior wall under the second of four barrel vaults that line the long walls, supporting two levels of galleries above.
A depiction on the pulpit of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple illustrates the principle of Sola Fide. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Andreas Praefcke
The prominent pulpit is the obvious center of the room’s attention, visible from every place in the chapel, both from the ground floor and from the Duke’s place in the gallery, which opened off his personal quarters. It is mounted at the level of the first gallery and centered on the wall opposite. This conforms to Luther’s own comments at the dedication that the room was intended for the proclamation of God’s word.
The barrel of the pulpit is adorned with three scenes from the Gospels, each illustrating one of the Reformation’s five signature “solas.” From left to right, these images are: Jesus forgiving the sin of the woman caught in adultery (Sola Gratia); the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple teaching by pointing to the Scriptures (Sola Scriptura); and Jesus driving the money changers from the temple (illustrating Sola Fide through the Lutheran rejection of the sale of indulgences and the practice of pilgrimages).
This use of art to illustrate Biblical stories that teach theological concepts is emblematic of the ways in which Lutherans used art in their churches. Luther, responding to the iconoclasm of both Lutheran and Reformed pastors, observed that he couldn’t conceive of the crucifixion of Jesus without creating an image in his imagination. For Luther, visual art merely supplied the imagination with an illustration.
At the end of the room, to the preacher’s right, on the main floor but elevated on two steps, stands a stone table: the altar for the Sacrament of the Altar. The corners of the mensa (the top) rest on four angelic beings. There is room behind the table for the presiding pastor to face the congregation, as Luther recommended in his commentary of 1526 on the liturgy for his suggested, vernacular, German Mass.
There is no railing or barrier that would limit access from the common space. Luther did not recognize a hierarchy of holiness within the church space or outside of it. In his dedicatory sermon, he remarked that the community could be meeting just as well outside by the fountain, but that the room had been set aside as a mark of orderliness and neighborly service.
Installed above the communion table is the room’s organ, the pipes housed in simple but beautiful casework. As Luther saw it, the community’s appropriate response to the gift that is the Word of God is the repetition of that same Word in song and prayer. That the organ is aligned with the Sacramental table on the narrow wall is not only acoustically desirable, but a comment on the interrelationship between the means of God’s grace and the response of the Christian in worship.
The room itself is airy and brightly lit with large clear windows and white plaster work that sets off the sandstone rib vaults. It is a pleasant place in which the saints of God might gather.
A New Lutheran Church
As noted above, in most Lutheran communities, existing churches were taken over, making the construction of new buildings a rarity. The construction of an “ideal” town under the direction of Duke Frederick of Württemberg in 1599 created an opportunity for the construction of a new church.4
The L-shaped church in Freudenstadt occupies one corner of the town’s main square. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/joergens.mi
Freudenstadt (“Happytown”), built near Stuttgart in the Black Forest, was designed by architect Heinrich Schickhardt. Frederick and Schickhardt imaged a walled city, perfectly square with a large central plaza dominated by the Duke’s citadel and surrounded on all four corners by the important municipal buildings. The church, town hall, market, and hospital, all L-shaped in plan, turned each of four corners. The citadel was never realized, but the church was built between 1601 and 1608.
Pews, galleries, and the organ are located in the arms of the L-shape, while the liturgical furnishings are placed at the vertex. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/joergens.mi
Impressive copper-roofed towers mark the entrances at its north and east ends. The liturgical furnishings — altar, Romanesque font and ambo taken from a preexisting church, with high pulpit in the corner behind the altar — are grouped in the vertex of the right angle created by the unusual L-shaped floor plan. Pews, galleries, and the organ are located in the arms of the L-shape, facing the vertex. The building, done in a Gothic/Renaissance style, seats 1,000. Everyone can see the preacher.The organ dominates the north gallery. Today, a smaller instrument is also housed on the main floor just east of the altar.
The unusual floor plan illustrates a key idea in Lutheran church architecture of the period: the church building is a place of meeting. As such there must be a place for all those who will gather there. These places are to be sufficient for the need: that is, there must be enough room close to the preacher and the Sacramental furnishings. People need to be able to see and hear the preacher. They need to be able to see or gather around the font. They need to be able to approach the communion table.
But it also means that the whole congregation must have their places. Luther rejected the idea that only the religious had vocations. His doctrine of vocation elevated all acts of human service, and thus all stations, as a means by which God blesses human society.
But he was not an anarchist, nor was he an egalitarian. While all were equally needy of God’s grace, all also had their places within civil society. Pews in Lutheran churches not only made listening to the didactic sermon possible, they fixed individuals into particular places in the room. In the case of the church at Freudenstadt, pews made possible segregating the sexes, while giving the whole congregation access to the preacher, font, and table, but not to one another.
The use of art at Freudenstadt is consistent with broader Lutheran practices. The ambo, font, altar, and life-size crucifix are older than the building, taken over from some other location. All the pieces are heavily decorated with images. The font dates from 1100 and is raised on the backs of four figures, and the bowl is surrounded by what appear to be deer and dragons. The base of the ambo is surrounded by figures of the four evangelists who hold the desk of the ambo on their shoulders, a symbol of their foundational place.
The altar features the images of the twelve apostles. At the dedicatory sermon, Andreas Veringer, the pastor during the time of construction, identifies the crucifix as an aid in recalling the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. He also takes the opportunity to point out that by retaining the altar and font, the community is distinguishing themselves from Zwinglians and Calvinists who destroy altars and fonts.
Adopting a Catholic Design
In 1555, the treaty of the Peace of Augsburg between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Lutheran princes of the Schmalkaldic League determined that both Lutheran and Catholic confessions would be allowed within the Empire. Princes and city councils would have the right and authority to choose which confession would be practiced in their domain.
Ironically, Augsburg was unable to take advantage of this decision. While Lutheranism was the choice of most of the citizens, the merchant and patrician classes favored the Catholic faith. Augsburg descended into a tenuous situation of attempting to balance the interests of two official religions. The effect on Lutheran architecture is noteworthy for the way this bi-confessional situation drove Lutherans to adapt Roman Catholic spaces and adopt what might seem to be Roman Catholic design in their effort to assert their place in the community.5
The expectation was that Augsburg would eventually decide the issue as had other cities. During this time the contending parties asserted control over parts of churches and whole structures, but the lack of resolution over property claims prevented any serious efforts to build. Finally, in 1648, the Peace of Westphalia formalized the bi-confessional nature of Augsburg, requiring parity across the city. Lutheran and Catholic churches were guaranteed the right to exclusive claim on land granted to them, opening up the possibility of a cohesive Lutheran approach to church design in Augsburg.
Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Augsburg as it appeared in 1703. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Zisska & Schauer
Plan of Holy Cross Church. Photo credit: discoverbaroqueart.org
When the Lutherans meeting at Holy Cross Church received their land grant, the plot deeded to them was an odd, nearly triangular shape. Rather than placing a cost effective rectangular hall church on the site, similar to the Franciscan preaching halls that the Augsburg Lutherans had favored during the earlier time of uncertainty, they constructed a building with a complicated floor plan and structure (a right trapezoid) that maximized the breadth of the façade and the seating capacity of the interior.
Unlike the narrow late Gothic design of the neighboring Roman Catholic church of the same name, the broad Baroque design of Holy Cross was covered with all manner of curves and spirals that serve to keep the eye low, further emphasizing the size. The ocher stucco walls stand in contrast to those of its white-colored neighbor. An onion domed bell tower rises over it all. The building looks larger than it is, larger than was allowed, and maybe even larger than the building next door.
The façade of Holy Cross Church. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Alois Wust
The interior of Holy Cross Church was redecorated in 1730. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/Otto Schemmel
Stepping through the main door, the nave turns off to the right at a 55-degree angle, with a gallery running down the long left wall and over the main doorway. The paneled ceiling is ornately painted with the grid of the ceiling aligned with the parallel side walls. A heavily ornamented pulpit and canopy is mounted on the wall to the right about half-way down its length, under a life-sized sculpture of the Crucifixion. Two large paintings depicting Christ’s suffering flank the pulpit.
The altar and choir are housed in an apse on the west wall. The choir was redone in 1730 in the latest Rococo style, indicative of the community’s desire to present themselves as up-to-date. It features frescoes in the ceiling of faith, hope and love over soaring organ pipes. Images around the altar feature key elements of the life of Christ. The altar and the pulpit command the room, as is typical of Lutheran churches. All of this is roofed over by an enormously expensive copper roof that still stands out among the red tile roofs in the neighborhood today.
Holy Cross was built from 1651 to 1653. The economic and demographic devastation wrought by the Thirty Years War had hit Augsburg especially hard. Yet, with funds raised from across Lutheran Europe, the Lutherans in Augsburg built a church that would be a point of pride. Holy Cross was not just the ordered room in service of the congregation that gathered to hear God’s word, as Luther had described the church in Torgau. The art and architecture of Holy Cross was a bid for a legitimate place in the civic and religious life of Augsburg. It was a way for the community to assert itself in the theological market.
The Lutheran Impulse
Regardless of context — palace chapel, ideal new town, or civic competition — the Lutheran impulse is the same: to gather the community of the faithful in proximity to word and Sacrament and provide an environment for their song of response to God’s gifts of grace. In every case, art — some new, some old — provides visual reminders of Biblical truths. The shape of the rooms, style of the appointments, and size of the spaces vary depending on the local need, but these three examples are emblematic of a Lutheran approach to church design that still holds sway today.