Works of Art in Medieval and Early- Modern Devotion

In medieval and early-modern devotion, works of art helped focus the devotee’s attention and channel prayers toward the divine. This pair of paintings by Lucas Cranach shows Saints Anthony and Sebastian, two saints who were thought to help cure plague and disease. One type of object that artists fashioned was reliquaries, elaborate precious-metal pieces made to enshrine holy objects. The cross reliquary shown is from the collection of Friedrich the Wise, Elector of Saxony, whose Castle Church in Wittenberg housed one of the largest collections of relics in Europe.

Devotional deeds—such as visiting holy sites or communing with certain saints via a reliquary—could earn an individual benefits, what are known as indulgences, the remission from the temporal punishment for sins. The abuse of the common practice of selling indulgences was what instigated Luther’s schism with the Church.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Saint Anthony and Saint Sebastian, ca. 1520. Oil on panel. Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt.

Drawing of a Cross Reliquary, 1509. Pen and ink on paper. Thüringisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Weimar.