The sheet is the cover page of the New Testament of the Lutheran bible that belonged to Prince Georg III of Anhalt, a three volume edition printed in 1541 on parchment [Georg 1476.2°]. A portrait of Melanchthon has also survived in the second volume.
Corresponding to the difference between Law and Gospel as distinguished by Luther the composition is dichotomous in structure. The picture plane is divided down the centre in two halves by a tree, which has bare branches on the left and green ones on the right. The despairing sinner is shown on the left side being chased by death and the devil into Hell's blazing flames. He looks to the right, where Moses stands among a group of Old Testament prophets and points at the tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Scenes of the Fall of Man and the Last Judgment set in the expansive landscape illustrate the origin and punishment of man's transgression. On the right the scene of the Brazen Serpent - an episode from the Old Testament, which was important for Luther and prefigures the crucifixion - illustrates how the Israelites were saved from the poisonous snakes by following God's instruction. St John the Baptist stands to the right of the tree together with the naked man from the left side of the panel. St John was the last prophet before Jesus and according to Luther can be positioned between Law and the Gospel and is represented here in the role of mediator.
He draws the attention of the naked man, who stands quite calmly with his arms folded, to the crucified Christ. Blood spurts out of a wound in Christ's side onto the naked man's chest. The Holy Spirit appears as a dove in the blood. Illustrated here is that Christ alone can overturn the law's condemnation by sacrificing himself for mankind. The Holy Spirit conveys his joyful message. It is only through Christ's faith, his 'sola fide', that mankind can be blessed with divine forgiveness by the redeeming spurt of blood. Through the resurrection of Christ, who ascends into heaven above the tomb behind the cross, Death and the Devil who had pursued the sinner on the left side of the panel are banished: both lie vanquished at Christ's feet. The Lamb of God is shown in front of the cross and like the risen Christ he holds the victory banner. At the top right corner only the feet of the ascending Christ are visible. In the background the annunciation to the shepherds is shown on the right. The Virgin stands on the tomb and the infant Christ floats towards her out of a gloriole. All the scenes on the right side illustrate mankind's acceptance of the word of God. It is made clear to the viewer that both law and gospel herald the same joyful message that always leads to Christ.
The composition is enclosed in a broad frame, which contains a text field at the bottom. The field contains quotations from the New Testament, like the area above the frame.
[Görres, cda 2016 with additions by Anhaltische Landesbücherei Dessau]