On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther either did or did not nail a paper titled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” better known as the Ninety-five Theses, to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. (The evidence is murky.) But, by whatever means, on that day the Augustinian monk made public a multipronged attack on the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s sale of indulgences-get-out-of-Purgatory-early guarantees-to raise funds for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. The revolutionary theology that Luther thereby introduced held that only personal faith can obtain divine grace, rejecting any intercession between an individual and God. (In 1520, he declared that “all Christian men are priests, all women priestesses.”) Thanks to the relatively recent technology of the printing press and to widespread discontent with Rome and with Pope Leo X, Luther’s ideas convulsed the Holy Roman Empire. Three new museum shows kick off the five-hundredth anniversary of the originating deed: “Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation,” at the Morgan Library, in New York; “Law and Grace: Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach and the Promise of Salvation,” at the Pitts Theology Library, in Atlanta; and “Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation”-by far the most comprehensive-at the Minneapolis Art Institute.
I grew up churched and Sunday-schooled Lutheran in Minnesota towns. As a pious kid, I was thrilled to imagine Luther pounding on that church door, and though I didn’t know what “theses” were-the plural of “these”?-I gloated over the quantity of them. I raged at Catholic schoolmates who jeered that Luther had turned the world upside down for sex. (He married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, in 1525.) My side taught me to deem Catholics “idolaters” for praying to saints, but I secretly envied the glamorous ornament and rituals of their church. That feeling foretold my discovery of art as a make-do creed. Say what one will about Leo’s monetizing of forgiveness, it helped pay the wages of Michelangelo and Raphael.
The art quotient of the three shows would be slight but for Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther’s close friend and tireless propagandist. (The Morgan focusses on the moment of the theses.) The German Renaissance master became the richest man in Wittenberg partly by being willing to work for almost anyone, including fanciers of erotic and comic imagery-and Luther’s enemies. But Cranach readily adapted his crisply contoured, infectious art to charismatic portraits of the Reformer and Katharina, as well of the local ruler, Frederick the Wise, who shielded Luther from the wrath of Leo and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Atlanta show, which I haven’t seen, centers on Cranach’s “Law and Grace” (circa 1550), an intricate, definitively Lutheran allegory of the soul’s despair under the impossibly exacting law of the Old Testament, and its liberation by the New.
Luther was born in Saxony in 1483, the son of a well-to-do mining entrepreneur. He studied law, but later wrote that a terrifying experience during a thunderstorm, in 1505, led him to enter a monastery. He became a priest in 1507 and a theology professor in 1512. Nevertheless, he was racked by doubts about God and about his own mind and heart. That qualified him, in Kierkegaard’s words, three centuries later, as “disciplined in all secrecy by fear and trembling and much spiritual trial for venturing the extraordinary in God’s name.” But Kierkegaard noted a flaw: Luther was ambitious, and to gain converts he effectively excused them from the inner struggle that gave his beliefs their meaning. W. H. Auden picked up the theme in a sonnet, “Luther”: ” ‘The Just shall live by Faith . . .’ he cried in dread. / And men and women of the world were glad, / Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.”
In 1521, Leo excommunicated Luther, and Charles V summoned him to trial at the Diet of Worms. There Luther scored an oratorical triumph with a speech adducing Scripture in defense of his heresies. “Here I stand. I can do no other,” he is reputed to have said. On his way home, agents of Frederick the Wise intercepted him and hid him in a castle, for protection from what amounted to an imperial dead-or-alive warrant. Living under the alias Junker Joerg (Knight George), Luther translated the New Testament into German, from the original Greek, in eleven weeks. He then returned to Wittenberg and translated the Old Testament, from the Hebrew. The Luther Bible became the fulcrum of the Reformation and did for vernacular German roughly what Dante had done for Italian. Heavily worked manuscripts, in the Minneapolis show, document his labor. Luther’s version is tendentious: he consigned the Book of James to the Apocrypha, because it posited good works, rather than faith alone, as a route to salvation.
The Minneapolis show is divided into eight chronological sections, with exhibits ranging from items from Luther’s childhood home, and the immense pulpit from which he preached his last sermons, to liturgical garments and such kitsch relics as a sixteenth-century commemorative beer tankard. But the main fare is linguistic: manuscripts, books, and broadsheets. Lutheranism is a religion of the logos. In that context, the show forthrightly confronts Luther’s notorious anti-Semitism, which fed on the disappointment of his early belief, based on his reading of the Old Testament, that Jews would accept Jesus as the Messiah. In 1523, he sympathized with their suffering under Christian persecution, in a tract titled “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” But, by the end of his life, in writings that included a sixty-thousand-word screed, “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543), his hatred verged on the genocidal.
The show also acknowledges Luther’s betrayal of the peasantry’s hopes that his religious populism would extend to common cause with the oppressed. (They may have been misled by his mythologizing of himself as a man of humble birth.) Instead, he promoted the brutal crushing of insurrection in the Peasants’ War of 1524-25, siding with the secular authorities on whose backing he depended.
Luther did rein in followers who engaged in iconoclastic destruction of Catholic art. His own attitude toward art was pragmatic: it could be used for doctrinal instruction. (He made an exception for music, calling it “the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”) In Minneapolis, there’s an astonishing polyptych-the “Gotha Altar” (1539-41), from the workshop of Heinrich Füllmaurer, an artist previously unknown to me-that arrays a hundred and fifty-seven painted panels, on fourteen hinged wings, which tell Bible stories with a Lutheran spin, emphasizing the Gospel teachings of Jesus over the Catholic litany of martyrs and miracles. Luther also countenanced a media onslaught of polemical prints that identified the Pope with the Devil or, in a woodcut from Cranach’s workshop, pictured him emerging from the womb (or perhaps the anus) of a female demon. Such grotesqueries, including those of Catholic counterattacks on Luther, vivify an era of sulfurous passions.
Consequences of the Reformation for civil life set in immediately. Luther’s discounting of personal charity as a self-deluding substitute for faith prompted state welfare to compensate the poor. More generally, his emphasis on personal responsibility gave rise to the Protestant ethic of gainful hard work. He believed firmly that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, and seemed to feel that, time being short, life should be lived to the fullest. He celebrated conviviality-no great novelty in Wittenberg, where one out of three houses was licensed to brew beer-and was unusually supportive of women. In his view, a woman with an impotent or unwilling husband should seek a divorce and, if he refuses, request sex with one of his relatives or friends. Failing that, she might leave and start fresh in another town. Luther, who lived out his life in familial contentment, undertook considerable legal wrangling to will his entire estate to Katharina, rather than to their sons. He died in 1546.
In Minneapolis, a circa-1600 copy of Cranach’s painting “Martin Luther on His Deathbed” (1546) shows the fleshy Reformer tranquilly at rest on cloudlike pillows. The image had a propaganda purpose: it was intended to counter the Catholic belief that Luther, in merited agony, went straight to Hell. In fact, he left a Europe that was subject to bloody religious wars and, incidentally, to the Catholic backlash of the Counter-Reformation, which strove to co-opt the Protestant emphasis on personal devotion in new styles of traditional piety. (Keep in mind, when beholding the aesthetic glory and spiritual intensity of an El Greco or a Caravaggio, that we have the goad of Martin Luther’s legendary hammer indirectly to thank for them.) As of last week, that seed of compromise had come to at least diplomatic fruition with Pope Francis commemorating the anniversary of the Ninety-five Theses at the Lutheran World Federation, in Lund, Sweden. Catholic conservatives have denounced the gesture. What would Luther say about it? Excellent question. ♦