Exhibition: Luther’s Reformation

Martin Luther Exhibition

Martin Luther: Prophet, Hero and Saviour


Hans Baldung Grien, ‘Portrait of Martin Luther’, illustrated on the titlepage of Marin Luther, Acta et res gestae D. Martini Lutheri in Comitns Principu Vuormaciae, Anno, Strasbourg, 1521, Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek. 

Martin Luther referred to himself as Germany’s ‘faithful teacher’ and ‘prophet of the Germans’ and in essence, the light in opposition to the papal darkness. Representations of Luther as a prophet-like figure was reproduced in both art and literature. In a portrait by Hans Baldung Grien (1480-1545), Luther is shrouded by light, receiving the Holy Spirit in the symbolic form of a dove. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) reimagined Luther as the classical hero. The pope was portrayed hanging from Luther’s nose, while he clubbed his opponents, past and present. These include a cowing Jacob van Hoogstraten (c. 1460-1527), a Flemish theologian, as well as figures such as Aristotle and Aquinas sprawled around him on the ground. Literature representing Luther as a saviour included a treatise by Laux Gemigger entitled To the Praise of Luther and the Honor of All Christendem(1520). A passage reads: ‘Luther was sent by God to teach us God’s word and good morals and to drive out the Antichrist here on earth, also to see to it that God’s word not be fully spoiled and that the Roman tyranny be recognised, that they should have no kingdom here on earth.’


Hans Holbein the Younger, Martin Luther as Hercules, 1523 , pasted into Henrich Brennwald and Johannes Strumpf’s Schweizer , Woodcut, Zentralbibliothek, Zürich, Source: Wikimedia 

Honour and the German Protestant Reformation 

The Protestant Reformation in Germany was helped by humanists who wanted a unified German identity, which was in turn fuelled by a desire to unite the nation and to purify the Church. This German sentiment was particularly anti-Roman with the desire for freedom against foreign influence and unfair taxes. As Martin Luther had stated in An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility to the German Nation(1520): ‘How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property, at the hands of the pope? …why do we Germans let them make such fools and apes of us?’ Hence, anti-Roman sentiment was further fuelled by its long history with Rome who had regarded Germans as barbarians, a feeling only reinforced by their constant press for taxes. Some Germans like humanist Conrad Celtis (1459-1508) envisioned a new ‘Golden Age’ for the German people that would surpass the Romans. Celtis, who died prior to 1517, combined reformation thought with German independence by calling upon Germans to rise against the corruption of the foreign papacy and to restore their honour and dignity, by stating: ‘The Emperor rules in the German lands, but the roman shepherd alone enjoys the pasture. When will Germany regain her old strength and shake off the foreign yolk?’


Anonymous, Martinus Lutherus SS Theologiae D. Redivivus. He Antitypus Orthodoxae Religionis Christiano-Lutheranae & Idolamaniae Pontificiae, Anno Seculari Lutherano Primo sacer, 1618 Engraving, 38.5 x 29 cm, Latin and German text, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel.

The broadsheet marked the centenary of Martin Luther’s publication of his ninety-five theses. It has been divided into two contrasting frames. Luther has brought people to the direct radiating light of Christ on the left, while the Catholic Church remains plunged in darkness on the right. Above the engraving, the left side is labelled Leben (‘Life’) and the right side is labelled Todt (‘Death’). The left represents salvation in Heaven with Christ, while the right side represents damnation on earth. The grim mood of the right frame was further set by the portrayal of people tortured and executed by Catholic inquisitors further underscoring the theme of damnation on earth. Near the top-right corner, amid the darkness, the seven-headed beast of the apocalypse overlooks the scene being ridden by a pope holding the key of temporal power. While on the left side the papal beast wearing the three-tiered crown has been conquered. Furthermore, on the right, instead of travelling towards Christ’s light, both the papacy clutching rosary beads and the laity who have purchased indulgences are travelling straight to the dark abyss by a series of connecting bridges. The bishop selling indulgences on the bottom right is sending the laity to the abyss, which appears to contrast with a scholarly figure at a table with an open Bible on the left likely symbolising Luther. While the contrasting paths show that there are multiple ways to Hell, the only path that ultimately does not offer salvation is the Catholic Church. The image reveals that the monarchy and civilians who worship the pope will lead them to damnation as evident by their depiction at the top of the broadsheet on their knees preying to the pope, while on the left, those who pray to Christ himself will be led to salvation as God above overlooks them.


Artist Unknown, Titlepage in Anonymous, Die Luterisch Strebkatz, Worms: Peter J. Schöffer, 1524, Woodcut, 11 x 11.5 cm, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

The woodcut illustrates Martin Luther and the pope playing the popular game of Strebkatznziehen. This game consists of a tug-of-war between two opponents, gripping between their teeth a wooden rod at each end connected by rope. The pope is helped by Luther’s main theological opponents with the heads of animals symbolically associated with the Devil: Doctor John Eck as the pig (1486-1543), Doctor Jerome Emser (1477-1527) as the goat, Doctor Murner the Alsace cat, and Doctor Jacob Lemp (d. 1532) as a dog wearing a scholar’s cap. In the background are peasants who proved difficult to convert in southern Germany, who were mocked for being ignorant and superstitious beasts. Despite the appearance of an uneven match, the pope has fallen to his knees with his triple-tiered crown toppling off his head. His purse full of coins has burst open on the ground in a sign of papal greed. Keeping Luther steady is a large wooden crucifix he holds. The crucifix illustrates that Luther has Christ on his side and therefore stands for the true word of God. Therefore, this print casts Luther as a prophet figure, like Christ who stood alone against a large hostile opponent. Luther’s opponents were not only on the wrong side of Christ, the print puts them on the side of traitors with the greedy pope from Rome. The rat-infested king has been corrupted as the aristocracy also had a share in the wealth received from indulgences. While using symbolism that demonised the side of the Catholic Church, this woodcut uses playfulness and jest of carnival that would make its message more palatable to a wider audience.


Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, after Adriann de Weert, Huichelarij neemt de plaats in van vroomheid or The Moral Decline of the Clergy, or the Root of the Dutch Revolt and the Iconoclastic Fury, The Hague: Hendrick Hondius, 1604, fol. 9, Originally published in Cologne, c.1572-6. Engraving and Etching, 12.1 x 20.6cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.

The reforming movement used the rhetoric and visual representations of lightness versus darkness in their Reformation polemic, a motif that was often used in the Holy Bible (ie. John 3.19-21). The motif of lightness and darkness had also been used in an engraving in a series of prints by Dutch artist Dirck Volckertszoon. Coornhert (1522-1590) who had fled to Germany amidst the backdrop of the Dutch Revolt. In the ninth print in the series, Martin Luther was portrayed holding a torch towards the pope with the words inscribed Testimonium Scripturae (‘Testimony of the Holy Script’). The bloom of fire and smoke directs the audience’s eyes to reveal that the pope is the Antichrist by lifting his robes and revealing his devilish body with clawed hands and feet. Behind the throned pope are opened curtains that reveal the darkness created by cross-hatching that he had been shrouded by. Animals symbolic of the Devil sit on his lap and between his feet including a serpent, a scorpion, and a canine and a possible pig-canine hybrid with a pig-shaped head but clawed feet. The torch that Luther holds symbolised the scripture reveals, or shines a light on, Catholic deceit. The pope’s crown is inscribed with Abusus (‘Abuse’), underscoring this point. The three headed-man labelled Vulgus (‘the People’) before the pope represents the internal discord of the common people. Like many Protestant prints, the message of the direct reading of God’s word from the Bible is clear. This is underscored by the depiction of a farmer leaning against a shovel while reading the Bible. As Luther had taught, there was no true separation between the layman or clergy; all were of the spiritual estate (I Corinthians 12.12-13). In the background, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (c.1466-1536), the Dutch humanist who critiqued the corruption of the Catholic Church, unmasks a canine-headed monk from beneath his robes.

Sixteenth-Century German Print Culture

Prints became an important part of German art and visual culture as a result of the popularity of woodcuts, the invention of engraving in Germany in the fifteenth century, as well as the invention of the printing press with cast-metal movable type by Johannes Gutenberg (d. 1468) of Mainz in 1450. Prints were frequently tacked onto walls with paste or wax, including tavern walls where a variety of classes would gather. In this way, printed images were accessible to larger segments of society. 

The Protestant propaganda campaign reached its height during the 1520s, after Marin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Prints were overwhelmingly published in German vernacular to reach the widest audience. For those who were illiterate, the texts were highly illustrated with woodcuts and engravings. Reformation polemic used a range of media including book-length publications, pamphlets, broadsheets, and interactive leaflets with fold-out flaps and spinning dials. Most Reformation polemic was created by anonymous artists, as they were at risk of heresy charges up until at least the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, which led to electors and princes being able to determine the religion of their estates in the Germanic territories. Even then, they could have been persecuted in Catholic cities, while Protestant cities censored propaganda to appease the Emperor.

‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ (Matthew 7.15-16)

The motif of the half-human, half-canine hybrid and anthropomorphised wolves was employed by propagandists during the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic clergy were represented as ravenous wolves who devour their metaphorical flock of sheep (their congregations). The iconography of the predatory and carnivorous wolf reflected the imperialist and hierarchical beast as a symbol of greed with their ornate rituals and costumes. These satirised images showed wolves in robes and with the headdresses of bishops and popes, running off with Christ’s flock or guzzling down on their blood. While other animals were used to represent members of the clergy, it was not to the extent of the wolf, which had both important biblical resonance, but also posed a real threat in sixteenth-century Germany. The spread of Lutheranism could also be partly attributed to this evocative yet simple iconography. Martin Luther published Babylonian Captivity of the Church (De captivitate Babylonica) in 1520 in which he stated: ‘they are actually a plague on the church, calling themselves priests and bishops – in sheep’s clothing no less – they abuse the Gospel and prey on the Church like wolves.’ While these publications would have primarily served the literate elite, the pictorial prints would have spread the essential ideas from these publications to a wider audience.


Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch, The Changing Faces of the Catholic Church, 1556, Basel, Woodcut, Diameter 16.5 cm, Vienna Graphische Sammlung Albertina.

The interactive and satirical woodcut is a volvelle that consists of a round disc attached to another paper pinned at the centre to allow it to rotate. The use of a volvelle had typically been used in cosmology texts, therefore its use in Reformation polemic is unique. The top layer of the volvelle is cut out where the head should be. Turning the bottom of the wheel would reveal the changing heads of the Catholic Church printed on the disc below. The faces reveal repeated motifs thus creating a common language in Reformation polemic. The faces include a joker in a fool’s cap with a goitre on his neck, a tonsured monk devouring a house, a bishop with the head of a wolf devouring a sheep with large canine fangs, and the last face is the depiction of the Devil with the head of a goat with horns. The volvelle demonstrates that its cast of characters are one and the same – they all constitute the greed of the Catholic Church and aid the Devil as revealed in the final image. Bishops could be the subject of the greedy wolf motif as the selling of positions within the Church regularly occurred, known as simony, particularly with bishoprics. The changing faces are numbered with a total of eight images. It is probable that the volvelle was cut from a broadsheet with the numbers corresponding to descriptive passages. 

Its instructiveness also allowed for its audience to unmask the clergy for what they really were before their eyes. For this reason, it enabled its audience to more fully engage with the images as they were manipulated to reveal its message for themselves rather than being passive observers. The print’s simplicity and interaction helped spread the reformers’ message, especially among the illiterate and without sophisticated understanding of allegorical motifs.


Anonymous, ‘The Lambe Speaketh’, illustrated in William Turner, The Huntyng of the Romyshe Vuolfe, by Wylliam Turner Doctor of Phisik, Emden: Egidius van der Erve, 1555, (English language). Etching, 26.4 x 19.1 cm, London, British Museum. 

Not only was the wolf motif used to symbolise Catholic greed, the motif of a wolf devouring a sheep was directly linked to the violence of the Catholic Church. In the anonymous engraving, a lamb is depicted strung up, hanging over an altar – epitomising the image of a sacrificial lamb evoking the crucifixion of Christ. The blood spurting into the chalices of the wolf-headed clergy not only symbolises the contention surrounding the Eucharist, but the spilling of blood of the martyred Protestant reformers. The engraving made in the northern German city of Emden depicts English subject matter, amid re-catholicisation during the reign of Queen Mary I between 1553-5. The central figure features Stephen Gardiner (c.1483-1555), Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor, as the ravenous wolf who persecuted Protestant reformers. Three men depicted on the top-left of the altar are attempting to restrain the wolf-bishop’s lust for power. The men below represent the simple commons who are literally being led by their noses. 

The motif of the wolf-human hybrid clergy was distinctly German as wolves had become extinct in England by the sixteenth century. Instead of the wolf, it was more common in England to use sly foxes as a motif to represent the hypocritical popery. Foxes were known for their cunning and were also used as a symbol for the Devil. William Turner (c.1508-1568) authored the polemic, The huntyng of the romyshe vuolfe (1555), which featured the original ‘Lambe Speaketh’ engraving as a fold-out while in exile in Emden. Emden not only became one of the settlements for fleeing English Protestant exiles, but also the headquarters of Protestant propaganda in the Calvinist city. Exiled Protestants smuggled their propaganda into England through messengers thereby bringing this distinctly German iconography to England.


Anonymous, Das yetz vil unradts ist im land das thuond die wolff in geistes gwand (‘The Christian Sheep Hunt the Papal Wolves’), c.1520-30, Woodcut, 8.7 x 27.4 cm (image), 18.4 x 30.2 cm (sheet), Zentralbibliothek, Zürich.

The theme of the world turned upside-down was popular during the sixteenth century. In this broadsheet, the wolves wear the hats of the pope, bishops and cardinal as well as two wolves who wear stoles around their neck to signify priests. They are fleeing from sheep (Christ’s flock) armed with pitchforks and swords around their waists. In the fashion of a typical wolf hunt, the wolves are being chased towards a net where an army of sheep with battle axes and swords await them on the left and right, partially obscured by trees. Sheep are also depicted wearing unleashed collars with their nose to the ground, representative of sniffer dogs who would be used for a typical wolf hunt. Two sheep have leapt onto wolves, biting into their fur akin to a hunting dog or wolf. 

Like many of the Protestant prints during this period, it has a strong theme of reading the direct word of God from the Bible, whereas the Catholic Church believed God gave the clergy the authority to interpret the Bible for their congregations. This is demonstrated by the leaders of the hunt on the bottom right where Biblical figures bring the word of God, each clasping their own Biblical books. Peter blows on a trumpet and Paul holds a pitched fork. Following are the Evangelists Mathew, Mark, Luke and John in their symbolic animal forms. The text states that they are bringing the word of God back to the shepherds (the papal wolves): ‘his word, as sent by Moses, so that the shepherd who guides God’s sheep on earth is warned here, that he should teach the right truth as it has been told to us by Christ.’

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