Shining a Light on Darkness: A broadsheet marking 100 years after the Reformation

Keywords: Martin Luther, Reformation, Lucas Cranach the Younger

The 1617 broadsheet entitled Martinus Lutherus ss. theologiæ … antitypus orthodoxae religionis … marked the centenary of Martin Luther’s publication of his ninety-five theses. The broadsheet is 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 with the use of cross-hatching. 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 being tortured and executed by Catholic inquisitors further underscoring the theme of damnation on earth.

Near the top-right corner, amidst the darkness, the seven-headed beast of the apocalypse overlooks the scene being ridden by a pope holding the key of temporal power. Alternatively, on the left side the papal beast wearing the three-tiered crown has been conquered.

Instead of travelling towards Christ’s light on the left, 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 that is sending the laity to the abyss further 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, there is only one path to salvation on the left (Harms 1980, p. 230). The image reveals that the monarchy and civilians who worship the pope are being led to damnation. This is evident by their depiction at the top of the broadsheet on their knees praying to the pope, while on the left, those who prey to Christ himself will be led to salvation as God above overlooks them. Surrounding Christ on the crucifix reads Die warheit und das leben. Ich bin der weg (‘The truth and the life. I am the path’).

On the central-right in the darkness, wolves standing on bi-pedal legs and dressed in clerical robes (bishop, pope, Jesuit) prey on a flock of sheep. The wolf-bishop has captured a sheep to be devoured in his jaws. While the image could have just as easily been read without the inclusion of the papal wolves attacking Christ’s flock, it reminds the audience without being literate of Matthew 7.15-16: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’

The broadsheet appears to have gained inspiration from Lucas Cranach the Younger’s Die wahre Religion Christi und die falsche Lehre des Antichisten (‘The True Religion of Christ, and the False Teaching of the Antichrist’), with each side paralleling each other. However, the dark side in Cranach’s print is far less grim and foreboding as the 1618 centenary print. The latter print has a stronger and more explicit message of salvation in the afterlife, whereas Cranach’s print focused on papal corruption. Therefore, the latter’s focus is on what the individual can do to save themselves rather than on shining a spotlight on institutional corruption.

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Die wahre Religion Christi und die falsche Lehre des Antichriste, 1545,
Hand-colored woodcut, 35.1 × 58.5 cm

The print is filled with other common motifs (indulgences, rosary, serpents etc.) that would invite a close reading of the visual language of the Reformation that was accompanied with instructional text. The embedded biblical passages allowed the audience to read the broadsheet on a deeper level, by allowing them to directly refer to their Bible and to read the word of God and Christ for themselves. The bottom text is in both Latin and German vernacular in contrasting typeface, thereby allowing it to reach a wide audience without the need of separate copies.


Harms, Herausgegeben von Wolfgang, Deutsche Illustrierte Flugblätter des 16 und 17. Jahrhunderts, volume 2, Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1980, p. 230.

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