Protestant Princes against the Papal Beasts from Rome

Keywords: Reformation, Religious Wars, Protestant Schmalkaldic League, Lucas Cranach the Younger, Johann Friedrich I

When Martin Luther died in 1546, the Lutheran electors, princes and dukes took the role of the defenders of the reformed Church. They were depicted as knights fighting against the papal beasts from Rome. The papacy were depicted as monstrous beasts in a woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Younger entitled Johann Friedrich der Groβmütige, Kurfürst von Sachsen (‘Elector of Saxony, Johann Friedrich I’) (1547). In the print, Johann Frederick I (1503-1554), one of the leaders of the Protestant Schmalkaldic League, is dressed as a knight with sword drawn ready to fight the dwarfed papal beasts at his feet. Amongst the real and mythological creatures wearing the distinct attire of the papacy is a dragon wearing the triple-tiered crown of the pope and a wolf wearing a cardinal’s hat. Thorns surround them symbolising original sin (Genesis 3.18). Although most are large carnivorous animals, they have been scaled down in this woodcut to add to Friedrich’s image of strength in comparison.

Lucas Cranach der Jüngere, Johann Friedrich der Groβmütige, Kurfürst von Sachsen (Elector of Saxony, Johann Friedrich I), 1547,
Coloured Woodcut, 39.7 x 27.8cm,
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.

A crowned serpent is twisted around Friedrich’s leg, likely representing the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-1558) (reign 1519-1556) with whom he went to war with during the Schmalkaldic War of 1546-1547. The print was likely patronised by Frederick to gain support for the religious war against the emperor. However, during their original defeat Frederick was taken prisoner at the Battle of Mühlberg on April 24, in the same year that a print by Lucas Cranach the Younger was made of him in 1547 (Sider 2007, p. 201; Holder 2009, p. 216). This print was likely made prior to his capture as Cranach refused to visit Frederick during his imprisonment and was relieved from his position as court painter and cut from payment (Moser 2005, pp. 227, 229).

On his sword is the Latin acronym VDMIE, meaning Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum (‘Word of the Lord Abides Forever’) from Isaiah 40.8 (Rein 2008, p. 43). This emphasises the Protestant doctrine of referring to the direct word of God and the sword symbolises the protection of the true faith. Friedrich wore the defiant motto upon their sleeves at numerous Diets (Diet of Nuremberg in 1522-23 and Diet of Augsburg in 1530) to show support for the reforming movement (Price 2006, p. 244; Luebke 2011, p. 133). From 1531, it became the motto of the Protestant Schmalkaldic League and found itself on a variety of media from clothing, banners, coins, swords, flasks and horse muzzles (Rein 2008, p. 44; Dixon 2008, p. 56). The motto further served as a symbol of protection against the papal beasts, for the word of God is on his side. Swords have survived with this inscription so the depiction is not completely allegorical (Stopp 1969, p. 131). Frederick is also surrounded by his Saxon coat-of-arms and those of his alliance to justify the war and to illustrate that the numbers are against the Catholic emperor. Psalm 34 is printed beside him, which states that the wicked will be slain.

A very similar composition is recreated in the woodcut of the Protestant Duke Christoph of Württemberg (1515-1568). Under the Duke, Württemberg integrated the Lutheran Church into the structure of the Duchy, thereby allowing him full control over the Church (Kaplan 2009, pp. 104-105). In the print, a prayer is given to the Duke to evoke God’s protection against the Catholic ferocious beasts that surround him. Each of the animals wear the signature attire of members of the Catholic hierarchy with a wolf wearing a bishop’s cap, a lion wearing a cardinal’s hat, and again a dragon wearing the three-tiered crown of the pope. The only non-ferocious beast depicted is a rabbit at the bottom who represents the laziness of the chaplain who gains reward without effort (Scribner 1981, p. 76). Christoph’s sword also similarly bears the Latin acronym VDMIE and in the same stance as the previous print citing its likely inspiration. The image casts him as a hero in another likely attempt to gain support during the Schmalkaldic war. In this way, the Lutheran dukes are the defenders of the word of God and serve the true Protestant Church against the papacy who is aligned with the Devil evident from the animals associated with the Devil (dragon and wolf).

Anonymous, Herzog Christoph von Württemberg (‘Duke Christoph of Württemberg and the Papal Beasts’), Dahlem, c.1547-1554
Staatlich Museen, Berlin-Dahlem, Kupferstichkabinett
Source: DEUTSCHE EINBLATTHOLZSCHNITTE: 1500 BIS 1700 (CD ROM), Directmedia Publishing GmbH, 2008, ISBN / ISSN:3932544692


Dixon, C. Scott, ‘The Politics of Law and Gospel: The Protestant Prince and the Holy Roman Empire’, in Bridget Heal and Ole Peter Grell (eds.), The Impact of the European Reformation: Princes, Clergy and People, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008.

Holder, Ward, Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformations, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.

Kaplan, Benjamin J. Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Moser, Peter, Lucas Cranach: His Life, his World and his Art, trans. Kenneth Wynne, Bamberg, Germany: Babenberg Verlag, 2005.

Price, David Hotchkiss, Albrecht Dürer’s Renaissance: Humanism, Reformation, and the Art of Faith, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Luebke, David M. ‘A Multiconfessional Empire’ in Thomas Max Safley (ed.), A Companion to Multiconfessionalism in the Early Modern World, Leiden: Brill, 2011, pp. 229-55.

Rein, Nathan, The Chancery of God: Protestant Print, Polemic and Propaganda Against the Empire, Magdeburg 1546-1551, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008.

Scribner, Robert W. For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Sider, Sandra, Handbook to Life in Renaissance Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

F. J. Stopp, ‘Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum: The Dissemination of a Reformation Slogan, 122-1904,’ in Siegbert S. Prawer, R. Hinton Thomas, and Leonard Forster (eds.), Essays in German Language Culture and Society, London: University of London, Institute of Germanic Studies, 1969.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s