Satirical Animal-Headed Portrayals of Martin Luther’s Theological Opponents

Keywords: Martin Luther, anti-Catholic polemic, Catholic Church, Greed

It was only from the threat of excommunication of Martin Luther with the publishing of the papal bull Exsurge Domine (‘Arise, O Lord’), that condemned 41 of his propositions, did a systematic Protestant campaign start in the early 1520s (Füssel, 2005, p. 167; Holborn, 1965, p. 147). Luther’s objection to the Catholic Church was not simply because of papal corruption and greed, it was also theological. Thereafter, leading theologians across the Protestant and Catholic divide wrote disputations and biting satire, critiquing one another. While Luther commonly expressed opposition to the papacy as an institution, in the following prints he identified and targeted opponents in a personal manner. Protestant responses to their adversaries continued to be written in German over Latin allowing it to be read by a wider audience.

One opponent of Luther, theologian Jacob Lemp (d.1532), was commonly depicted with the head of a dog in anti-Catholic polemic. He is shown to have signs of domestication with long floppy ears, and a collar around his neck. Lemp is distinct as an image of parody, dressed in his ornate clothing and scholars cap that recall the animal masks of carnival. An example of this is illustrated in an anonymous broadsheet with Pope Leo X as the lion Antichrist, with fellow Catholic theologians: Doctor Murner as the Alsace cat, Doctor Jerome (or Hieronymus) Emser (1477-1527) as the Leipzig goat, Doctor John Eck as the Ingolstadt pig (1486-1543), and Doctor Jacob Lemp (d. 1532) as the Tübingen dog.

Anonymous, Leo X, Murner, Emser, Eck and Lemp as Animals, c. 1521-5,
Woodcut, 27 x 39.2 cm,
Nuremberg, Gemanisches Nationalmuseum. Inventory number: HB 15079

While Murner and Leo’s animal representations derive from a play on their names, and Emser’s was based on his family coat of arms, the others were chosen by their reformed opponents to symbolise their bestial behaviour (Eire, 2016, p. 180). Lemp was described as a growling dog, fighting over a bone as an emblem of greed (Scribner, 1981, pp. 74-5; Andersson, 1986, p. 129). The domesticated status of the theologians suggests loyalty to the Catholic Church and the pope, which they surround like loyal pets. However, in this collective representation, they are symbolic of the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church. With the goat and pig-headed Emser and Eck respectively, they are all also symbolically associated with the Devil, thereby casting the Catholic Church on the side of damnation. The prevalence of these repeated motifs made them easily recognisable to a visually literate audience.

The juxtaposition of the ornate costumes worn by the animal-headed theologians against the decorative cloisters enhance their portrayal as symbols of greed and represent the decadence of Rome. The pope lion holds a coin as if to hand it to Eck, suggesting that the pope paid money to gain support from the theologians, underscoring the domesticated animal motif in service of the pope. However, the decadence of the portrayal of the Catholic theologians enhances the humorous satire of animals in gowns.

The same theologians with the heads of animals were portrayed in no less than three prints created in 1524 making them easily recognisable. The repeated iconography associated with the theologians further illustrates that it had become an established motif. These prints appear to be inspired by the former woodcut. Collectively these prints show Luther as a prophet-like figure who had Christ on his side in opposition to his easily recognisable theological opponents with the heads of animals.

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

On the title-page of Die Luterisch Strebkatz (‘The Lutheran Strebkatz’), 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 (Scribner, 1981, p. 60). The pope was helped by Luther’s main opponents including the animal-headed Eck, Emser, Murner, and the dog-headed Lemp among others. 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 another sign of papal greed. Keeping Luther steady was a large wooden crucifix he holds. The crucifix illustrates that Luther had Christ on his side and therefore stood for the true word of God. In this way, the print casts Luther as a prophet, not unlike Christ who stood alone against a large hostile opponent. Not only were they on the wrong side of Christ, the print puts them on the side of traitors with the greedy pope from Rome. The infested king had been corrupted as the aristocracy also had a share in the wealth received from indulgences (Brady, 2009, p. 146).

Martin Luther is again depicted on the side of Christ in Triumphus veritatis. The ‘triumph’ was an ancient Roman custom marking the arrival of victorious Roman generals back to the city of Rome, accompanied by captured prisoners (Beard, 2007, p. 1). Christ was welcomed by people holding palm branches and declared him the king of Israel. Martin Luther is portrayed walking beside Jesus who is being pulled by a cart by the four evangelists in their heraldic symbolic form at the end of the procession as a symbol of the deliverance of the true Church. He is also holding a palm branch that was used to symbolise triumph, and in reference to Palm Sunday, in which this event was named after (Scribner, 1981, pp. 63-5; Ferguson, 1959, p. 36).

Unknown Artist, ‘Triumphus veritatis’ (‘The Triumph of Truth’) in Hans Heinrich, Freiermut, Triumphus veritatis, Sick der wahrheit, Spreyer: Johann Eckhart, 1524,
Woodcut or engraving, 18.6 x 42.5 cm,
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

The print illustrates the triumph over the Catholic clergy as they are pulled behind a horse tied by a chain by reformer, Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) in a suit of armour central to the composition. Amongst the captured Catholic clergy, Luther’s opponents are again depicted with the heads of animals (Murner, Emser, Lemp) clearly visible amongst the group. Above the captured clergy is the banner Triumphus veritatis (‘The Triumph of Truth’) thereby signaling that the captured papacy are in opposition to the truth. Toted at the start of the procession is the Ark of Holy Scripture carried by prophets and followed by the apostles indicating that the word of God and faith is all that is required. Above Jesus, angels hold a banner that quotes John 14.6: ‘I am the way, the truth and the light’ (Scribner, 1981, pp. 63-5; Ferguson, 1959, p. 36).

Unknown Artist, ‘Triumphus veritatis’ (‘The Triumph of Truth’) in Hans Heinrich, Freiermut, Triumphus veritatis, Sick der wahrheit, Spreyer: Johann Eckhart, 1524, Detail
Woodcut or engraving, 18.6 x 42.5 cm,
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

During the Protestant Reformation polemicists othered the Roman Catholic Church by using the dehumanising motif of the canine-headed hybrid. The motif was used to symbolise the internal character of the papacy to signify their greed, hierarchical structure, and imperialism over Germany, as well as their association with the Devil and the Antichrist. They were an image of satire in their ornate costumes. They were presented as an image of mockery to diffuse their power and to enhance the emotive response from viewers. The use of Protestant propaganda pamphlets and leaflets demonstrate the combative nature of the reformation and counter-reformation that played out in discourse. The motif of the floppy-eared dog appeared to be less about conversion and more about humiliating their opponent and their supporters to unite in their derision of the Other.


Andersson, Christiane, ‘Popular Imagery in German Reformation Broadsheets,’ in Gerald P. Tyson and Sylvia S. Wagonheim, Print and Culture in the Renaissance: Essays on the Advent of Printing in Europe, London: Associated University Press, 1986, pp. 120-151.

Beard, Mary, The Roman Triumph, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

Brady Jr. Thomas A. German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Eire, Carlos M.N. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Ferguson, George, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Füssel, Stephen, Gutenberg and the Impact of Printing, trans. Douglas Martin, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

Holborn, Haje, Ulrich von Hutten and the German Reformation, trans. Roland H. Bainton, New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

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

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s