Using Interactive Prints in Reformation Polemical Prints

Keywords: volvelle, Reformation, Wheel of Fortune, false piety, Peace of Augsburg

In 1556, Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch (1525–1571) designed an interactive and satirical woodcut in 1556 using a volvelle with the title: Die wechselnden Gesichter der Kirche (‘The Changing Faces of the Church’). Another volvelle, with a similar image, was printed in 1620. A volvelle is a round disc attached to another paper pinned at the centre to allow it to rotate (Bland, 2013, p. 51). The volvelle was typically used in cosmology texts; therefore its use in Reformation polemical prints was unusual. In these Reformation examples, the top layer of the volvelle was cut out where the head should be. Turning the bottom of the wheel revealed the changing heads of the Catholic Church printed on the disc below. The changing faces were also numbered with a total of eight images. It is probable that the volvelle from 1556 was cut from a broadsheet with the numbers corresponding to descriptive passages as the anonymous 1620 shows a direct interplay between text and image (Schmidt, 2006, pp. 4, 152, 378).

Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch, Die wechselnden Gesichter der Kirche (Drehscheibe Variante 4: Bischof mit Wolfskopf);  The Changing Faces of the Church, 1556, Basel,
Woodcut, Diameter 16.5 cm,
Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina.
EU directive: copyright on public domain images:

In numerical order, the faces reveal previous pictorial representations, thus creating a common language in Reformation polemic. The faces start with the more humoursly satirical joker in a fool’s cap with a goitre on his neck and a tonsured monk devouring a house. The middle images portray animal-headed clergy-men with a goose with a rosary in its mouth wearing a monk’s habit, a bishop with the head of a wolf devouring a sheep, and an owl wearing a cardinal’s hat. A benign-looking pope follows, who appears to fit with the body of the primary image. The last faces become more sinister with the representation of Death with a snake in its spiked crown, and finally the Devil with the head of a goat with horns (The other faces can be viewed in Andersson, 1985, pp. 51-54). As the turning of the wheel illustrates, all the levels of the clergy were in league with the Devil and symbols of false piety.

Just like the original volvelle, the 1620 copy shows that trust for members of the Catholic clergy had been destroyed. Most of the faces of the volvelle entitled Römisch Cathol. Wunderseltzames GlückRad, auch wahre Abcontrafactur des Antichristischen Bapsthumbs (‘Wonderfully Strange Roman Catholic Wheel of Fortune, Also an accurate portrayal of the Antichristian Papacy’) remains the same as in the 1556 original (A copy of the dial and a transcription of the text can be found in Scheible, 1850, pp. 214-16). While they both include the same number of faces, the 1620 volvelle excludes the more frightening images of Death and the Devil. The faces reveal the pope wearing a white mask with its eyes cut out, a cardinal returns as an owl, and a wolf bishop appears with a sheep in its mouth. Furthermore, a capuchin monk resembles the cat-headed Thomas Murner, a priest as a monkey, an ass-headed Carthusian, and a fool. The frequency of drawing upon the familiarity of the animal-headed motifs in the context of the Reformation made the message of the Protestant polemical prints readily understood in the same way that Thomas Murner was frequently depicted as a cat in Reformation polemical prints. A new addition from the original volvelle includes a dog-headed Jesuit whose sceptre had turned into a pointed club. The sceptre not only represented authority but was a symbol of the Good Shepherd (John 10.11) (Rapelli, 2011, p. 26). Therefore, the sceptre turned club highlighted the clergy’s diminished role as a protector of Christ’s flock. The dog motif had also been associated with the Devil and was considered just as murderous as their wolf counterpart. Dogs were similarly used as an emblem of greed as was the wolf (Salisbury, 2000, p. 56). This metaphor was included in the Old Testament, which states: ‘They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough’ (Isaiah 56.11).

Anonymous, Römisch Cathol. Wunderseltzames GlückRad, auch wahre Abcontrafactur des Antichristischen Bapsthumbs, (‘Wonderfully Strange Roman Catholic Wheel of Fortune, Also an accurate portrayal of the Antichristian Papacy’), 1620,
Etching, 39 x 22.5 cm, disc 12.5 cm
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Handschriftenabteilung (Einbl YA 5229 kl)
EU directive: copyright on public domain images:

While the dog-headed Jesuit was portrayed holding a club, the Jesuit dog itself presents a benign image. The club could have been used as an iconographical device to associate the internal character of the Jesuit in the same way as the motif of the dog had served. The corresponding description to the Jesuit characterised him as mördrisch (‘murderous’) and blutdürstig (‘bloodthirsty’). Thus, the passage recalls the biblical references to dogs as devourers and destroyers (Jeremiah 15.3; Matthew 7.6). Although the floppy-eared dog resembles a beloved pet, it was not meant to be interpreted as any less ruthless than the portrayal of a bishop-wolf devouring sheep. It could also signal that the Jesuits appear like a harmless pet on the outside in that they took vows of poverty, chastity, and were forbidden for holding office or benefices within the Church, thus avoiding corruption (Morris, 2002, p. 89).

Anonymous, Römisch Cathol. Wunderseltzames GlückRad, auch wahre Abcontrafactur des Antichristischen Bapsthumbs, 1620, (‘Wonderfully Strange Roman Catholic Wheel of Fortune, Also an accurate portrayal of the Antichristian Papacy’), 1620,
Etching 39 x 22.5 cm, disc 12.5 cm,
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
EU directive: copyright on public domain images:

The animal heads associate the papacy with both the demonic (owl, wolf, dog) as well as an object of ridicule (monkey, ass, and fool). The volvelle shows that the papacy wears many faces as indicated by the pope wearing a featureless white mask. In this way, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is revealed in the similar vein as Das siebenköpfige Papsttier (‘The Seven-Headed Papal Beast’), which was portrayed with the heads of a monk, bishop, cardinal, and pope. The volvelle was also based on the motif of the Wheel of Fortune, as the title of the 1620 copy reveals. The wheel of fortune (or fate) was also a common motif used in the early modern period to illustrate the rise and fall of power and was used as a warning against the sin of pride and greed. The wheel reveals that those who rise will inevitably fall with the turning of the wheel (Scribner, 1981, p. 117). It illustrated that the role of the papacy was in flux, particularly during this turbulent period in history (Schmidt, 2006, p. 378).

On the 1556 volvelle, the main figure is dressed in a highly-detailed ornate cope and holding a sceptre. In his other hand, he holds an open book symbolising the Holy Bible that appears to reference false piety within the context of this print. These motifs could signify false piety in the same way rosary beads were used in Protestant polemic. They lie in juxtaposition to the wolf-bishop with a menacing expression, furrowed brow, and a mouth full of fangs exposed while devouring Christ’s flock illustrative of the print’s message of false piety. Bishops could have been the subject of the greedy wolf motif as the selling of bishoprics within the Church regularly occurred (Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 187).

Anonymous, Römisch Cathol. Wunderseltzames GlückRad, auch wahre Abcontrafactur des Antichristischen Bapsthumbs, 1620, (‘Wonderfully Strange Roman Catholic Wheel of Fortune, Also an accurate portrayal of the Antichristian Papacy’), 1620,
Etching 39 x 22.5 cm, disc 12.5 cm,
Herzog August Bibliothek
EU directive: copyright on public domain images:

The figure in regal attire in the 1556 print also lies in juxtaposition to the mountainous and wooded German landscape revealing a city in the distance. As the volvelle was also created a year after the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, the image of the papacy in the landscape could have served as a warning against clerical influence over the empire. However, the 1620 volvelle copy demonstrates the failure of the Peace of Augsburg. It was created amidst the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), where both Catholics and Protestants wanted to be recognised as the one true religion (Fuchs, 2012, p. 72). The central figure in the 1620 volvelle also differs from the original as it was portrayed against a desolate background in comparison. Although the minimalist background may have been the intention of the artist to retain the focus on the central figure, it nonetheless had created an apocalyptic image, at least in hindsight.


Andersson, Christiane, ‘Polemical Prints in Reformation Nuremberg,’ in Jeffrey Chipps Smith (ed.), New Perspectives on the Art of Renaissance Nuremberg: Five Essays, Austin: The Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery College of Fine Arts, The University of Texas, 1985, pp. 41-63.

Bland, Mark, A Guide to Early Printed Books and Manuscripts, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Fuchs, Ralf-Peter,‘ The Right to be Catholic – the Right to be Protestant? Perspectives on Conversion before and after the Peace of Westphalia,’ in David M. Luebke, Jared Poley, Daniel C. Ryan, and David Warren Sabean (eds.), Conversion and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Germany, New York: Berghahn Books, 2012, pp. 69-87.

Morris, T.A. Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century, London: Routledge, 2002.

Rapelli, Paola, Symbols of Power in Art, trans. Jay Hyams, Los Angeles, Getty Publications, 2011.

Salisbury, Joyce E. ‘Human Animals of Medieval Fables’, in Nona C. Flores (ed.), Animals in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays, New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 49-67.

Scheible, Johann (ed.) Die fliegenden Blätter des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts: in sogenannten Einblatt-Drucken, mit Kupferstichen und Holzschnitten, Stuttgart: J. Scheible, 1850.

Schmidt, Suzanne Kathleen Karr, ‘Art-A User’s Guide: Interactive and Sculptural Printmaking in the Renaissance,’ PhD, Yale University, 2006.

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

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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