Lightness vs Darkness: Motifs to show Martin Luther is on the side of Light While the Papacy were on the side of Darkness

Keywords: good shepherd, doctrine of justification, Martin Luther, Protestant Reformation

In Lutheran prints, the symbolic use of light and dark highlighted the boundaries between good and evil, God and the Devil. This motif was derived from the bible, in the words of Jesus: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 3.19-21). In Luther’s 1531 Warnung an seine lieben Deutschen (‘Warning to his Dear German People’), he remarked on the papists: ‘they shun the light like bats’ and ‘a dark night owl reluctant to face the light (Luther, 1974, pp. 137, 138).’ In turn, 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 (Luther, 1974, pp. 137, 138).

The use of the allegory of Christ’s flock belonging to the light and the papal wolves to the darkness is apparent in an anonymous single-sheet print dated to c.1520 and in a broadsheet copy dated c.1523. A pope and a cardinal are represented as fully-formed anthropomorphised wolves, dressed according to their rank with robes, and the pope easily recognisable by his three-tier crown in the foreground. The predatory wolf-pope has a sheep in his jaws implying that he has run off with one of Christ’s faithful as represented by the sheep surrounded by Christ on the crucifix. The rest of the sheep are trying to find salvation by attempting to reach Jesus on the crucifix. The initials above him on a plaque reads INRI – the Latin acronym for Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. This image references Christ as the good shepherd. Jesus’ salvation is evident from the beams radiating from him and the light vegetative landscape that surrounds him and his flock of sheep.

Anonymous Artist, The Pope as a Wolf Enticing the Sheep, c. 1520s,
Woodcut, Block: 21.4 x 28.9 cm, Sheet: 24.1 x 31.2 cm,
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Belinda L. Randall from the collection of John Witt Randall, R15240

In contrast, the pope-wolf takes the sheep into the dark mountainous rocky hills; thereby taking Christ’s faithful away from the light and truth into the darkness. The right side of the woodcut is darkened with horizontal lines, from the rocky hills to the darkened sky above. The papacy was, therefore, not the true representative of Christ on earth. The prints tapped into the common fear concerning salvation during this period, with the canine motif in the form of the wolf threatening spiritual salvation in the same way that they were a threat on earth. The text on the bottom of the broadsheet that equated the pope with the Devil reinforces this point. It warns the faithful not to stray from Christ and be tricked by the false doctrine of the Catholic Church, thereby reinforcing the Protestant message of reading the word of God and Jesus themselves. Written in verse, the broadsheet was also likely sung (McIlvenna, 2016, p. 2).

Beware, you sheep, run not away from him who hangs on the cross. Let this wolf run his course, he will sell a kingdom in hell. He has eaten many a sheep, and is to be accounted as equal to Satan. The shepherds have become wolves…The flock that they should shepherd is scattered, strangled by false doctrine. This greatly saddens my heart, as I see the great harm visited upon Christendom by pope, cardinal and bishop… Thus I preach and teach and write, even at the cost of my life. (Simplified translation by Eire, 2016, p. 172)

Unknown Artist, Die Päpstlichen Wölfe, or Pope and Cardinal as Wolves with Luther and Christ, Mainz, [Peter?] J. Schöffer, c.1523,
Woodcut, 25.7 x 32.5cm (sheet); 22.5 x 32.5cm (image),
Last known location Robert W. Scribner Private Collection.

This image appears to draw from Aesop’s Fables (c.620-560 B.C.). In the story, ‘The Wolf and the Shepherd,’ a shepherd naively leaves a wolf to watch over his flock of sheep, believing his watchful eye as a sign of guardianship rather than waiting for the right moment to seize upon them (Aesop, 2005, p. 59). Like the wolf in the fable, the pope-wolf does not guard the flock but leads them astray. Luther adopted this trope in An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in the same year, stating: ‘these ravening wolves […] pretend to be shepherds and rulers (Luther, 1947, p. 86).’

At the top of the hill, two saints resemble St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Peter was depicted pointing to his Bible while St. Paul points to Christ. This suggests that the close reading of the Bible was the only authority to the direct word of God (sola Scriptura) and only Christ should act as a mediator (solus Christus) (Füssel, 2005, p. 163; Whaley, 2012, p. 150). Like many of the Protestant prints during this period, it possesses a strong humanist theme of reading the direct word of God from the Bible. The Catholic Church believed God gave the clergy the authority to interpret the Bible for their congregation, known as the doctrine of justification (Laube, 1987, p. 362). The Roman Catholic Church discouraged the laity from reading the Bible (Sanders, 2010, p. 117 ). If their congregations read scripture directly, it would be interpreted independently, and the Church would lose its power and authority, eroding the division between the clergy and the laity (Lyons, 2010, pp. 50, 51). However, the print does not reveal the fact that Marin Luther changed his view on the popular reading of the Bible after the Peasant’s War following unorthodox interpretations (Gawthrop and Strauss, 1984, p. 220).

To counteract the Catholic message, Luther has been rendered in monkish robes and dressed in his signature doctor’s hat holding a Bible while pointing a pen at the wolf-pope. There is purpose in Luther being rendered in a doctor’s hat as he wanted to be known as ‘Doctor Martin Luther’ to gain the impression of scholarly legitimacy over scripture (Rublack, 2017, p. 83). Luther exposes the true nature of the papacy through the light of scripture, with his pen and Bible as he helps deliver the word of God, fearlessly against the wolves. This motif references the included text of the broadsheet written by Luther, symbolising the power of his word. In this way, Luther was presented as the righteous alternative to the papacy in the German-speaking lands and thereby othering the role of the Romish Catholic Church who he believed no longer served the true word of Christ.


Aesop, Aesop’s Fables, trans. George Fyler Townsend, Stilwell, KS: Publishing, 2005.

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

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

Gawthrop, Richard L. and Gerald Strauss, ‘Protestantism and Literacy in early modern Germany’, Past and Present, 104, 1984, pp. 31-55.

Laube, Adolf, ‘Social Arguments in Early Reformation Pamphlets, and their Significance for the German Peasant’s War,’ Social History, vol. 12, No. 3, 1987, pp. 361-378.

Luther, Martin, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate 1520, trans. Charles Michael Jacobs, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947.

Luther, Martin, ‘Dr. Martin Luther’s Warning to his Dear German People, 1531,’ trans. Martin H. Bertram,’ in J. M. Porter (ed.), Luther: Selected Political Writings, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974, pp. 133-49.

Martyn Lyons, A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

McIlvenna, Una, ‘When The News Was Sung: Ballads as News Media in Early Modern Europe,’ Media History, vol. 22 (2-3) 2016, pp. 317-333.

Rublack, Ulinka, Reformation Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Sanders, Ruth, German: Biography of a Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Whaley, Joachim, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire: Volume I: Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1493-1648, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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