Prophecy of the Reformation: Eyn Wunderliche Weyssagung

Keywords: Protestant Reformation, prophecies, Hans Sachs, Martin Luther, Andreas Osiander

In a distinctly different interpretation on the theme of anthropomorphised wolves in Protestant propaganda to illustrate wolves in sheep clothing is a hand-coloured woodcut of a wolf grasping a sword before Pope Innocent VI (c.1282-132). This different metaphorical symbol for the papacy was designed by Erhard Schön (1491-1591) and illustrated in the book, Eyn Wunderliche Weyssagung von dem Babstumb (‘A Wondrous Prophecy of the Papacy’) (1527), written by Hans Sachs (1494-1576) and Andreas Osiander (c.1498-1552). The sword represents the defender of faith and the wolf holding onto the sword serves as a metaphor that it has gone to the wolves. In other words, the papacy is on the side of the demonic beast.

After Erhard Schön, in Hans Sachs, Ein Wunderliche Weyssagung von dem Babstumb (‘A Wondrous Prophecy of the Papacy’), ed. Andreas Osiander, Zwickau: Kaspar Kantz, 1527,
Hand-Coloured woodcut, 10.8 to 11.1 x 7.4 to 7.8 cm,
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek

In one hand the pope holds a shearing knife of fraudulence and in the other the papal keys of temporal power and spiritual authority (Heffner, 1991, p. 158). This print highlights the papal corruption by worldly pleasures and power over the Holy Roman Empire. In this way, the print illustrates the integral role politics had during the Protestant Reformation and the perceived threat of the overreaching power of Catholic Church in which the wolf symbolises. In the preface, Osiander said that the papacy had become ‘tyrannical’ (For an English translation see Appendix in Heffner, 1991, pp. 151-168).

The pope that stands in the middle of a crown, represents his central power over the empire. His imperialist motives were expressed in the text which claimed: ‘the pope stands on the imperial crown and masters it’ and ‘he [the pope] wants to be the sole ruler over all empires of the world’ (Translations by Heffner, 1991, pp. 154, 158). The above-quoted passage was the result of the contention from the Catholic church being the prime landholder in the Holy Roman Empire and held the largest political jurisdiction in Germany, more than in any other country in Europe (Jensen, 1992, p. 40). The papacy controlled the appointment of ecclesiastical officials in the Empire, while in comparison, France and Spain were free to elect their candidates for high ecclesiastic positions (Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 109; Harbison, 1995, p. 10). The autonomy given to countries such as France and Spain was likely due to their loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church (Estep, 1986, pp. 98, 99). The papacy controlled taxes, which increased during the sixteenth century with the building of St. Peters in Rome (Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 109). Despite the papacy’s declining power over the Holy Roman Empire after the issue of the Golden Bull in 1356, the Holy Roman Emperor continued to be elected by both secular as well as religious leaders and was crowned by the pope (Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 24; Muldoon, 1999, p. 142).

The text and its thirty images from this pamphlet derived from the medieval prophetic compilation, Vaticinia de summis Pontificibus (‘Pope Prophecies’), attributed to Calabrian abbot Joachim of Fiore (c.1145-1202) (English translation in Strauss 1971). The abbott was known for his controversial apocalyptic prophecies and had proclaimed the birth of the Antichrist in Rome during his lifetime (Andersson, 1998, pp. 170-2; Heffner, 1989, pp. 617, 618; Reeves, 1972, p. 109; Reeves, 1976, p. 136). The first fifteen prophesies were, however, composed between 1294 and 1304 and derived from the Greek Oracles of the Byzantine Emperor Leo IV (Leo the Wise) (886-912) (Andersson, 1998, pp.170-2; Heffner, 1989, pp. 617, 618; Reeves, 1972, p. 109). While another fifteen were written before 1356, believed to be by a group of Florentine Fraticelli (Spiritual Franciscans). By the sixteenth century, these two sets of prophecies became conflated and were placed together in reverse order (Andersson, 1998, pp.170-2; Heffner, 1989, pp. 617, 618). This was possibly done after the Papal Schism, to allow for the Antichrist to correspond with its outbreak (McGinn, 1978, p. 171). It shows early reformation thought and concern for the corruption of the papacy that had been prophesied and has revealed itself during the time of Martin Luther (Andersson, 1998, pp.170-2, 176).

Hans Sachs, a shoemaker come, poet and playwright became a prominent figure in the Reformation for his ability to communicate to a lay audience (Russell, 1989, p. 165). A large proportion of his prolific output of 1,700 works was written in the service of the Reformation (Pettegree, 2005, p. 82). Sachs’ output was indicative of the spread and influence of Lutheranism within the lay community (Chrisman, 1996, p. 14). His work formed an effective partnership with the Lutheran preacher, Andreas Osiander, and reached wider segments of the population (Chrisman, 1996, p. 192). The collaboration was successful as the Nuremberg pamphlet was published in both coloured and uncoloured editions, and was reproduced by local artists in Zwickau and Wittenberg in the same year.

In Hans Sachs’ poem, Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall (‘The Wittenberg Nightingale’) (1523), Luther was characterised as a new prophet. Osiander possibly influenced by this, interpreted the figure of the ‘angelic’ Pope Celestine V in the prophecies as Martin Luther and in doing so prophesised ‘the hero Martin Luther’ as the saviour against the papacy (Heffner, 1991, p. 162; Heffner, 1989, p. 620; Reeves, 1976, p. 138). Therefore, these well-known prophecies were re-imagined to gain support for the Protestant Reformation. The booklet was created two years after Nuremberg converted to Lutheranism and was therefore probably intended to be spread further afield.

Alongside Hans Sachs’ rhyming couplets and underneath the woodcuts in the pamphlet were Andreas Osiander’s history of the sinfulness of the papacy. The Lutheran preacher’s text was primarily written to reinterpret the images within a Lutheran framework (Andersson, 1998, pp. 170-2; Heffner, 1989, p. 617). Not satisfied with the prophecy of the arrival of the Antichrist, Osiander concluded that the popes’ worldly habits and abuse of power was a sign that the pope was the Antichrist (Andersson, 1998, pp.170-2). When Osiander discovered two copies of the prophecies, he deemed them untrustworthy. He came to the conclusion that the images were older than the texts and therefore were original to the genuine prophecies and thus tried to deduce the original prophecies by the images alone. In the introduction, Osiander wrote: ‘this prophecy is not in words but only in pictures’ (Heffner, 1991, p. 152). Osiander, therefore interpreted the images for a contemporary, reformation audience and thereby turning it into Protestant propaganda with prophetic legitimation (Heffner, 1989, p. 619; Scribner, 1981, p. 146). In this instance, the relationship between text and image are reversed, as according to Osiander, the learnt would be able to understand the prophecies from the images alone while the text was an aid to understand the image. ‘An interpretation is added to it for the sake of simple folk; because wise people can see what it is without any interpretation’ (Heffner, 1991, p. 152). Schön was known for his simple prints that were designed for a general audience over the learned connoisseur. Needless to say, the booklets were in German vernacular for a wider, lay appeal. However, as the booklet had a coloured woodcut on each page, it would have been out of the financial reach of most and is an example of why it was a reformation of the cities (Johnston, 2014, pp. 28-9).

The Protestant city of Nuremberg censored Protestant polemic including Hans Sachs and Andreas Osiander’s Eyn Wunderliche Weyssagung von dem Babstumb, confiscating all known copies and barring the printing of further works. This was a result of the city council’s attempt to reconcile with Charles V following Nuremberg’s break from Catholicism (Smith, 1983, p. 167). Despite the pamphlet’s censorship, or rather because of it, the pamphlet gained interest and copies were made as stated above (Andersson, 1998, pp. 174, 178). Osiander further published a prophecy in the same year by Hildegard of Bingen (d.1179), which saw the corruption of the world before the one true Church revealing itself before the end of days (Barnes, 1988, p. 56; Cunningham and Grell, 2000, p. 21). This publication would have helped legitimise Eyn Wunderliche Weyssagung von dem Babstumb and further support his Lutheran objective.


Andersson, Christiane, ‘The Censorship of Images in Nuremberg, 1521-1527,’ in Dagmar Eichberger and Charles Zika (eds.), Dürer and his Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 164-179.

Barnes, Robin Bruce, Prophecy and Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Chrisman, Miriam Usher, Conflicting Visions of Reform: German Lay Propaganda Pamphlets, 1519-1530, Boston: Brill, 1996.

Cunningham, Andrew and Ole Peter Grell, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Estep, William Roscoe, Renaissance and Reformation, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1986.

Harbison, Craig, The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.

Heffner, David, ‘Eyn wunderliche weyssagung von dem babstumb: Medieval prophecy into Reformation Polemic,’ PhD, University of Pennsylvania, 1991.

Heffner, David, ‘Regnum vs. Sacerdotium in a Reformation Pamphlet’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 20, no. 4, 1989, pp. 617-630.

Jensen, De Lamar, Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution, Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992.

Johnston, Andrew, The Protestant Reformation in Europe, London: Routledge, 2014.

McGinn, Bernard, ‘Angel Pope and Papal Antichrist’, Church History, volume 47, issue 2, 1978, pp. 155-173.

Muldoon, James, Empire and Order: The Concept of Empire, 800–1800, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

Pettegree, Andrew, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Reeves, Marjorie E. ‘Some Popular Prophecies from the Fourteenth to the Seventieth Centuries’, in G. J. Cuming and Derek Baker (eds.), Popular Belief and Practice: Papers Read at the Ninth Summer Meeting and the Tenth Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, London: Cambridge University Press, 1972, pp. 107-135.

Reeves, Marjorie, Joachim of Fiore and the Prophetic Future, London, SPCK, 1976.

Russell, Paul A. Lay Theology in the Reformation: Popular Pamphleteers in Southwest Germany 1521-1525, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Sachs, Hans, Eyn Wunderliche Weyssagung von dem Babstumb, ed. Andreas Osiander, Nuremberg: Kaspar Kantz, 1527.

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

Smith, Jeffrey Chipps, Nuremberg: A Renaissance City, 1500-1618, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Strauss, Gerald (ed.), Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation: A Collection of Documents Selected, Translated, and Introduced by Gerald Strauss, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.

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 )

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