Satire of the Monks: Exposing False Piety in Interactive Prints during the Protestant Reformation

Keywords: Protestant propaganda, interactive prints, Reformation, satire, Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch,

The act of revelation was explored in interactive prints with folding flaps and spinning dials to demonstrate that the Catholic Church was something more sinister than what they externally portrayed. In this way, their outward, physical appearance from their tonsured haircut to their clerical robes were shown to be devices to disguise their internal sin and deviousness. In other words, they were signs of false piety. The use of interactive prints during the Reformation first appear around the mid-sixteenth century, marking the Counter-Reformation period with the Council of Trent in 1545. Protestant propagandists who benefited from the original proliferation of printed material needed to innovate to continue to attract an audience with novelty. The advent of interactive prints with flaps coincided with anatomical prints, revealing the anatomy underneath (Schmidt, 2006, p. 90).

At the later stage of the Reformation, printers and publishers came to realise the more sensationalist a print was, the better the sales and thus reach of the Protestant message (Ruff, 2001, p. 16). The use of satire in protestant propaganda could also be seen as a way to engage with popular culture where satirical prints were gaining popularity, capturing a potential reader’s attention (Kunzle, 1973, p. 28). The use of satire with common motifs also made the protestant message more readily accessible to a non-literate audience. Caricature was used to characterise the Catholic clergy negatively to point to their hypocrisy and their corruption and to associate them with the devil.

Papal greed and corruption are highlighted in an anti-papal leaflet in the form of a fold-over woodcut entitled Satire of the Monks consisting of three images by the Swiss artist, Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch (1525-1571). In the first image, a hooded monk towers over a woman and child. The woman and child have been dwarfed in comparison to the monk to illustrate the overreaching power and status of the Church. The composition of the woodcut is simple, without a background to detract focus from the central figure of the monstrously sized monk. The money chest tucked under the monk’s sleeve hints to his greed. While the widow is depicted with her hands raised in a manner of pleading, her child is portrayed in anguish with his hands behind his head.

Hans Rudolf Manuel Deutsch, Monk Plundering a Widow, c.1540,
Woodcut, 33.2 x 23.6 cm,
Brunswick, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum.
Source: bildindex der Kunst und Architektur
Free for non-commercial use

The fold-out changes the head of the monk to reveal to the viewer that he is a wolf in disguise with a small sheep gripped in his mouth which was a metaphor for the greed of the clergy who consumed the congregation’s wealth. In the context of this print, the wolf metaphor also represented the clergy as preying on the most vulnerable in their congregation – a widowed woman and her child. The wolf was not be feared in the literal physical sense, but in that the papacy would leave their congregation destitute. The wolf in clerical robes also recalls the commonly referenced Biblical passage during the Reformation: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7.15-16).’

In the final image, a small flap of paper un-masks the head of a tonsured monk that signifies humility and penance in contrast to his depiction devouring the widow’s house (a common motif used in the Reformation). This symbolism of greed is further revealed by the satisfaction expressed on his face, by his cross-eyes and swollen cheeks (Rublack, 2010, p. 81). The top text quotes Matthew 23.14: ‘Suffer you, learned and Pharisees, you hypocrites who devour the homes of widows, and can still say your prayers at length (Translation by Schmidt, 2006, pp. 377-78).’ Schmidt notes the monk’s hood is pointed and concludes he is from the Carthusian order (Schmidt, 2006, p. 151). The Carthusian monasteries became wealthy from owning vast farming lands. Such visible wealth contradicted the idea of the monastic order’s contemplative austerity and asceticism (Wallace, 2012, p. 37). Why the Carthusian monks were chiefly targeted in this leaflet it was likely due to a play on their name: house (‘heuser’) and Carthusians (‘Cartheuser’) (Schmidt, 2006, p. 152).

While its message of greed could have just as easily been conveyed with the monk guzzling down on the widow’s house, the wolf motif instantly recalls the passage in Matthew 7.15-16. The use of the reoccurring motifs enhanced the impact of the leaflet and allowed it to be easily recognised. Also, while the last image of the monk with a house in its mouth was comedic, the wolf head devouring a sheep, in conjunction with the pleading widow, illustrated that the clergy was dangerous. In contrast to other protestant leaflets, this print was focused on the clergy’s negative impact on the individual, as opposed to the Empire. It was intended to convey a direct message to a wider audience on a more personal level using an instructive format.

The interactive print was innovative in that it was one of the earliest (if not first) Protestant propaganda prints to use folding paper flaps to reveal the clergy as wolves. It allowed audiences to personally, and physically, unmask the clergy for what they truly were before their eyes (Andersson, 1985, p. 51). It enabled audiences to more fully engage with the images as they were involved in the process of revealing the truth, in an instructive physical form, rather than being passive observers. The print’s simplicity and interactive nature helped spread the reformers’ message, especially among the illiterate, who may not have had a sophisticated understanding of allegorical motifs. The wolf is instantly recognised as a threat with biblical resonance. While the surrounding text in German provides additional context, the woodcut remains the focal point in delivering its Protestant message.


Translations by Suzanne Kathleen Karr Schmidt, ‘Art-A User’s Guide: Interactive and Sculptural Printmaking in the Renaissance,’ PhD, Yale University, 2006., pp. 377-78.

My transcriptions used as Schmidt used modernised German transcriptions.

The top text quotes Matthew 23.14:
‘Suffer you, learned and Pharisees, you hypocrites who devour the homes of widows, and can still say your prayers at length.’
(‘Wee euch, gschüffcgleerten unn phariseer/ Ir gln(?) szner/die Ir der wittwen heuser frassend/und wendend fur lange gebatt/ Matthei am 23.)

Side Text: ‘Oh, my heart is breaking, Pray to God for me’
(‘Ach min herz ich bitt üch/Bittend ouch Gott für mich’)

The Text on the bottom reads: ‘Oh hypocrisy, ignoble guest/ With greater devotion, you have been blessed./ I thank the mask who’s good, (dines well)/ Until one of your purses does swell/ With ample funds with God to please/Thence one may view your pieties.’
(‘O glychβnery du gmeiner gast/Was grosser frommkeit in dir hast/Danck hab der deckel der ist güt/Biβ einer dir jn dannen thüt/Mit einem mittel/das Gott gefalt/ Dann sicht man wol din fromme gestalt.’)


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.

Kunzle, David, The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in European Broadsheets from c.1450 to 1825, vol. 1, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Rublack, Ulinka, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ruff, Julius R. Violence in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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

Wallace, Peter G. The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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