What Monk Knew How To Use Words And Images To Sell His Brand?

For months, I’ve been anticipating the arrival of two tantalizing exhibitions at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation was one of them.

My travels through Germany have taken me on a Martin Luther pilgrimage.  In Wittenberg, I wandered through the rooms of Luther’s home and walked in his footsteps to the church door to which he nailed his 95 theses that began the Protestant Reformation. I’ve also stood in the Wartburg Castle room where Luther translated the New Testament from Greek to German. So when I learned that this exhibition features over 90 Luther-related objects from German museums, several of which have never been seen before in North America, I moved the Morgan to the top of my list of must-sees.

Word and Image: Martin Luther's ReformationTo commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther posting his theses to that Wittenberg church door, the exhibition looks at how the monk strategically used printed material, art and music to launch and spread his message of religious reformation. One highlight is one of only six remaining printed broadsides of Luther’s theses inviting debate on indulgences, which the faithful once gained for their salvation and the selling of them to which Luther objected. Others are the January 1519 letter that Luther wrote, but never sent, to Pope Leo X, in which he reiterates his opinions on indulgences, but states his willingness to not publish further writings; as well as the manuscript of Luther’s Old Testament translation from his 11-week stay at Wartburg Castle.

Word and Image: Martin Luther's ReformationWhile those objects may be the headliners of the exhibit, I found favorites in other treasures. A circa-1520 limewood statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a child with her mother, St. Anne, recalls Luther’s devotion to St. Anne. When he was nearly struck by lightning, Luther pledged to the saint that if she would save him, he would give up studying law and become a monk instead.  A velvet and silk chasuble that Luther wore when he preached at Merseburg Cathedral in August 1545 is displayed nearby, alongside a chest that was used to store money gained from the sale of indulgences. Fragments of pottery unearthed at archaeological digs at Luther House in Wittenberg rest beside Luther’s green ceramic inkstand and decorative ceramic stove tiles from his home.  Tiny lead musical notation printing types that were recently uncovered in an archaeological dig conveys Luther’s influence in developing congregational singing. This rare find — used to print the first Lutheran hymnals — is  considered the oldest existing pieces of music-printing type in Europe, as they were used to print both lines and notes in a single step. 

Dozens of works of art by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the Saxon court painter from Wittenberg who created Luther’s public image, provide stellar illustrations of the points made in a fascinating book I read just before viewing the exhibition: Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation, by Andrew Pettegree.

Word and Image: Martin Luther's ReformationCranach first painted Luther’s likeness in 1520, portraying him as a vibrant young monk, university professor and theologian. Almost ten years later, Cranach depicted Luther again, this time with more gaunt, angular features, reflective of the results of the indulgence controversy. Then, when Luther married Katharina von Bora in June 1525, Cranach not only gave the bride away, but also gave the couple a pair of their portraits as a wedding gift, then produced several copies of them to share with their friends and relatives. All three of these portraits introduced Luther to those followers who had not made his acquaintance and were therefore not familiar with his looks.

Word and Image: Martin Luther's ReformationBut it is Cranach’s mastery of woodcuts that would prove so beneficial for the spread of Luther’s influence. Wittenberg’s printers depended on Cranach to produce woodcuts that would illustrate and decorate their broadsheets and books. By creating an unmistakable signature look, where a single woodcut bordered the page and framed the text, Cranach beautifully presented Luther’s message — and Luther’s name, using a bold, larger type and placing it on a line of its own, separated from the title, to attract the reader’s attention. The printer’s Wittenberg location was also emphasized, placed at the bottom of the title page instead of at the end of the publication, and surrounded by white space. Cranach’s design made Luther’s succinct, understandable theological writings immediately recognizable, and helped Wittenberg become the center of Lutheran publishing.

Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation continues at the Morgan Library & Museum through January 22, 2017. For more, see Martin Luther: Treasures of the Reformation (don’t miss the entries for “warming apples” and the protective hood of a plague doctor) and Martin Luther and the Reformation: Essays, both published to accompany the exhibition, as well as Rick Steves’ new DVD and upcoming public television special, “Luther and the Reformation.”

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