Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation
By Richard J. Mammana
October 31 will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s preparation of 95 theses for academic debate about abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, a routine university announcement posting that launched the European reformations. Constituencies as diverse as the German Federal Foreign Office, the successor church bodies that resulted from the reform, and travel agents around the world have debated how to observe the occasion. Is it an invitation to celebrate a necessary theological revolution, a time to lament the reform-turned-schism, or some combination of the two?
Pope Francis has praised Luther’s work to build a central role for Scripture in the life of the Church and its members; the Lutheran World Federation has joined in international commemoration with Roman Catholics, and issued documents of agreement and cooperation. Some confessional Lutheran bodies have continued to reject high-level Lutheran-Roman Catholic rapprochement, while insisting on the continued need for reform of the papal office and its teachings.
The Evangelical Church in Germany and the Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt have cut through the conceptual divisions in their launch of Luther Year 2017, a year-long series of events, exhibits, publications, travel opportunities, festivals, concerts, church services, and academic seminars that began this year. For those who will not travel to Germany to participate in this wide array of observances, one of the primary points of contact with the historical anniversary will be a series of remarkable museum installations.
Three North American exhibits (at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta, and the Morgan Library & Museum) offer visitors the opportunity to engage with items produced by major participants in the first stages of the Lutheran reform. Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation brings together a particularly rich selection of material from German state museums and libraries, as well as American collections. The former home of John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), one of the most prominent lay supporters of the Episcopal Church during his influential life, hosts the exhibit.
Nearly every other item in Word and Image would qualify as a highlight for collections of national and international significance. There are signed letters by Luther to his collaborators and opponents, Philip Melanchthon’s manuscript of the Augsburg Confession, Luther’s drafts of his translation of the Old Testament, and one of four extant broadside copies of the Ninety-five Theses.
There are a dozen paintings by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), Luther’s friend and collaborator in advancing Reformation interests through popular art. We find the first Lutheran hymnal in one display case, and an installation of the surviving lead type used to produce it. A chasuble worn by Luther is next to a large wooden chest reputed to have belonged to the notorious indulgence-seller Johann Tetzel.
There are printed indulgences, a woodblock caricature of the pope as the unrepentant thief at the crucifixion, copies of Luther’s German Bible, reformed liturgical texts, and items related to Katarina von Bora, Luther’s wife from 1525 until his death. There is even a section dedicated to archeological exploration of the contents of the cistern at the Luther family house, revealing new insights about the reformer’s domestic diet, clothing, private amusements, and financial situation.
Two substantial books accompany the exhibits. Martin Luther: Treasures of the Reformation (pp. 504, $39.95) shows items from all three North American locations, along with extended narrative descriptions and interpretive essays. A more involved theological-historical volume, Martin Luther and the Reformation: Essays (pp. 496, $39.95), delves into subjects as varied as anti-Semitism in Luther’s writings, the history of printing and the emergence of popular media culture during the Reformation, the expansion of Lutheran reforms beyond German-speaking Europe, the economic and social backgrounds for Luther’s concerns, and art historical explorations.
Word and Image is a model of theological clarity and sensitivity for a museum exhibit, explaining religious background and dynamics with thoroughness for visitors who may not have prior knowledge about the topics it covers. Despite the brevity of the installation, it marks a very auspicious beginning indeed for Luther Year 2017.
Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a parishioner and vestry member at Trinity Church in New Haven, Connecticut.