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Martin Luther’s comfortable words

Designing an exhibition to commemorate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary is a fairly heroic task for any gallery. Far more art was destroyed than created in the 16th century in those European lands that embraced the teachings of Luther, Calvin and Cranmer. The Walters Art Museum has made a humble but probing attempt in its single-room exhibition, Uncertain Times: Martin Luther’s Remedies for the Soul, on display until October 29 at the museum in downtown Baltimore.

Many of the most significant pieces on display are not paintings, but books. The personal prayer book of Luther’s close associate Philip Melanchthon is there, worn from heavy use, annotated in the margins. There’s a handsome early edition of Luther’s Table Talk, the collection of theological rejoinders and moral advice dispensed by the aged master in his later years over daily bread and beer, carefully recorded by his students.

Words are also the medium of a mesmerizing 18th-century German folk art piece featured centrally in the exhibition. The anonymous artist has scripted the many lines of Luther’s Small Catechism into the rose and cross of Luther’s coat of arms, a loyal tribute to the way in which the theologian has most often been encountered across the centuries: in this careful summary of Reformation teaching, written to be memorized by children as they prepared for their confirmations.

The exhibition focuses closely on Luther’s teaching as “comfortable words,” the way in which his assurance of God’s mercy toward sinful humanity gave peace to those broken by sorrow or troubled by doubt. Curator Yu Na Han stumbled across some advice given by Luther to a pastor about consoling a woman who had suffered miscarriage shortly after she had lost a child. Han, who had suffered two miscarriages, was deeply moved by the reformer’s assurance that God was not angry with those who suffer such tragedies. She created the exhibit in part to pass on some of what she had discovered and found so helpful.

Finding images and artifacts to illustrate this kind of concept was no easy task, and the Luther quotations in the gallery notes are often more effective than the pieces they are meant to illustrate. A book of spiritual advice by Luther’s confidant Justas Jonas, for example, fits its purpose well, even if it is not especially notable as a work of art. A striking 15th-century beer stein nearby is charming, though its presence in such a small exhibition may overstate the reformer’s reliance on alcohol as a means of spiritual consolation.

More of the paintings and engravings on display are by Roman Catholic artists than Protestant ones. A striking painting of the mystical marriage of Catherine of Alexandria and the infant Christ, a common medieval scene, would have been dismissed by most 16th-century Protestants as superstitious. The curators are right to note the uncanny similarity between the scene’s spiritual meaning and the “happy exchange” between Christ and the sinner celebrated in Reformation piety. A Durer woodcut of Christ with Saint John at his bosom, the only work by a well-known master in the exhibit, treats a scene that was dear to Luther, though it dates to 1511, when the artist and Luther were both still snug within the bosom of Rome.

The curator’s choices suggest that Luther’s fruitful consolation, like anything else that is true and of enduring value in the Christian life, was not really novel or iconoclastic. He was formed by strains of faithful teaching that preceded him, and themes that proved helpful in his advice to others came to shape Christian teaching in other parts of the Church, even as Western Christendom was severed by political and ecclesiological schism. The most enduring work done by Luther and his followers, as they would have been quick to claim, was the hidden labor of drawing souls closer to Christ. It is difficult to bring such hidden work to light, but the curators at the Walters are to be commended for attempting it in such an earnest and thoughtful way.

This exhibition aims at a salutary humility, like many of the other Reformation commemorations at this 500th anniversary. The 350th, 375th, and 400th anniversary celebrations, falling at a time when Western Protestantism confidently ruled the world, tended toward the bombastic and triumphalist. The Kaiser had the doors of Luther’s old church engraved with the 95 Theses in bronze in 1892.

We live in different times, and seek a word from the reformers that can build up the shattered church’s unity and assist in the urgent task of announcing the gospel to a world where it is a word rarely spoken. Exhibits like this show how such work can be done with faithfulness and care.


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