The Task of Art

Lucas Cranach the Elder: Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, 1520, copperplate engraving, 5½ by 3¾ inches. Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt.


Exhibitions on Martin Luther and the Reformation explore authoritarianism and dissent in the first media age.


IT IS APT that in this American winter of misinformation, xenophobia, and false prophets—this winter of resistance and introspection—exhibitions in New York, Minneapolis, and Atlanta revisited the Protestant Reformation. 1 This year marks the cinquecentennial of Martin Luther’s famous 1517 act of nailing to the door of a church in Wittenberg his “95 Theses,” a list of complaints against Church abuses. Though historians have come to question whether the dramatic gesture actually happened, it lingers in popular imagination as the original incendiary post, the spark for a schism that has framed worldwide histories of revolution (and reaction) for centuries. The actual artistic production of the German Reformation era—homely woodcuts, rebuslike paintings, polemical medallions—is rarely exhibited outside of northern Europe. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portraits of choleric humanists are familiar to many. But these panels, with their ultramarine or moss-hued backgrounds, are only part of the story. 

“Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation,” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and “Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation,” at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, surveyed the material culture of early modern Germany in all its nuance. As far as Reformation “art” was concerned, text-heavy altarpieces, crude life-size block prints, and cheap broadsides were the means through which reformers created an ideological public that split Christendom forever. If the idea of art as difficulty rather than decor is a modern one, these brilliant exhibitions explored a specific moment when visual “information” was not just sloganeering but work. One doesn’t have to believe, as did Hegel, that real art begins when representation “falls apart” (zerfällt) in the Reformation to be astonished by these shows.

Organized in partnership with German institutions in Halle, Wittenberg, Gotha, and Berlin, the curatorial framework for both exhibitions, which featured overlapping material, foregrounded context. The Minneapolis show in particular mimicked the displays often encountered in Landesmuseen, public institutions less familiar in the United States than in Europe. The presentation examined a broad cultural landscape through the lens of both art and history. Vitrines held riding boots, tankards, daggers, and chalices, as well as woodcuts by Erhard Schön and Hans Baldung. Some surprising arguments quietly emerged from the show and the sumptuous two-volume catalogue produced by the partnering museums. 2

Chief among these arguments was another challenge to the hoary characterization of the Reformation as tragoedia artis, a phrase coined by humanist scholar Erasmus upon witnessing the fury of Reformation iconoclasts in Basel. Indeed, at the center of Lutheran faith was not the image of godhead, but the Word—an abstraction. Yet, as these important shows authoritatively demonstrate, the visual arts played a key role in both articulating and refuting Lutheran precepts. 

Martin Luther was born in a small mining town in the Harz Mountains in 1483. (He liked to portray his youth as an austere one, yet archaeologists have recently unearthed evidence that his family owned an entire block of houses.) 3 Luther’s upbringing was unremarkably medieval. He prayed to saints; he mourned when his brother died from plague; he studied the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), intending to become a lawyer. Luther’s life changed in July 1505 when, according to his own testimony, he was nearly struck by lightning near Erfurt. Within two weeks he had entered an Augustinian monastery, and by 1510 he was professor of theology at the university in Wittenberg, a backwater town of two thousand people. The university had deep ties to the local court of Frederick the Wise, a voracious collector of art and relics.

In Wittenberg, Luther taught, studied the Bible, and engaged in the scholastic tradition of disputation, wherein students exchanged arguments on controversial subjects. His 1517 “Theses” were something like an invitation to a public debate about the Church’s sale of indulgences, those certificates that absolved sins or reduced punishments in the afterlife. 

The document made no great splash when it was later printed in Leipzig and Basel. Rather, it was the Church, responding to a rumored threat to its lucrative indulgence business, that ignited rhetorical flames. As representatives of the pope in northern Europe began to stir, Luther responded with letters, many on display in the Morgan Library show. Early missives apologize; subsequent letters attack. Luther wrote in a vernacular German, while the Church kept to scholastic Latin. Popular sympathy for Luther’s case swelled. Summoned in 1521 to recant publicly before Emperor Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Americas, Luther refused. He was quickly excommunicated by Pope Leo X, Medici patron of Raphael. The media war was on.

Open letters, rebuttals, pamphlets, satires—dozens of which filled the bookish Morgan exhibition—poured forth from presses throughout German-speaking Europe. The prints lampooned Lutheran or Church teachings as heretical. Or they extolled the salvific merits of the competing theologies. Not unlike today, ad hominem attacks were the norm. The pope and his minions were caricatured as jesters, dogs, and mice. Luther took the form of an ass and a devil. 

Sympathetic imagery could cast the belligerents in a saintly light. Both shows revealed much about mass-produced portraiture. Luther was (arguably) one of the first non-noble sitters whose visage became widely known. In Lucas Cranach’s 1520 copperplate engraving, made to advertise the reformer’s attendance at the Diet of Worms, Luther appears as a tonsured monk dramatically lit from above.[pq]Text-heavy altarpieces, crude life-size block prints, and cheap broadsides were the means through which reformers created an ideological public.[/pq]He wears a roomy Augustinian habit and is posed against a white, defiantly austere background. The self-reflexive inscription offers a subtle meditation on image-making: “Luther himself creates an eternal image of his spirit, his mortal features are but the wax of Cranach.” Other pictures are not so flattering: a colored woodcut by Johannes Cochlaeus from 1529 depicts Luther as the seven-headed beast of Revelation (12:3 and 13:1–10), an image conveying a transformation from a pious monk to duplicitous heretic.

Relative to books, such Flugblätter (literally: flying leaves) could be produced quickly and cheaply. These sheets became speedy and efficient vehicles for polemic in a time of fast-paced events and unreliable distribution networks. Comparisons to Twitter—only softly pushed in the exhibitions but glibly invoked in recent popular commemorations of 1517 4 —remain problematic, however. As scholar Andrew Pettegree has pointed out, reading the Reformation as a “media event” gets us only so far. 5 Printed words and texts in early modern Europe worked on vastly different registers for different parts of that population; they were media, but not always social. While prints may have rendered theology, fear mongering, and solace accessible like never before, they reached readers at varying levels of consciousness and literacy. News was still a slow and expensive affair. Luther would not have succeeded without important friends like theologian Philip Melanchthon who could buttress and share his message. Luther’s own publishing strengths, to be sure, lay in his writings’ very structure. He was direct, and he was brief. His 1518 “Sermon on Indulgence and Grace, aimed at a popular audience, was only 1,500 words, and ran through thirteen editions in a single year.   


LUTHER’S WAS a negative theology. If the Church held that salvation was possible only through the intermediaries of priest and mass, Luther preached the removal of all that came between humanity and God. In sermons, and eventually in print, he advocated sola fides—faith alone, with the individual experience of scripture (and not some ecclesiastic’s presentation of it) as the only way to Christian instruction. (Luther, a scholar of Greek, attempted to master Hebrew to translate both biblical testaments.) Anything intercessional was clutter. In much of Reformation Europe—and, later, in Puritan New England—absence became a favorable condition.

Yet Luther was hardly immune to earthly beauty. He loved music, for example, and both exhibitions held choir books as well as luminous late medieval metalwork. Highlights on view in Minneapolis included a silver spoon, an inkstand, and a strap buckle owned by Luther. Today, these objects have a reliclike quality, and their treatment as quasi-sacral objects was a subtle reminder that Luther saw himself not as overturning the Church but fixing it. At the Morgan we found a locking iron indulgence chest and a breathtaking duo of boxwood sculptures from ca. 1510 by Conrad Meit depicting Adam and Eve. These exquisite objects reaffirm the authority of craft, as much as “faith,” within the late-medieval aesthetic that framed Luther’s world. 

Unlike many of his apologists, Luther himself said nothing consistent about visual art. As Katrin Herbst skillfully reviews in a catalogue essay, even the most heated iconophobes like Andreas Karlstadt initially asked for image removal rather than image-destruction. 6 Luther appreciated the pedagogical value of the icon, yet disavowed its necessity in churches. His printed catechisms subtly omitted the Second Commandment’s ban on graven images, but his own translation of the Decalogue kept it intact. Luther disowned his zealous acolyte Huldrych Zwingli after he penned combustible tracts about iconoclasm in the 1520s, but in 1522 Luther himself zestfully urged the benefits of “ein geystlich bild abthun”—a spiritual putting-away of images (for Luther, mental Bilder were vitally different from images made of wood and paint).

Far away from Wittenberg, bursts of iconoclasm began to rage from 1522 on. Luther, ever a foe to extremism, presciently realized that image-breakers partook of precisely the same idolatry they claimed to be demystifying; both worshippers and destroyers assumed an invisible presence within the wood and pigment of sculpture or altarpieces, a “hidden spirit” in Luther’s words. But civil chaos was always of a piece with false gods. Bildersturm was actually a word coined by Luther himself. 7 By the mid-sixteenth century, Calvinism in Switzerland and the Netherlands would go on to radicalize Luther’s ambivalence. For the latter, churches were “purified” to a point of emptiness, superficially presaging the gallery’s modern white cube.

Shamelessly didactic, a new art emerged to propagandize for the new theology. Panel painting in particular reconfigured its relationship to mimesis, since realism risked inviting idolatry. Perspectival space—the graceful geometric lie that structured so many Renaissance pictures—was compressed. Later, English artists would take this “Protestant” flatness to extremes—consider how portraitists there presented sitters as surface decoration, riots of jewelry and brocade, rather than bodies in space. Witness, too, the flatness of Cranach’s famous portraits of Luther and his eventual wife, Katharina von Bora (more than a dozen iterations appear in Minneapolis alone), or the severe frontality of the artist’s Law and Grace, a wholly original Lutheran composition copied endlessly from 1529. 

In the latter work, symbol and text crowd out terrain formerly reserved for saints, and vernacular texts narrate a binary scene contrasting alternative means of salvation. Moses points at the Tablets of the Old Testament while John the Baptist, holding a book, points to Christ. The colorful picture is deliberately unbeautiful, almost collagelike, easily transferrable to print. Cranach jumbles scriptural communiqués which it remains our responsibility to decode. 

In both Minneapolis and New York, the Reformation debate about the image read not as an up-or-down proposition, but as an open-ended conversation. One of the achievements of both venues was to allow the plurality of local approaches to iconoclasm the space to breathe and speak for themselves. (Many such instances were actually undramatic; in Zurich, for example, the town council hired workers to carefully pack away offending sculptures.) In one of the last rooms of the Minneapolis show, broken fragments of sandstone sculpture from Magdeburg cathedral are displayed in a single vitrine—not reconstructed as a body, but left unassembled as if scattered across the ground. The effect is brilliant. The pulverized figure appears like blasted miscellany rather than an elegiac ruin. 

When the ontology of the artwork changed, artists were forced to adapt. Church commissions declined throughout Reformed Europe in the third decade of the sixteenth century, and the Minneapolis show reveals what often came next. Many painters dove into the relatively safe mediums of woodcut and engraving (few would confuse gritty black-and-white paper artworks with idols). Some, like the Augsburg painter Heinrich Vogtherr, turned to writing about art, in essence teaching what they could no longer profitably do. Herbst’s catalogue essay reminds us how Vogtherr published a bestselling pattern book in 1538, prefaced with a lament about the Reformation’s “diminishment” of the liberal arts. 8 According to the grandest narrative (Hegel again), it was because of Luther that artists turned to scenes of the everyday, to landscapes, to merry companies, and still lifes, and the modern art market began. 9 From the Reformation on, that is, capital, rather than sacred presence, would come to re-enchant art.


LUTHER’S LETTERS, portions of which were on view at both venues, offer different surprises. In them we discover Luther’s ability to counsel, reassure, and question, but also a chilling capacity for vanity, annoyance, and outright hate. The Reformer’s self-confidence never seems to waver. At the Morgan, a 1523 missive from Dessau sees Luther berating Georg Spalatin, an ally at the Wittenberg court, for ignoring repeated calls for assistance. “Do your job!” he writes angrily. Elsewhere Luther tenderly comforts a worried follower, Barbara Lysskirchen of Freiburg, by sharing an account of his personal fears. 

Luther was unrelentingly anti-Semitic, wrote entire books defaming Islam, and had nothing but contempt for civil disobedience, urban or rural. In response to uprisings in 1524–25 in Thuringia, he went so far as to publish Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde of Peasants, which included, among its more memorable advice: “Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.” Artisans of humbler aspirations, like Vogtherr, actually sided with the peasants.[pq]We discover Luther’s ability to counsel, reassure, and question, but also a chilling capacity for vanity, annoyance, and outright hate.[/pq]Not so for a crypto-Lutheran like Albrecht Dürer, who, at the height of his powers in the 1520s, proposed a monument to commemorate (not mourn) the slaughter that eventually befell said rebels at the hands of nobility-backed mercenaries in 1525. Such incitement is cast in an entirely new light by archaeological findings about Luther’s elite background. Class, as much as creed, clearly drove the Reformer’s fear of various Others.

There lingers an undercurrent of violence, pictorial and actual, in both shows. In many “simplified” Reformation paintings, for example, the strains of decoupling expression from belief crackle beneath seemingly dulcet picture surfaces. In placid full-length portraits of Luther or depictions of seventeenth-century whitewashed Dutch church interiors by Pieter Saenredam, the impression is less balance than unease. In our own time, such older works have been placed within a telos of modern abstraction. 10 But the underlying agitation of such seemingly still images is their truth, as it would be for later artists. As Mark Rothko, who was often cast as a soft iconoclast, put it: “Those who are friendly to my pictures on the basis of their serenity . . . have found endurable for human life the extreme violence that pervades every inch of their surface.” 11 The minimal, far from a quiescence, presages a kind of metaphysical activism. 

On this score, a smaller exhibition in Atlanta adds a powerful and timely dimension to Reformation’s cinquecentennial. “The Image of a Fractured Church: Martin Luther and the 95 Theses at 500 Years,” at Pitts Theology Library, at Emory University, was organized in partnership with the exhibitions in Minneapolis and New York and extends the narrative offered in those venues. The Emory show connects early Protestantism to the legacy of hometown reformer Martin Luther King Jr., the man behind the most progressive American social achievement of the twentieth century. In Atlanta we learn that King, who invoked not just Luther but Wittenberg by name in a sermon the day before his 1968 assassination, preached to overflow crowds in East Berlin in September 1964. It was a stirring event, albeit one that remains little-known. East Germany had long seen propaganda value in the US’s dismal record on race relations, and King’s “socialism” was always a worry for US handlers when he traveled (on the Berlin visit his Allied hosts actually confiscated his passport; King and his entourage disobeyed and passed through Checkpoint Charlie untouched). 

Newspapers from both Berlins covered the scene, and photos, included in the catalogue, are remarkable. Speaking in Berlin of “barriers” of race, creed, ideology, and nationality, King summoned the vision of “a common humanity” which “makes us sensitive to the sufferings of one another.” 12 Civil disobedience here becomes prerequisite for justice as well as freedom, something the original Luther implied in his writings, if not in his deeds. 

In 1966, King reenacted the gesture of his namesake by posting twenty-four demands for fair housing practice on the doors of Chicago City Hall. Such episodes in the history of Cold War civil rights—described in a catalogue essay by Louis B. Nebelsick—are perhaps unexpected in the context of Luther. They shouldn’t be. The objects and images related to King help materialize how dissent—for good or for evil—remains the Protestant Reformation’s headiest bequest to any visual culture today.

In their directness, Luther’s writings summoned terror and hope. Centuries of followers, self-acknowledged and not, recognized how “populism” could be harnessed as an oppositional force capable of dooming or rescuing entire nations. For the artists of the Reformation, the mediated image was never an easy reflection of what was, but a glimpse of what might be. What Bertolt Brecht understood about the modern world is also true of Luther’s moment: art works best not as a mirror, but as a hammer.


CURRENTLY ON VIEW “The Image of a Fractured Church: Martin Luther and the 95 Theses at 500 Years,” at Pitts Theology Library, Emory University, Atlanta, through July 7.

CHRISTOPHER P. HEUER directs the research and academic program at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.