These days the name Martin Luther most likely brings to mind the slain civil rights leader whose marches and dreams reshaped 20th-century American life.

Half a millennium ago, however, an earlier Martin Luther had an equally transformative effect on Europe.

Trained as a Catholic priest, Luther (1483-1546) rebelled against the church and founded a namesake religion that today has more than 1 million followers in Minnesota alone. His critiques of power sparked a century of religious and class warfare throughout Europe, while his embrace of new technology — the printing press — helped spread literacy across the continent.

That man is now the focus of “Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation,” an international exhibition featuring the theologian’s influential books and manuscripts as well as paintings, furniture, jewelry, armor and luxurious clothing associated with the religion he condemned.

Opening Oct. 30 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the show is the largest of three U.S. exhibitions marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s audacious rebellion against the Catholic hierarchy. Most of the art, manuscripts and books have never left Germany before. The two smaller exhibits will be held at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and the Pitts Theology Library of Emory University in Atlanta.

Art, history and religion

“This is a broad-based look at Luther, his times and the art of the moment,” said Tom Rassieur, the Minneapolis curator in charge of the Twin Cities presentation. “It includes traditional Catholic and Lutheran art, archaeological finds from Luther’s home, manuscripts, printed books, satirical and polemical prints. It’s a real variety — everything from ordinary marbles he may have played with as a child to furniture in his studio and the last pulpit from which he preached in the town of his birth.”

Though intended for a general art-and-history audience, the show got an early boost from its sponsor, Thrivent Financial. By mid-August nearly 6,000 people had signed up for group tours, an advance figure that is “unprecedented in the history of the museum,” said Kim Huskinson, the museum’s marketing manager. “I really think the show will be a blockbuster.”

Concerned that Luther and the religious Reformation he sparked might be unfamiliar to some potential audiences, the museum test-marketed the show with focus groups of Lutherans, affiliates of other faiths (Catholics, Jews, an interfaith counsel) and nonreligious types.

“We wanted to assure that our interpretation is objective [because] it is not a show about the Lutheran religion, but about the importance of this individual in history,” Huskinson said.

Highlights include helmets from the armor of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and French King Francis I; an elaborately embroidered pilgrimage robe of emperor Maximilian I; golden reliquaries; 16 paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder or his studio; a hand-colored copy of Luther’s German-language edition of the Bible, and an elaborately carved and painted altar of the Virgin Mary from Naumburg Cathedral.

Luther vs. the pope

The exhibit coincides with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s criticism of the Catholic church, which was selling “indulgences” to pay for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. For the price of an indulgence, Pope Leo X would forgive sins, a transaction that Luther thought corrupt because he believed only God could forgive sins.

So Luther nailed “95 Theses,” or criticisms, to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Within four years he was excommunicated, outlawed and forced into hiding under threat of death. Protected by dissident German aristocrats, he survived, married a former nun (with whom he later had six children) and became increasingly radical.

“What Luther does had reverberations at many levels,” Rassieur said. “It triggered class war, affected church power and increased literacy because he taught scripture in the [German] vernacular.

“But we have to deal head-on with the fact that Luther also published notoriously anti-Semitic tracts and wrote a very negative preface to the Qur’an, too,” Rassieur said. “Mainstream modern Lutheran churches have disavowed Luther’s attitudes toward the Jews, and we address this in the exhibit. That’s why we don’t pose this as a celebration, because like all historic events, it’s complicated.”

Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation
When: Oct. 30-Jan. 15.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls. 
Admission: $20 adults. 612-870-3000, artsmia.org