It was on All Hallows’ Eve in 1517 that Martin Luther tacked his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the doors of Castle Church at Wittenberg University. Critical of the corruption permeating the Catholic Church, the Augustian monk meant for his lacerating commentary to spark debate, not a revolution. But his act fractured Christianity forever.
All revolutionary ideas need ways to reach the masses and in the case of the Protestant Reformation, one vehicle was art. Another was the printed page. Within weeks, Europe was embroiled in a debate about Luther thanks to the relatively new invention of movable type and the printing press.
All of this provides fertile ground for “Martin Luther: Art and Reformation,” an expansive exhibit organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in collaboration with a host of German institutions. Dense with ideas and objects and beautifully designed, it offers a rare opportunity to explore the art, theology and politics of 16th-century Europe.
The show, which runs until Jan. 15 to mark next year’s 500th anniversary of Luther’s momentous act, is divided into eight chronologically paced galleries. Although Luther (1483-1546) claimed to be of humble birth, the show demonstrates otherwise with elaborate brass sequins and other decorative items, found by archaeologists whose excavations of the Luther family property in eastern Germany helped establish that he was born into a prosperous copper mining family.
He later benefited from powerful patrons such as Frederic the Wise, who became his protector after Luther was excommunicated by the pope and declared an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor. Frederic’s court painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, became a friend of Luther and his portraits of the scholar-monk gave a face to the Reformation movement.
The work of Cranach and his associates amounts to an early form of propaganda. The exhibit includes several of the Cranach paintings and woodcuts that created an iconography around Luther, showing him with a flat biretta cap and ordinary black coat rather than a monk’s robe.
Cranach’s press also supplied illustrations to Luther’s groundbreaking translation of the Bible into German. A first-edition copy of Luther’s 1522 New Testament is, miraculously, on view.
Of particular note is Cranach’s 1529 panel painting “Law and Grace” illuminating Luther’s theology. Divided into halves by a half-barren and half-blooming tree, it contrasts the values and practices of the Old and New Testaments using a diagrammatic composition and jewel-tone colors. The left side depicts Adam and Eve, and Death and the Devil, while the right focuses on the Crucifixion and Christ’s teachings in a pastoral landscape.
Even as Protestant reformers gained strength, Catholic practices still crept into aspects of daily life. A prime example is a centerpiece of the exhibit: the towering oak pulpit where Luther delivered his last sermon in 1546. Delicate gray-hued paintings on the pulpit depict Luther and his wife, Katharina von Bora, a former nun, in the manner of Catholic saints.
The institute supported the pulpit’s restoration so it could travel to Minneapolis, from its original location in St. Andrew’s Church in Eisleben, Germany. A video documents the painstaking restoration process.
Perhaps most stunning of the religious works on view is the monumental 1539-41 Gotha Altar. Made up of 14 hinged wing sections and a center panel that stands nearly 7 feet high, it depicts in vivid color and crisp detail 160 biblical scenes, with gold-framed passages from Luther’s German translation of the New Testament.
Satirical and polemical woodcuts of the era offer an unexpected coarse note to the show, one that may ring familiar in our current political state of affairs. Also of note is the partial re-creation of the Luther Room, a chamber in Wittenberg where the Reformist did much of his scholarly work.
One significant lesson to be learned from an exhibition filled with lessons about the Reformation is that art can actively disseminate new ideas — and sometimes the truth. This is witnessed in the quiet painting “Martin Luther on His Deathbed.” A 17th-century copy of one painted by Cranach the Elder shortly after Luther’s death, it captures Luther from the waist up with eyes closed, a rotund visage that nearly fills the picture. In quiet repose at the end, this depiction counters the Catholic propaganda of the day that declared Luther struggled violently with the devil in his final hours.
Mason Riddle is a Twin Cities art critic.