Martin Luther, whose challenge struck at the roots of the Roman Church of his day, began his campaign as an artistic utilitarian. He didn’t end his quest as one, but instead adopted popular art and music as potent weapons alongside the printed words of his campaign for reform.
Our Faith spoke with Jeffrey Chipps Smith, an internationally celebrated art professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Luther, it seems, began with the attitude you might find in a church startup here. That is, he was a minimalist toward art and symbols, who might have been comfortable with a church meeting in a school or hotel, sans religious adornment or live music.
“Initially, Luther was not especially interested in art,” Smith said. “He thought that a church was simply a place wherever people gathered to worship. It could be on a bridge over the Elbe River, in a field, or in an existing building. Church decorations were unnecessary and distracting.”
But Luther changed his mind as the Reformation caught fire. In part this happened because his followers had become overzealous that they were denuding local churches of their existing symbols and art. He also came to recognize the persuasive power which he saw professional visual images produce. This was especially important when influencing a less than literate audience who could read neither Latin or German.
“He quickly recognized the power of art, especially the use of woodcut prints, to attack the pope and the institution of the Roman Catholic Church,” Smith explained. “Lucas Cranach the Elder and other artists created polemical prints, the forerunners of our modern editorial cartoons, to undermine the authority of the pope and Catholic clergy.”
Like modern politics, the woodcut war took no prisoners and was as far over the top as top’s cable diatribes on Washington and the NFL. Some of them remain too rough and inflammatory to include here.
“Building upon long-standing complaints about fat, lazy monks, lascivious nuns, poorly educated priests, and the greedy, corrupt papacy, Cranach depicted the pope as the Antichrist and the clergy as the puppets of the devil,” Smith said. “The woodcuts, often with just a bit of text, were visually provocative and memorable. Luther, aided by Cranach, understood how to use the relatively new print media to change public attitudes about the Roman Church. Although German Catholics did create some amusing anti-Luther prints, such as depicting him with seven heads or standing together with his wife Katharina von Bora, a runaway nun, his adversaries never devised an effective artistic strategy for countering the reformer.”
We haven’t space to cover Luther’s musical efforts, but it is worth noting how his most famous hymns have survived to the present day in any number of languages. The most widespread of which is arguably, A mighty fortress is our God.
We’ll close with a summary of Luther’s impact by the Rev. C.O. Magee who pastors two La Marque churches, Trinity Lutheran Church and La Marque Presbyterian.
“As Luther studied the powerful book of Romans, he discovered that which would become the three pillars of the Reformation: Sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, only grace, only faith, only scripture,” Magee said. “Today the spirit of Luther and the reformers lives on. God is continually speaking to His church, both Catholic and Protestant. Change comes, it’s God’s way and it isn’t always easy, but it comes. Will we listen? Is there another Luther-like reformer out there waiting to move us into the future? I suspect so. Buckle up. It’s gonna be a heck of a ride but remember, the Holy Spirit will be driving.”
Next week in Our Faith: Learn about Donor Sabbath, an interfaith organ donation event coming Nov. 14-16 nationwide. Should your congregation sign on?