Entering the Minneapolis Institute of Art's exhibit, "Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation," is a bit intimidating. A 16th-century artist's depiction of God — clad in billowing crimson robes with an angry look on his face as a golden sun burns behind him — towers over the exhibit entrance.
But this is the message millions of Catholics in German-speaking Europe were meant to take away from the church services delivered in a language most of them couldn't speak, buttressed by a feudal way of life: To be righteous, one must be afraid; that faith is a yoke to be worn to earn salvation, often through misery.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) was host to a large exhibit of Reformation-era art this past winter, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses," a statement of protest that is credited for ushering in the Reformation.
“Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation” offered spectators a glimpse into Reformation-era life and a deeper look at the man who sparked a cultural revolution that reverberates in many aspects of society today. The exhibition, shown outside of Germany for the first time, was exclusive to MIA and will not be traveling. It closed Jan. 15.
I joined some 90,000 observers who had flocked to the exhibit since it opened in October. With hundreds of archaeological and artistic artifacts, it was a rare and fascinating look into what it meant to live during one of the most defining moments of modern religion and the man who left a legacy millions of American live their lives by every day.
Here are five things I learned from the exhibit:
1. Luther was a man of contradictions
Though later in life he claimed to come from humble origins, scholars revealed that his parents — his father a copper mining entrepreneur and his mother from a well-off local family — were successful and expected their son to become a lawyer.
And while Luther’s “central message was love,” as the exhibit asserts, he was often prone to anger and hatred. He sometimes had sharp words for the peasants who used his teachings as a means to start wars to end feudalism and he remains infamous for his anti-Semitic writings.
As part of the exhibit, the Minneapolis Institute of Art consulted with leaders from several different faith communities to create a well-rounded depiction of Luther. Most of the scholars consulted (Christian and Jewish alike) cited Luther’s anti-Semitism as something the public should be aware of, while still recognizing his importance as the seminal figure of the Reformation.
“After the Holocaust and the use of his anti-Jewish statements by National Socialists, Luther’s anti-semitic outbursts are now unmentionable, though they were already repulsive in the sixteenth century,” Princeton theology and Reformation history professor Scott H. Hendrix wrote in a 1983 edition of Word & World, a journal published by the Luther Seminary in St. Paul. “As a result, Luther has become as controversial in the twentieth century as he was in the sixteenth.”
2. Luther feared the Last Days were near
What we now call the Reformation, Luther thought was the beginning of the apocalypse and a literal fight for salvation, some scholars assert. Some believe he wasn’t after a religious reformation and certainly didn't expect the Protestant movement to still be kicking 500 years later. He wanted protecting citizens from Catholic leadership, whom Luther felt were leading the whole of Europe away from the righteous path. This sentiment is clear in many of Luther’s writings, which hold plenty of venom for Catholic authorities of his time.
“For Luther the Last Day was at hand, and faith was under attack. The devil was at work everywhere and potentially in everyone: ‘the God of this world lies in wait (for us) through the pope, the emperor, and even through our own teachers,’” Hendrix wrote. “The purpose of rejecting the papacy, then, was not to start anew church or, for that matter, to split the old one, but to protect the faithful from the jurisdiction of that office through which, in Luther’s eyes, the devil was most insidiously at work.”
3. Thank the Reformation for memes and propaganda
Before the internet introduced the world to an article or photo going “viral,” Luther and his embrace of the first printing press technology saturated Europe with pamphlets extolling his theories.
In 16th century Europe, Luther’s publications held the public’s attention like Kim Kardashian’s Instagram posts or Donald Trump’s tweets do today. Between 1500 and 1530 alone, Luther’s written works made up 20 percent of all published pamphlets in Germanic countries, according to Mark Edwards’ 1994 book, “Printing, Propaganda and Martin Luther.”
No one came close to matching his prolific output and his penchant for insult could give any modern-day Twitter trolls or meme generators a run for their money. In one of his publications, “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil,” Luther offered one of his most colorful insults: “May God punish you, I say, you shameless, barefaced liar, devil’s mouthpiece, who dares to spit out, before God, before all the angels, before the dear sun, before all the world, your devil’s filth.”
Luther’s propaganda wars with the Catholic Church also gave rise to the forerunner of today’s internet memes, where each side mocked the other for the public to see. The exhibit boasts two such pieces of comedic propaganda.
One, known as the “monk calf,” depicted a calf with a pointed fold of skin behind its head (mimicking a monk’s robe) and a bald patch atop its head surrounded by hair (similar to a monk’s tonsure). The deformed calf’s birth was big news back then, prompting broadsheets to be printed about it, and Catholic leadership printed drawings of it, comparing its appearance to Luther. Luther countered, publishing drawings that mocked Catholic monks who remained faithful. In another drawing, known as “The Fool and the Trickster,” two heads — one a Catholic Cardinal, the other a court jester — are connected with a shared mouth, mocking cardinals as frauds and jokesters.
4. Art and music as instruction
While Luther dispelled with the Catholic belief that religious objects contained spirits or spiritual power, he saw art and music as very important for educating people about the Bible and his philosophy.
The exhibit boasts the earliest surviving copy of Luther’s Klug hymnal, which includes his composition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” In forwards he wrote to later editions of the hymnal, Luther spoke of the “importance of music in raising children, as well as the need to give reformers clear guidance in a time of upheaval.”
The Gotha Altar, an installation in the exhibit, is a large folding wooden screen that depicts intricate paintings of key Biblical moments, such as the crucifixion and the resurrection, as well as denouncing the papacy. But it was more likely the piece was used to educate German nobility about biblical stories than it was used as an altarpiece, the exhibit stated — in fact, most of the pieces of art Luther produced or took part in seemed to serve that purpose.
Even portraits of him included in the exhibit depict Luther with a knitted brow and stubble, holding a pen, as if to communicate that careful and laborious study was part and parcel to true faith.
5. Followers didn't share Luther's disgust for religious relics
In Medieval and Reformation-era Europe, religion was deeply tied to physical objects that worked as both status symbols and expressions of certain beliefs. Pre-Reformation Catholics believed that paintings and other images of saints and biblical figures played host to the presence of those depicted. This notion, as well as the use of holy relics, was abhorrent to Luther, who saw it as a distraction from the glory of God.
Yet when Luther became ill and died in February 1546, the exhibit states that artists rushed to his deathbed to capture his final moments. This was in part to defy Catholic propaganda that Luther had “struggled violently with the Devil” in his final days and had been dragged to hell upon death, but also because physical objects connected to Luther and his teachings were in high demand.
“The demand of Luther memorabilia … recalls the Catholic veneration of relics of saints,” the exhibit stated.
The exhibit teems with examples of such objects. One woman, who went on to own the house where Luther was born, attached special significance to a plain portrait of Luther after a fire destroyed the property around 1680. The portrait, she argued, protected the house and its inhabitants from harm — the fire consumed the building shortly after the portrait was removed. Now simply called “Unburned Luther,” the portrait became the center of urban legends that later claimed that the painting had mysteriously survived the flames unscathed.
Other exhibits include small medicine bottles retrieved from Luther’s yard and splinters of wood from the floorboards and his furniture.
“Such veneration, usually reserved for saints and sovereigns, may have been an inevitable fate for this Protestant leader given the seemingly universal need for tangible connection to one’s faith,” the exhibit stated.