October 27, 2017

Luther in Print

        Hallowe’en this year, in four days, is also the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, if you date it from Martin Luther’s public unveiling of his Ninety-Five Theses.  (Fun fact: although we’ve all heard about Luther posting his Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, there is no evidence that he did so.  This is the date, however, on which he sent his Theses to his bishop.)  At any rate, soon after Hallowe’en, copies of the Theses were being printed in several towns in Germany, and within the first few months of 1518 copies were being printed and spread throughout Europe.  Printing was fundamental to the Protestant Reformation - beginning with the fact that the Indulgences which were the straw that broke Luther’s back were being printed by the hundreds of thousands.  (Fun fact: indulgences were among the first documents printed on Gutenberg’s press; he used the income from printing indulgences to fund his big Bible project.)  The Davis Museum at Wellesley College currently has an exhibit of printed materials connected with Luther and the Reformation, and I have a few cool examples to share today.
        First is the frontispiece of A Collection of Sermons by Luther published in 1538.  It’s worth remembering that although the literacy rate was not so high that everyone could read these books for themselves, the number of people the message reached through reading aloud was huge.  As for the wood block print, I think it’s gorgeous.  This is not a large book and the level of detail is wonderful.  The artist, big name Lucas Cranach (c.1472-1553), worked to Luther’s specifications, and the iconography here is all about the principle of “Law and Grace” or “Law and Gospel,” which states that the Old Testament gives God’s law to be followed for ethics, while the New Testament gives God’s grace, which is the only way to salvation (unlike, say, an indulgence).  This illustration was another way of spreading the Protestant message to the illiterate, and Luther and artists such as Cranach worked hard to come up with images that would represent their theology.  You can see Adam and Eve, Moses with his tablets, and devils casting sinners into the flames, as well as the crucifixion, Christ slaying evil, angels, a lamb, and other Christian symbols.  I especially like the tree in the top center getting blasted very dramatically.
        Next up is an edition of Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German.  The lush, full-page illustrations here are by Georg Lemberger (c.1495-c.1543) who was clearly inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s series of woodcuts of Revelation.  Again, it’s got great details and marvelous monsters, the Ark of the Covenant sailing in on the upper left, unusually happy angels smiting on the lower right…  But a particularly cool thing about these images is a flaw: each page has left a ghost image on the opposite page, especially visible in the light areas of the left page.  This is because demand for these books was so high and editions were being printed so quickly that the pages were bound before the ink was completely dry and set!
        And finally, here’s a nice version of the Garden of Eden, from another edition of Luther’s translation of the Bible.  I really like all the animals gathered around Adam and Eve, from unicorn and peacock to hedgehog and snail.  I’m particularly pleased that while the Serpent is the villain as always, we are shown an ordinary, uncrowned snake along with all the other happy animals in Eden.  This illustration is attributed to Jost Amman, but I notice that it has initials SF in the block, so I’m guessing another artist must have done it, even if Amman may have been the lead artist for the project.
        Whatever your theology - or your taste in art - there can be no doubt that the Protestant Reformation is a striking example of the power of printing to spread ideas.

[Pictures: Fronstispiece, wood block print by Lucas Cranach from A Collection of Sermons by Martin Luther, 1538;
Scenes from the Apocalypse, wood block prints by Georg Lemberger from New Testament translated by Luther, 1524;
Adam and Eve, wood block print by Jost Amman or anonymous SF from Feyerabend Bible translated by Luther, 1564.  (Images from Davis Museum, photos by AEGN).]

2 comments:

  1. Interesting the ink transfer on the opposite page in their haste to print the New Testament. I wonder how many editions were printed that first year.

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    1. I don't know about the first year, but the printer in Wittenberg alone printed over 100,000 copies in 40 years, and it was being reproduced by multiple printers. To do some math, that means about 8 books a day, which means more than 14,000 pages a day. When you remember that for each copy of each page, the type had to be inked, the paper laid down, the pressure put on, and the page removed by hand, you realize how insane this is! (All these numbers apply to the complete Bible, Old and New Testaments, which came out ten years after the New Testament example pictured here.)

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