Martin Luther’s world

Art and archeology tell the story of the Reformation’s beginnings

A portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, dated to 1529. © Deutsches Historisches Museum
A portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, dated to 1529. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Nearly half a millennium ago, on what is believed to be the eve of All Saints’ Day 1517, Martin Luther approached the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, carrying his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” And, in the popular imagination, a nail to pound it into the church’s door.

Luther was disillusioned with the church’s practice of selling indulgences — a way to buy one’s way out of the atonement for sin — and with his skeptical 95 Theses he hoped to start a debate among his peers at the local university, where the 34-year-old Augustinian monk and preacher was a lecturer. Much more than a debate, he sparked a revolution in thought and a schism in the Roman Catholic Church that helped to lay the foundation of modern Europe.

“Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art captures Luther’s Reformation in its infancy, transporting viewers to 16th-century Germany with a mix of art, archeology and history, including new information that illuminates the early life of Luther. With concurrent exhibitions in Atlanta and New York City, the show at Mia is one of three marking the 500th anniversary of that momentous day in Wittenberg, each made possible by extraordi- nary loans from German institutions.

Many of the objects appearing here — including the actual pulpit from which Luther preached his last sermon, recently restored — have never left Germany. They’ve temporarily located to the U.S. in part so that German museums and historic sites, expecting a crush of visitors in 2017, can make preparations.

Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, in central Germany, southwest of modern-day Berlin, but his family soon relocated to nearby Mansfeld. In Luther’s own telling, his father was just a miner, and his upbringing was a humble one. What remained of the family home in Mansfeld, a modest stone structure, seemed to confirm the tale, but modern archeology tells a somewhat different story.

The 2003 excavation of a nearby refuse pit uncovered artifacts dated to about 1500, when the Luthers occupied the home, that paint a picture of a rather well-to-do local family, one that could afford meat and delicacies for the table and fine objects for the household. Further exploration uncovered that what remains today of the Luther house in Mansfeld was part of a much larger complex in an upscale neighborhood near the town castle. Luther’s father wasn’t just a miner, he was an important figure in the local copper-mining industry and a high-ranking county official.

So, they were rather prosperous, the Luthers, but not unscathed by the perils of the era, like the plague, which would kill two of Luther’s brothers. Archeologists think this is the best explanation for the presence in the refuse pit of valuable objects, including sliver coins — that they thrown away and burned over fears of contamination.

One of the most unusual objects in the exhibition is also one of the most evocative of that era: the leather hood of a plague doctor dating from about the 16th century, with its odd beak, a means of protecting the wearer — it was believed — against disease-causing vapors.

The political context of Luther’s era is established through artifacts from both the church and secular worlds that were so intimately entwined in Europe’s early modern era. One reason for local nobles to stand behind Luther: the sale of indulgences took money from their lands and funneled it to the Pope in Rome (where, among other uses, it financed many fine artworks, still treasured today).

Luther would rely on patrons like Fred- erick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony — who appears here in portraits from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder — to shield him after he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521 and branded a heretic.

Luther started work on a translation of the New Testament around that time, in a straightforward German that could be understood by the people, and Mia’s exhibition includes remarkably preserved Bibles from the period. Luther infused the translations with his personal theology, one that preached salvation could be achieved through faith alone (a view that challenged belief in the traditional Catholic sacraments).

Luther’s New Testament influenced the Goethe Altar, unquestionably a highlight of the exhibition. Produced by the workshop of Heinrich Füllmaurer, the wooden altarpiece holds nearly 160 painted panels on 14 hinged wings that unfold to tell the story of the New Testament. It is a Reformation-era teaching tool, bringing the story of Christ to the masses in pictures and accompanying German-language text.

On a recent tour of the exhibition, one of the German curators who arranged for the Gotha Altar to travel to Minneapolis pros- trated himself before the massive piece — less a display of faith than of submission to its awesome aesthetic power.

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