top of page
  • Brian Cummings

Naked Luther: The Politics of Culture in Three Early Images of Luther

Brian Cummings on the iconography of the reformer

Images of Martin Luther abound in his anniversary year, and they tend to conform to a type. Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company, has gone for the bronze statue that stands beneath the Rathaus in Wittenberg. Luther is in a cage, perhaps sensibly, about thirty yards from Philipp Melanchthon. Melanchthon looks pained, as ever, but at least he is out of earshot. Luther holds a Bible out for people in the marketplace to see. The statue is nineteenth-century, the work of Johann Schadow, a friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. There are Luther Denkmäler like this all over Germany. Otherwise, for the new biographies sprouting everywhere, the cover of choice tends to be one of the portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder from the late 1520s or 1530s. The criterion for the five-hundredth anniversary, as ever, is safety first: the images are correspondingly solid, reliable, recognizably German, dignified if not obviously pious, and above all fat. Even Playmobil Luther, more popular among theologians and academics than children, is Fat Luther with a Book.

The other striking aspect of the proliferating Luther icons is that they are conspicuously lacking in aesthetic appeal. There is an interesting bias at work here, observable from Cranach onwards. Cranach is a lovingly aesthetic painter when he wants to be, but knows his clients better than they do themselves, and the portraits of Luther serve a purpose, making him out to be virtuous and gemütlich, like their own self-image. When Cranach painted Sibylle of Cleves in 1526 for her betrothal to Johann Friedrich, Electoral Prince of Saxony, something different was required. Sibylle is devastatingly sexy, even exotic. If you wanted to be Diana or Venus, Cranach could do it for you, nobody better. Cranach famously continued to work assiduously with Catholic patrons or Catholic iconography long after finding favor as Luther’s visual accomplice.

Modern appreciation of Luther, which is governed by the interests of the Lutheran church and the theological academy, equally knows what it wants. Luther is a theologian first and foremost, conforming to the modern Lutheran tradition. So he dresses to look the part. However, this conformity conceals a startlingly different artistic tradition of the reformer, evident especially in his early years. The late Bob Scribner was a brilliant historian of Luther images, but looked for popular more than humanist ones. Early in his life, Luther hung out with humanists, because he needed humanism to do his work. Modern scholarship tends to be in a little fix of denial about Luther’s humanism. First of all, of course, there is his apostasy in relation to Erasmus, performed very publicly in 1525. But there are other reasons, too. Protestant theology never wishes to give too much credit to Erasmus, in case this is confused with the demands of liberal criticism, or else in case people forget that Erasmus remained Catholic until his death. In turn, historians of humanism hold Luther at arm’s length, because he lets God into philology. So a subtle dance of caveats circulates around the subject, and each side agrees to disagree.

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1528, oil on panel (Wikimedia Commons)


An exception to the rule is Cranach’s earliest image of Luther, chosen by Lyndal Roper for her biography. It is an engraving from 1520. Luther is still a monk, presumably to make a point, as he faced excommunication. But he is also distinctly sexy, in a young Nick Nolte kind of way: defiant, serious, challenging, charismatic. As I wandered around Germany this year, from conference to library to conference, I began to wonder when sexy Luther disappeared. I decided it was 1521, the date of his disguise as Junker Jörg in the Wartburg. He was 37. Cranach painted several versions: there is one in the Castle Museum in Weimar; Prince Albert bought one, which is still in the Royal Collection. On my journey I blamed Luther for this, allowing himself to go fat and violently bad-tempered. But I think now that this body shaming was wrong of me. It is not that Luther’s diet changed, but that the taste in imagining him changed, and this is a properly interesting narrative. It has everything to do with humanism and its interpretation.

Humanist artists saw Luther’s significance straightaway. Albrecht Dürer collected Luther’s writings from the beginning, hailing them as icons of German culture. Dürer sent copies of some of his prints to Luther in January 1518, apparently given in gratitude for a copy of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. A month after Luther’s excommunication in June 1520, Dürer journeyed to the Netherlands, and his “Diary” (or accounts-ledger) from the period is littered with references to Luther and his texts. In Antwerp in October he bought Luther’s reply to his condemnation at Louvain and Cologne, and a Lutheran dialogue. Back in Cologne later the same month, he bought “a tract of Luther’s for 5 white pfennig” and another copy of the reply to the condemnation. In Antwerp again the following Whitsun, he heard the news that Luther had been arrested by the agents of the Emperor Charles V. Fearing Luther’s assassination or execution, and panegyrizing him as the great writer of the age (it is explicitly as a writer that he exalts him), he exhorts Erasmus passionately to take up the pen in the same cause. A month later, still uncertain of Luther’s fate, Dürer received a copy of Luther’s Babylonian Captivity from Cornelius Grapheus, the Communal Secretary, and gave him in exchange his two “Large Books” of engravings of the Apocalypse, the Passion and the Life of the Virgin.

This story might be better known if Dürer had produced an engraving of Luther himself. He did produce one of Melanchthon in 1526; and after Dürer’s death in 1528, a version circulated of his masterpiece St Jerome in his Study(1514) – the one Vasari described as utterly astonishing – with Luther wittily substituted in Jerome’s place. Reversed, and lesser in size as well as quality than Dürer’s engraving, it is signed W.S., who has not been identified. The British Museum has suggested that it was produced in 1546, the year of Luther’s death, since the inscription reads: PESTIS * ERAM * VIVUS / MORIENS * TVA * MORS * ERO * PAPA (“O pope, while I was alive I was a pest to you; once I am dead I shall be your death.”)

Cut from Luther as Hercules Germanicus by Hans Holbein the Younger.


What Dürer would have done in a portrayal of Luther is a matter of legitimate speculation, since he wrote to Georg Spalatin in 1520 desiring to make an engraving of Luther. In the event, the commission went to Cranach instead, who was better placed at Friedrich the Wise’s court. Other humanist artists stepped in. The most famous example is Hercules Germanicus, a woodcut based on a design by Hans Holbein the Younger. Ascribing prints to Holbein with any certainty is difficult since, unlike Dürer, Cranach or Hans Baldung, he did not cut his own blocks and there is no record of him working as a printmaker. Hercules Germanicus was cut by Hans Herman, who seems to have worked from several of Holbein’s designs. It survives in a single copy, hand-coloured in contemporary paint, and pasted into a manuscript chronicle now in Zurich. This makes it difficult to date, and scholars have varied as widely as 1519 and 1522. On the recto facing the woodcut the chronicle recounts Luther’s escapades in 1519. At this time, Holbein was working in Basel, where Luther’s Latin works were being reprinted by Adam Petri as quickly as he could get them out. The renowned humanist printer Johann Froben, Erasmus’s collaborator on the bilingual Novum Testmentum (among many other projects) published an elegant anthology of Luther’s anti-indulgence polemics in 1518. Petri followed this with a book called Luther’s Lucubrationes – a highly humanist title – in 1520. Holbein had been working for Froben since 1516, designing title pages, historiated initials, and decorative borders for editions of Erasmus and many other writers, including Melanchthon. He also designed the new printer’s border, with putti, for Petri’s 1520 Luther.

There was a precedent for Holbein’s design in an esoteric humanist woodcut of around 1500, in which Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor and “King of the Germans” from 1493 to his death in 1519, is represented as Hercules Germanicus. The block was in two halves, each with three lines of xylographic text. The lower half shows Maximilian on a horse, surrounded by soldiers representing various countries in his Empire. In the upper half, Hercules Germanicus has his name inscribed on a hill; he carries various symbols of his legends – a lion-skin, a club, a sword, and a bow and arrow. The Holbein print follows this iconography, but is nonetheless radically unusual in composition. The title Hercules Germanicus appears on a banner on a tree. In front, wearing the lion’s mane proudly, Luther appears with an effigy of the Pope hanging from a noose attached to his nose. Luther is shown like Hercules in his battle with the Hydra. He wields a club to batter the enemies of Christian truth, who are helpfully labelled for the reader to get the satire straight. Luther is caught half-strangling Jacob van Hoogstraten, the fanatical Dominican inquisitor. A Franciscan friar on the left, with a devil’s tail protruding from his arse, is Thomas Murner, Luther’s foremost literary critic in this period. A pile of victims lie discarded in the ditch in the foreground, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Peter Lombard.

This image identifies Luther as a peculiarly German writer, one whose local fame is about to change the face of the world. Luther’s writing is thus apocalyptic and revolutionary. Yet once again, while later biographies of Luther, down to our time and this anniversary, characterize him as godly to a fault, Holbein’s print revels in a Luther more classical than sacred, and also dirtier and more obscene. This is the rude Luther at his best. Broadly, the frame of reference is humanism. Luther’s stance imitates a celebrated recent discovery from classical art, Laocoön, a figure from Virgil’s Aeneid. Other aspects of the woodcut are Erasmian. The labors of Hercules were among the favorite topoi in the best-selling Adagia, available since 1515 in Froben’s Basel edition, and later alluded to in Holbein’s 1523 portrait of Erasmus now in the National Gallery in London. Erasmus is also responsible for the nose joke, which comes from a phrase in Horace, suspendere naso (literally to hang by the nose, figuratively to sneer). In addition, Luther’s scholastic foes in the image are the clichés of Erasmian polemic. More specifically, Erasmus had recently inveigled van Hoogstraten into controversy in the Johannes Reuchlin affair, in which Erasmus artfully defended Hebrew learning against curial interference. In 1518 this quarrel blew up while van Hoogstraten was in Louvain, and Erasmus spread malicious rumors about him in Basel. In October 1519, van Hoogstraten presented the Cologne condemnation of Luther to the faculty of theology in Louvain and asked them to follow suit. He carried with him Erasmus’s letter expressing friendship towards Luther (Epistola 980) and declared that this showed Erasmus was complicit with Luther.

In a broader sense, Holbein’s print places Luther in the world of Erasmian folly. Such a world is teeming with classical references but also scurrilous and scandal-making. It is satirical in meaning, but it also contains something more indefinably comic, a liberty of the visual imagination in tracking down hermeneutical puzzles, and at the same time an openness to fantasy and the bizarre. This is foreign territory for a lot of Luther scholarship. Luther is allowed – by Roper, for instance – to be earthy and bellicose. This fits with his image of being from the peasant class, down-to-earth and honest as muck. Even theologians like this kind of dirty Luther, since he can be used to show Protestantism as democratic and anti-elitist. Holbein’s Luther, we might say Erasmus’s Luther, is different. He is clever and well-read, and not afraid to be intellectual. There is little doubt that if we were to extract the earlier Luther (before 1521) from his hagiography later in life, this is the world we would happily place him in. While he was a monk, he was not cloistered, and freely shared the German humanist environment of Wittenberg, where artists like Cranach and printers like Melchior Lotter the Younger flourished easily. His lectures in the university show that he is a brilliant scholastic of the via moderna, but also that he ventures into humanism freely. He used Erasmus’s Greek New Testament in his lectures on Romans within months of its coming out. And this is how he is recognised by Holbein and by Dürer, as a fellow-traveller in intellectual experiment. It is Luther’s reply to van Hoogstraten’s efforts at condemning him that Dürer twice bought in 1520.

Nonetheless this framework carried with it an ambiguity. The line between Erasmus joking and Erasmus mocking is always a very fine one. We will never finally know when Erasmus started to distance himself from Luther, because he did not know himself: Erasmus enjoyed scoffing even at things or people close to him. The Hercules Germanicus is an anti-type to Hercules Gallicus: the French type triumphs by rhetoric, the German wins by force. Perhaps as well as being an ebullient proponent of satire, Luther is being satirized here. Is he seen as overly violent in method already? However, in the other direction, Erasmus tended to identify himself as “German,” and distanced himself from French masters because of their too narrowly Ciceronian rhetoric. In that case, the date of the woodcut is also crucial, since Erasmus’s circle moved in volatile directions according to what position each took on Luther, and the fallings out followed quickly. This was what motivated Erasmus to reject Luther: his medicine was worse than the disease. But Erasmus was not above treating someone as a useful madman. And he liked trouble more than he liked to give the impression that he liked trouble.

Much less well-known than the Hercules Germanicus are two other early images of Luther with a distinctive humanist framework. The first of these was unknown until a few years ago. It is a woodcut that David Paisey and Giulia Bartrum have argued is based on a design by Holbein as well, partly because of its wonderful quality. It survives uniquely in a broadside printed later in London, and acquired by the diarist Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century. Along with the rest of Pepys’s ballad collection it is now in the library of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Like the Zurich copy of Hercules Germanicus, it is accompanied at the bottom by a set of verses. In this case, the verses are in English, and Bartrum has dated the Pepys copy to perhaps 1539. Holbein had great currency in England because of his work at the English court. The verses may be the work of Miles Coverdale, the evangelical controversialist and translator. Holbein designed the title page for Coverdale’s Biblia of 1535.

Passions of Christ and Antichrist by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1521 woodcut (Wikimedia Commons.)


However, Paisey and Bartrum believe the image is much earlier, perhaps even dating from 1521, in which case it is from Holbein’s Basel period, and very close in iconographic context to the Hercules. By this stage Petri had printed Basel editions of De captivitate Babylonica and An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, which put Luther at the forefront of an anti-Papal movement of religious reform that was also vividly German in idiom. This was accentuated in a visual field by Das Passional Christi und Antichristi, produced by Cranach and his workshop in Wittenberg, and accompanied with texts by Melanchthon. It juxtaposed scenes from the life of Christ with satirical representations of the pope and his court. Since so little survives of Holbein’s printmaking (there are fewer than ten single-sheet woodcuts) some speculation is needed to provide a context for the Pepys broadside. One striking feature is that Luther still has a monk’s tonsure, as in Cranach’s 1520 image, and unlike his versions from 1523 and later. The narrative of the woodcut is also both striking and original. Luther brandishes a pen and fights against the Pope, who can be identified as the Medici Leo X, who excommunicated Luther that year. To the right is a cardinal, Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, holding a sealed papal indulgence. To the left is a peasant, threshing corn, a little menacingly, with a flail. It is an image of fantastic quality and vigour. At its center, with iconic force, is enacted a fight to the death between the head of the church, armed with his sword, and a young, sprightly Luther with a gigantic goose quill pen.

The epigrammatic quarrel between pen and sword was taken up anew two years ago in the Charlie Hebdo killings, mismatching the cartoonist’s crayon against the machine gun. The cliché “the pen is mightier than the sword” was repeated often in the “Je suis Charlie” campaign. The proverb seemed entirely inadequate to that gruesome occasion. But perhaps a sense of disproportion is natural. The phrase is usually attributed to Edward Bulyer-Lytton in his 1839 historical play about Cardinal Richelieu. Holbein’s print shows the idea is three hundred years older. Also, it reveals that the power of words is mixed with anxiety. Luther does not defeat the pope so much as mock him: I do not fear you, even if I cannot defend myself against you. Behind his back he puts his thumb between his fingers, in a traditional German gesture of good luck (Daumen drücken) or the warding off of demons. Luther’s writing cannot overcome the papacy (perhaps the presence of the peasant suggests that a broader rebellion is required for that) but his writing evades, even supersedes political violence.

Pepys’s print is the first ever image of Luther as writer. It suggests Luther, in his anniversary year, can be seen not only as a revolutionary theologian who crossed the church, but as a writer who challenged the status quo, and also challenged the nature of writing as a medium. In this it matches again the Hercules Germanicus. Equally, it undermines the stolid portrait of Luther that emerged later in the decade, of a respectable hard-working de-tonsured pastor. Luther in 1520 is not yet secularized, but also not yet domesticated. Instead he is instinctively political, facing up to the hierarchical hegemony of pope and archbishop, just as he mocks the power of indulgences. At the heart of this is an argument about violence. The iconography of pen and sword is intrinsically such: it poses a philosophical problem about how to enact change. While sentimental analysis favors a view that the pen is innocent, this misses the whole point that the pen can be violent, too. Luther’s words are undeniably violent. Is he therefore implicitly signalling insurrection? If his religion suggests instead a commitment to non-violence, will this be any use in relation to the manifestly overwhelming power of the papacy? The pope, after all, not only condemns individual heretics, and allows them to be executed by the secular power. He also has an army.

The humanists in the early 1520s were caught in a quandary. Did they want anything more than an intellectual revolution? And what would their response be to a crackdown in the other direction? Dürer in 1520 thought Luther was a German prophet crying in the wilderness. He terrified that Luther would be killed. He also called on Erasmus to join the struggle and declare for battle. Dürer’s visual and verbal language is apocalyptic but he may not have meant this literally. Holbein is also hard to read. Does Hercules Germanicus exalt violence or critique it? In the Pepys woodcut, we can also question whether Luther is an ally of the peasant who stands alongside him with flail in hand, almost like a figure of death. Holbein’s iconography in this woodcut borrows in this way from the humanism not so much of Erasmus as of Ulrich von Hutten. Ulrich was a scholar, poet, satirist and reformer, and an increasingly virulent critic of the church. In his youth he was a Benedictine monk at Fulda. But he left the cloister and briefly trained as a lawyer in Italy. After the murder of his cousin Hans in 1515 his life changed. He took to satire in the Epistolae obscurorum virorum (“Letters of Obscure Men”). After the rise of Luther he joined the cause against the papacy and set up a printing press to launch polemical pamphlets. But this was not enough for him. So he took arms as a knight in the attack on the lands of the Archbishop of Trier in 1522. A year later he was dying on the island of Ufenau on Lake Zurich, from syphilis.

Inevitably, as for so many people, it their attitude to Luther that divided Erasmus and Ulrich. In the last summer of his life Ulrich published an Expostulatio in which he accused Erasmus of being a fair-weather friend, who would not stand up to authority when push came to shove. The case of Reuchlin as well as Luther proved to everyone, Ulrich concluded, that now was the time to take sides. Meanwhile, with his silence growing in significance with every month, Erasmus openly and explicitly refused to do so. That did not stop him from arguing back to Ulrich, which he did in Spongia, a work full of clever and personal insults aimed at his interlocutor. When Ulrich died before publication, it only made Erasmus seem petty, vindictive, and pusillanimous, all things he could not abide to be thought. However, the deeper argument between Ulrich and Erasmus was about violence as much as it was about Luther. When Ulrich accused Erasmus of being too interested in the quiet life, he was underestimating how peace was one of the cornerstones of Erasmus’s intellectual position. He was serious about the politics of peace, and also the theology of a pax Christi. Even if he did not yet have a complete theoretical language to underpin it, freedom of conscience meant more to Erasmus than to almost anyone else of his time, since for most others (Thomas More included) it meant only the freedom to believe the truth and to persecute others. For Ulrich, on the contrary, truth means being prepared to fight for it, and maybe to die for it. “Anyone who proclaims the gospel sows the apple of discord,” he said.

Allegorie auf den Sieg der Reformation by Peter Vischer.


This provides a context for my final example of an early humanist representation of Luther. My title is provocative, but I did not mean it metaphorically. I was as surprised as anyone when I recently came across an image of Luther in the nude. It is a pen and ink watercolour now in the Goethe Nationalmuseum in Weimar. Indeed, it was part of Goethe’s private graphische Sammlung, and is on display in his personal apartments. If the reader is secretly hoping for a portrait of the great Reformer au naturel, it will be disappointing to learn that it is a symbolic portrait, and may not capture the true corporeal likeness. The title of the image is Allegorie auf den Sieg der Reformation: an “allegory of the triumph of the Reformation.” A naked Luther leads Consciencia, Plebes, and Iuventus away from the pomp of the Roman church (in flames in the background to the right) and away from the seven deadly sins, towards scenes of transcendental purity on the left. Blind Iusticia sits under a classical archway, attended by faith, hope, and charity, figured as the three graces, with the resurrected Christ behind. For Goethe, the image had a personal meaning. However, its sixteenth-century context is powerful.

It is dated 1524, and signed by Peter Vischer the Younger. The Vischers were a notable family of sculptors and metal workers from Nuremberg. Peter the Elder and his five sons had a thriving business, concentrating on tombs and large monuments: their most famous work is the Shrine of Saint Sebald in the Sebalduskirche at Nuremberg (between 1508 and 1519). It is a tall canopied bronze structure, crowded with reliefs and statuettes in a lavish way, an essentially gothic structure embellished with Italian Renaissance elements. Peter the Younger (1487-1528) travelled in Italy, especially Padua and Venice, and is responsible for some of the Italianate features of the Sebaldus shrine, including a Scylla in half relief, holding a mirror. One of Peter the Younger’s last commissions was the funeral monument of Friedrich the Wise in Wittenberg. Nuremberg was a center of German humanism, despite being neither a university city (like Basel, Erfurt, or Vienna), nor the seat of a bishop (like Strassburg, Augsburg, or Basel). It made up for this through its status as an Imperial Free City; it boasted a thriving printing industry, and four Latin schools. Wilibald Pirckheimer, a lawyer, marshalled a humanist sodalitas to rival that of Erasmus in Basel, including the poet Conrad Celtis, and Hartmann Schedel (author of the Nuremberg Chronicle). Pirckheimer was a close associate of Erasmus and also the patron and confidant of Dürer. Peter the Younger had a close connection with the humanist scholar Pancraz Schwenter or Bernhaupt, who was master of ceremonies for the city council from 1522 to 1539. The monogram PB (“Pancraz Bernhaupt”) occurs on the Allegorie image. Another of the Nuremberg humanists, Johann Neudörfer, later recounted that Pancraz would research the mythographic background to esoteric stories which Peter the Younger then interpreted visually. An example of their collaboration is in the Orphic material in the preparatory drawings for the exquisite bronze plaquette that Vischer made of Orpheus and Eurydice (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; another version is in Berlin). Also in contact with the Vischers was the patrician Caspar Nützel. In 1523, Nützel wrote to Peter the Elder asking him to send his son to assist in several works.

This is the conflux that explains some of the intellectual framework of Peter the Younger’s allegory. The image readily shows his classicizing vein. There is a Virgilian echo in the representation of the fall of the Roman church, like Troy in flames. Indeed, the iconography of Luther with the man, woman, and child accompanying him is reminiscent of Aeneas with Anchises, Creusa, and Ascanius. The message of the image is of the triumph of a new world over an old one: but equally a battle of ideas, of a new vision of religion as politically idealistic, concerned with abstract concepts of justice and right, both legal and theological. However, the other context that explains Nuremberg at this point is its status as a home of the Imperial Diet. At the 1522 Diet the fate of the German Reformation hung in the balance. The new Dutch Pope Hadrian VI sent his nuncio to the Diet to insist that the Edict of Worms be executed and action finally taken against Luther. After appearing at Worms in April 1521, Luther had been formally excommunicated. In his (perhaps apocryphal) final statement he pins himself to his own conscience before God. The Edict banned him from the Empire, ordered his arrest as a heretic, and condemned any aiders or abettors who might give him board or comfort. Nonetheless, Luther escaped punishment and retired into exile, noisily translating the Bible, and extravagantly dressing up as Junker George while he did so. Charles V failed to press for Luther’s arrest; but in the Low Countries, under Charles’s personal rule, Lutheran supporters were rounded up and two monks were burned at the stake in Brussels. At such violence so close to home, Erasmus shuddered; especially since he personally knew the pope’s enforcer Girolamo Aleandro, himself a humanist; as well as van Hoogstraten, who initiated the proceedings as inquisitor.

Both in 1522, and in the subsequent Diet of January 1524, arguments went back and forth between papal demands that the poison of Luther be dealt with, and pro-German counter-arguments pressing for reform in Rome. Vischer worked on his pen-and-ink Allegorie just as this debate was at its zenith. Nützel, his patron at this time, was the Nuremberg representative at the Diet of Worms in 1521; in 1517 he had been an early supporter of Luther, who asked him at one point to translate the Ninety-Five Theses into German (there is alas no evidence that he did so). There is no doubt that Vischer takes the German side. Rome is in flames; Luther stands center stage as arbiter of the future, pointing to Christ behind him. Conscience, and the youth of Germany, are led by his hand. The cardinal virtues, or three graces, Fides, Spes, and Charitas, calmly discuss the crisis in the nude. Just as Luther points to Christ, so Faith, his favourite of the virtues, points to Iusticia. In an interesting conflation of the classical and Christian, justice is blind and holds a sword (as in conventional allegorical imagery); but the word puns with Luther’s Reformation theology of righteousness. What of the naked reformer himself? Here the iconographic model again is Hercules, as in Holbein. Another pen and ink work of Vischer survives: The Dream of Hercules, also nude. Perhaps the closest of any of his other works to the Allegorie is the pen-and-ink study of the naked Orpheus and Eurydice.

Yet there is clearly also a message about nakedness here. Nudity is a dramatic feature of the image, in which Christus and Iusticia are almost alone in being clothed. The human nude is a striking trend in the early sixteenth century, not only in Italianate painting but also in religious modes. Dürer’s iconic Adam and Eve, so well-known in Vischer’s Nuremberg, inspired dozens of copies. The nude figures of Peter the Younger’s Eurydice and Orpheus show the clear influence of Dürer’s engraving. Dürer even drew himself nude in a self-portrait now in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar. Cranach’s nudes made his reputation as much as Lutheran allegories and portraits. With minimal gauze-like coverings in the genital area, Cranach’s nudes (his many Eves and Venuses) retain a capacity to shock, and were recently banned from posters on the London Tube. What happens when two traditions come together, of scriptural and classical nakedness? Even if a vogue for a sexy Luther existed in the 1520s, this drawing is exceptional. Here some theological reflection on nakedness at the time of the Reformation may be necessary. When Michelangelo painted his frescoes of the Last Judgement a decade later in the Sistine Chapel, he was determined that the dead souls must be naked. The papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio de Cesena, considered this disgraceful; Pope Paul III is reported to have joked that the nudes would have to remain, as he had no jurisdiction in Hell. But the angels and the saints in heaven are also naked.

In the late 1520s and early 1530s Luther referred at several points to the concept of what he called deus nudus, the naked God. In the Exposition on Psalm 51, he compares “the sinful and lost human being” with “the justifying or saving God”: homo reus et perditus et deus iustificans vel salvator. This is, he reflects, a fundamental of theology. In salvation, he says, the naked God comes face to face with the naked human being (nudus deus … cum nudo homine). It is a complex idea, bound up in a complex metaphor. It belongs in the tradition of via negativa, that trope of late medieval mystical writing in which it is impossible to describe God directly; Luther’s discussion here and in the lectures on Isaiah and on Genesis later influenced Calvin’s concept of a hidden God (deus absconditus). Luther’s expression speaks of a number of things: in the Lectures on Genesis he invests the idea of human nakedness in the garden of Eden less with literal shame at embodiment and more as a theological reflection on createdness. The creature cannot bear to imagine the creator gazing at her own nakedness.

Vischer, like Holbein, Cranach or Dürer before him, found in early Luther ideas at once exciting and perhaps irresoluble. Subsequent history, like a moth to the flame, sees everything shaped by a retrospective division of Europe and the world into Catholic and Protestant camps. The cliché of art history sees Protestantism as a lost cause, verging on iconophobia. The image of Luther has settled into dullness. For me, the three images here expounded force a different set of questions, with more open-ended results. Luther between 1512 and 1521 was thinking with amazing inventiveness and energy. He did not always know how his own sentences were going to end. He contradicted himself many times over. The world around him, learned or popular, did not yet know what to make of him either. Was he an angel of God or the agent of destruction? Pathways both of violence and of peace offered themselves, and people on both sides found both attractive. By 1525 this had changed. Luther backed the princes in the Peasants’ War, and called for the “murderous rabble” to be hunted down like animals. Months earlier Müntzer’s Army thought themselves Luther’s followers. 100,000 farm laborers died in Europe’s largest popular uprising before the French Revolution. In 1523, Luther began to move on from arguing that Jesus was born a Jew to saying that the Jews themselves needed converting, with Wittenberg the place to do it. In 1525 Luther also rejected Erasmus in such violent rhetorical terms that they could never be reconciled. Vischer’s image could not have been made even a year later. Humanism could hardly see Luther as a naked Hercules again, and those humanists who chose the Reformation saw it in starker and more pietistic terms. Nearly three hundred years later, though, Goethe, the classicist and idealist, acquired this drawing of a naked Luther. For him, no doubt, it retained a powerful meaning of Aufklärung or Enlightenment. Christianity purified and armed for a new age made Luther for Goethe an exemplary German hero. This hardly exonerates Luther from the dark future his anti-Semitism contributed to. But it does enable us to rethink the violence of the early sixteenth century, as of our own times. Do we continue to write marginalia, or is it time for a more practical resistance?


Brian Cummings FBA is Anniversary Professor at the University of York, UK. His books include The Literary Culture of the Reformation (2002), and he gave the Clarendon Lectures in Oxford (2012) and the annual Erasmus Lecture at the Renaissance Society of America (2013). From 2016 to 2019 he is directing (with Alexandra Walsham) the Arts and Humanities Research Council project, “Remembering the Reformation.”

Current Issue

bottom of page