Today is Halloween; today is Reformation Day, the day that Martin Luther posted—or otherwise “published”— his Ninety-five Theses, a scathing and immediately-accessible critique of the abuses of the Catholic Church which launched a Reformation that would divide and alter western Christendom in myriad ways, changes which are still ongoing today. I live in Reformation Land all year long as most of the courses I teach are centered on this era: it’s either in the foreground or the background, a trigger, a factor, a cause or a culmination. But I also live in Salem, which is increasingly Halloween Land all year long. Usually I dwell in the former and shut out the latter as much as possible until the big night, but on October 31 I think I should be able to “celebrate” both, and when a former student sent me an image of Ninety-five Reeses the other day I realized I could!
Frederick Kemmelmeyer’s portrait of Luther, National Gallery of Art+the carved pumpkins on my neighbor’s front stoop; Frederick the Wise’s Dream and the beginning of the Reformation, October 31, 1517, Library of Congress; Cranach’s Schlosskirche in Wittenberg; the viral meme that inspired me: 95 Reeses!
Well obviously there have been a succession of trick-or-treating/ Wittenberg memes in social media circulation over the last decade or so, but I found this one particularly inspirating, so much so, I even made my own: of individual Reese’s cups. History and candy: the perfect combination.
Was it just me or was the word disruption used intensively in the closing months of 2016? It seems like every time I turned on the radio or picked up the newspaper I was confronted with that word. Now that the year has turned to 2017, my attention has definitely turned to the ultimate change agent, Martin Luther, who sparked a religious/political/social/cultural disruption that divided western Christendom with the “publication” of his Ninety-five Theses in October of 1517. I’m trying to work my way through a stack of recent Luther publications so that I can update the content of both the undergraduate and graduate courses on the Reformation that I’m teaching this semester, and taking breaks to check out (digitally, because I don’t think I’m going to make it in reality) the several American exhibitions that are ending this month: Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation at the Morgan Library & Museum, Martin Luther: Art and the Reformationat the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Law and Grace 2016: Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, and the Promise of Salvation at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta.These three concurrent exhibitions are connected through German sponsorship and the Here I Stand: Luther Exhibitions USA 2016 project website and catalogs, which will be useful resources for both myself and my students, though the former is oriented more towards the secondary-school level I think (and oddly fails to acknowledge or even reference Luther’s anti-semitism). There have already been some notable Luther exhibitions in German institutions as we are in the midst of a Luther anniversary decade, but everything shifts back to the homeland for this anniversary year under the aegis of the In the Beginning was the Word: Luther 2017 project.
Luther on the cover of Time for his last big anniversary, in 1967, and this year’s anniversary logos.
I haven’t made it through all of these materials yet, but there seems to be a strong emphasis on the dissemination of Luther’s critique of church teachings and practice, through the means of both words, particularly printed words, and images.The connection between the new medium of printing and the success of the Reformation has long been acknowledged by historians, but the focus on Reformation art is a more recent development. I’m using two books in my courses that represent both approaches well: Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and Steven Ozment’s Serpent and the Lamb, which explores the creative and mutually-beneficial relationship of Luther and Philip Cranach the Elder. The latter furthered the Reformation cause with both painted and printed images, while still, remarkably, maintaining his Catholic patrons! The Morgan exhibition features two beautiful contrasting Cranach paintings of the Virgin and Child/ Jesus and Mary: one very traditional the other strikingly humanistic in which we encounter Christ in a completely unmediated way, a reformed perspective that was also the product of the Renaissance.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Virgin and Child with St. John as a Boy, about 1514. Oil and tempera on panel. Federal Republic of Germany (on permanent loan to Veste Coburg Kunstsammlungen) & Christ and Mary, ca. 1516–1520. Oil on parchment on panel. Foundation Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha.
One review of the Morgan exhibit asked if Luther was history’s first “tweeter”, sending out cheap flugschriften (“flying pamphlets) to the masses. If we want to push the social media comparison farther, then Cranach ran the Lutheran Instagram account, by providing his friend with a steady supply of anti-papal illustrations for these pamphlets. When you gaze upon Cranach’s famous “papal-ass”, which went viral, you can appreciate the disruption that Luther made.
Lutheran disruption via Cranach’s cartoons: the “papal-ass” and clerical wolves, devouring their prey (the sheep=Christian believers), Heimatmuseum Osterwieck, British Museum and Universitätsbibliothek Bern, Zentralbibliothek , Switzerland, Call No. ZB AD 357.
Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.
The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!
I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff. But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.
“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings: a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.
I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.
And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!