Lutheran Lampoons: Martin Luther Used Pictorial Propaganda to Further the Protestant Cause. Mark Bryant Looks at the Work of Those Artists Who Became His Allies-And Those Who Became His Enemies

By Bryant, Mark | History Today, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Lutheran Lampoons: Martin Luther Used Pictorial Propaganda to Further the Protestant Cause. Mark Bryant Looks at the Work of Those Artists Who Became His Allies-And Those Who Became His Enemies


Bryant, Mark, History Today


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Of the three traditional learned professions--the church, the law and medicine--it is the clergy that has suffered most at the hands of graphic satirists. This was especially so during the Reformation in 16th-century Germany when a propaganda war took place between the supporters of the Protestant theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) and those who backed the established Roman Catholic Church. Luther's cause was supported by the artist Albrecht Durer and others, especially the painter Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), who not only designed numerous 'Antichrist' images of the pope but also produced satirical woodcuts for the first illustrated polemical book of the Reformation.

The son of Hans Maler (or Muller), Cranach took his surname from his birthplace, Kronach, near Coburg in Bavaria. After studying art he eventually settled in Wittenberg, nearly 60 miles south-west of Berlin, as court painter to the electors of Saxony. Later three times mayor of Wittenberg, he was also a publisher, apothecary and a close friend of Luther (who was a professor at Wittenberg University), acting as a witness at Luther's marriage, becoming godfather to his eldest son and publishing Luther's German translation of the New Testament (1522), which contained 21 full-page illustrations of the Apocalypse by Cranach. When Luther nailed his famous 'Ninety-Five Theses' (attacking the sale of 'indulgences' to forgive sins) to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517 and, three years later, publicly burnt Pope Leo X's papal bull condemning him, Cranach was steadfast in his support.

Indeed, such was the effect of the work produced by Cranach and others that the Edict of Worms (1521) tried to censor not only Luther's works but also the publication of any satirical images attacking the pope (further attempts were also made at the Diets of Nuremberg in 1524 and Augsburg in 1530). Luther himself, who personally commissioned many of the drawings, is alleged to have said of Cranach's work: 'Maddened the Pope with those pictures of mine, have I? If anyone feels hurt I'm ready to justify them before the whole [Holy Roman] Empire. Ah, how the sow will stir the dung. And when they've done for me they'll go on dung eating just the same.' Luther was the first to use pictorial propaganda on a large scale and in a letter from 1525 he added: 'On all the walls, on every sort of paper or playing cards, priests and monks are to be so portrayed that the people are disgusted when they see or hear of the clergy ... The clergy have departed from the hearts of the people.'

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One of Cranach's best-known prints was 'The Donkey Pope of Rome' (1523), adapted from an earlier drawing attributed to Wenceslas d'Olmutz and featuring a female chimera representing the biblical 'Whore of Babylon' standing beside the River Tiber. …

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