Remembering Luther (2): the pen and the sword

There is no contemporary image of the fastening of the ninety-five theses. Much of the visual material we associate with Luther’s Reformation of 1517 was created in fact in 1617 for the Luther Jubeljahr (jubilee year), as conscious propaganda, or what we might call fabricated memory. An exception is this woodcut printed in London in around 1539. Probably the original drawing was made by by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1521 in Basel. Holbein worked for much of his later career in London. The image survives only in this broadside with an English ballad, whence it entered the collection of Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century. The 1539 imprint also contains some verses about Luther, perhaps by Miles Coverdale. The woodcut shows Luther, with monk’s tonsure, brandishing a pen and fighting the Pope, 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 centre, with iconic force, is represented a conflict between the church with its sword, and the young Luther with a gigantic goose quill pen. The image may be compared with the famous Hercules Germanicus, which shows Luther with an effigy of the Pope hanging from a noose attached to his nose. This also survives in a single copy, pasted into a manuscript chronicle, now in the Zürich Zentralbibliothek. BC

The husbandman. Doctor Martin Luther. The pope. The cardinall ([London: s.n., 1550?]).

Magdalene College, Cambridge: Pepys Library Ballads I: 16-17

Image by permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Further reading

D. Paisey and G. Bartrum, ‘Hans Holbein and Miles Coverdale: A New Woodcut’, Print Quarterly, 26 (2009), pp. 227-53.

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