The Humanist & The Radical: Faces of the Reformation

By LIZ HAGER

Quentin Massys, Portrait of Erasmus, 1517
Oil on wood, 54 x 46.5 cms.
(Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome)

Lucas Cranach (the Elder), Martin Luther, 1526
Oil on panel
(Private Collection, Hamburg)

It’s a little early to be celebrating the 2017 cinquecentennial of the Reformation. But with Easter falling in a week jammed with news of the still duplicitous Church of Rome, this 16th century dissidence is not-s0-strangely relevant.

The Reformation had far-reaching consequences for Europe (later, the world), chief among them: establishment of a highly individual form of devotion; the shattering of the all-powerful Catholic Church and religious unity in Europe; the growth of the modern nation-state; creation of an environment that fostered political liberty (which, some might argue, paved the way for the Enlightenment).

Two of the most influential personalities of the Reformation—Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466?-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546)—both owed their intellectual maturation to the Church and, yet, were vociferous in their criticism of the contemporary Church. Although they were colleagues for a time in the effort to reform, they came to occupy substantially different positions in regard to how that reformation would best be achieved.

The great artists of the era—Hans Holbein, Albrecht Dürer, Quentin Massys and Lucas Cranach—provide rich documentation of these two men. While noteworthy for their display of technical proficiency, the portraits also provide wonderful clues as to the differences in two men’s personalities.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Erasmus, 1523,
Oil on wood, approximately 29 x 20 inches
(National Gallery, London)

Lucas Cranach (the Elder), Martin Luther, 1529
Oil on panel
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Born illegitimately as Gerrit Gerritszoon in Rotterdam, Erasmus rose from humble beginnings to become the most respected scholar of his age. He entered a world dominated by the Church’s doctrine that God was the dominant force in the world and the clergy possessed enormous intercessional powers.

By the dawn of the 16th century the Church had become utterly corrupt. It held vast wealth (in land as well as treasuries), exercised enormous political power over the monarchies of Europe, and waged war to protect its assets. Under Pope Leo X (a Medici son) administrative positions were filled according to patronage system, resulting in individuals who were more interested in increasing their own wealth than in the well-being of the faithful.

Nevertheless, it was a world in which the winds of change were already blowing. More than 100 years earlier, Petrarch (1304-1374) had first advanced the notion of that Europe could recover from its “age of Darkness” through study of the lessons provided by classical Greek and Roman civilizations. By the late 14th century, Petrarch’s ideas were well-disseminated through the intellectual capitals of Europe.

Hans Holbein (the Younger), Erasmus, ca. 1523
Oil on limewood, approximately 17 x 23 inches.
(Louvre, Paris)

In 1492 Erasmus had entered the Augustine order. He became fluent in Latin, the language of the Church and the scholarly educated class. But he also taught himself Greek, a singular achievement in that day. Erasmus was a prolific writer, accomplished in any number of genres. He came to embrace Petrarch’s ideas; like Petrarch, he wouldn’t have seen any conflict between Humanism and Christianity.

The “Prince of Humanists” is perhaps best known today for his 1516 Latin-Greek New Testament, a compilation based on texts he arduously sought out or outright discovered and translated from the original Greek. Martin Luther used this document as the source for his translation of the New Testament into German. Luther’s translation of Erasmus’ text was arguably the first radical act in reforming the Church, as it made biblical texts comprehensible to the general population in their own language (those who could read, anyway).

Erasmus was a man of contradictions: on the one hand he was deep thinker; on the other, he was reputed to have been quite vain. He sat for many of the great painters of the day expressly to give the portraits as gifts to patrons and admirers. (16th century PR?) As befitting a man of extraordinary learning, Erasmus is generally depicted in a library-like setting, surrounded by his books. Lest his “profession” be lost on viewers, his hands always physically connect with one or another of the volumes he penned, either by resting on it or through the act of writing it. To me the 1523 Holbein portrait best captures the vanity of Erasmus, note the luxurious fur and velvet (?) robe which envelopes him.

Lucas Cranach (the Elder), Martin Luther, 1532
Oil on panel,
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Albrecht Dürer, Erasmus, 1520
Etching, approximately 37.3 x 26 cms
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

By contrast, Martin Luther was born into comfortable circumstances in Eisleben (Germany) and was well-educated by his family through the university level. In 1505, as is oft reported, an “act of Nature” caused Luther to abandon his law studies and enter the Augustine order. There he read the Scriptures “assiduously” and was ordained in 1507. Many accounts portray Luther as being fully dedicated to monastic life, which included the performance of good deeds as well as fasts, flagellation, long hours in prayer/pilgrimages, and constant confession.

Lucas Cranach, like his patron, Duke Frederick III (Elector of Saxony) was friendly with the Protestant Reformers at a very early stage; he may have met Luther as early as 1520. In any case, Luther is known to have used his printing press. As befitting the monastic side of Luther, Cranach presents a solemn and plain man devoid of the accoutrements of the secular world.

Off the pulpit, however, it seems Luther was given to wry commentary (see Off the Record with Martin Luther). Luther’s great sense of humor doesn’t show up particularly well in the rather dour Cranach depictions, though one detects a hint of a smile in the upturned lips of the 1532 portrait.

In 1513, after a sojourn in Rome, Luther was given an appointment at university in Wittenberg as lecturer on the Bible. His immersion in the book as a result was to change his life and the the course of history.

Raphael, Pope Leo X, 1518-1519
Oil on panel, 60.6 x 40.9 inches
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Erasmus was infuriated with the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, especially those of the clergy. These are vividly described in his most popular satirical essay, The Praise of Folly (which he wrote in 1512 at the estate of his friend Thomas More.) Erasmus called for reform from within the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike Luther, he steadfastly steadfastly believed all his life that the Church could change from within.

In his studies as a Monk and university professor, Luther became persuaded that the Roman Church had abandoned several essential doctrines of the Christian faith, chief among them Sola Fide, i.e. the notion that God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received through faith or belief alone in Jesus Christ, to the exclusion of all human efforts or works. In this context, Luther was mightily upset by the Church’s practice of indulgences, the earning of religious merit (and less time in Pergatory) by paying (literally) respect to relics of saint. The particular catalyst for Luther was Pope Leo’s announcement in 1517 of the availability of new indulgences to fund the building of St. Peter’s. On October 31, 1517, he nailed his 95 Theses (Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences) to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, a common method then of initiating scholarly discussion.

Erasmus and Luther had started out as admirers. But with this act the chasm between the two men grew.

Using the newly-invented movable-type printing press (Lucas Cranach’s?), Luther’s Theses were quickly copied and disseminated all over Saxony. Even Pope Leo received a copy, after which he is said to have inquired, “What drunken German monk wrote these?”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Wider Connections
Leaders of the Reformation
Biography of Martin Luther
The Day the Middle Ages Ended
Disiderius Erasmus—Praise of Folly
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen—“Images of Erasmus” exhibition

5 Responses to “The Humanist & The Radical: Faces of the Reformation”

  1. Your timing and scholarship is appreciated.
    thanks,

  2. I am so impressed by your research. I know how much it takes although we are all indebted to the internet. I’ve seen the works of all these men in Europe when I was young. I particularly love Durer. The Raphael red is beautiful. I am not a Catholic and I remember visiting the many Catholic churches throughout Europe, particularly Italy and Spain. I was struck by the immense wealth they displayed contrasted with the poverty close by. Rome, in particular, was a study in contrasts for me. As long as the church demands and dictates and takes from its parishioners, it will remain corrupt.

    • CaliforniaGirl
      Stay tuned. . . In June, Venetian Red will be reporting from Rome & Florence on the trail of the Renaissance (and more contemporary topics).

  3. I just finished reading “Wolf Hall” which is a marvelous portrait of Thomas Cromwell, London and the court at the beginning of the Reformation there. We have such easy access to the Bible that it’s a shock to realize that reading the Bible in your native language was an act of heresy and could be punished by burning at the stake. Thanks for sharing your scholarship with such a well-written essay; given that it’s just past Easter (with all that means) and the current Pope’s reaction to the child-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, it’s even more timely.

  4. Excellent summary of the history and so beautifully illustrated. Thank you.

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