Skip to main content
Article |
| Early Printing

Martin Luther - Landmark exhibitions in Germany and the US / Part 1 of 2: US Exhibitions

It has been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, condemning the corrupt practice of indulgences. This single act marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a worldwide movement whose legacy can still be felt today, especially in Germany.
Published on 07 Dec. 2016

The Reformation had a profound effect not only on theology and the church but also on culture, science, business, politics, language and education.

“Oh century, oh sciences! It is a joy to be alive!” wrote the knight and poet Ulrich von Hutten a year later. His words were an expression of the zeitgeist that saw people exploring new paths and gaining a greater appreciation of beauty and knowledge. Indeed trade, industry, art, architecture, medicine and technology flourished like never before. The modern age, the era that continues to this day, had started, a period inextricably linked with Luther and the Reformation, a turning point in history. The Luther Bible, which was published in 1534, changed the world.

The German state has set up a large programme for 2017 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses with exhibitions, readings and events for all ages and interest groups.

We would like to draw attention to some landmark exhibitions in the US and Germany showcasing Luther Bibles, bible collections and other bibliophile treasures.

Three sites in Germany are famously linked to Luther: Eisleben, where Luther was born and where he died; Wittenberg, Luther’s home for more than 35 years, and Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, where Luther translated the New Testament into German.

Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483. In 1505 he received his master’s degree from the University of Erfurt, entering the city’s monastery soon afterwards. In 1508 he continued his studies in theology in Wittenberg.

Luther was given a permanent post at Wittenberg University in 1512. It was the selling of indulgences at this time that ultimately drove him to publish his 95 theses. In 1518 the church investigated Luther on charges of heresy, and in 1521 he was declared an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor. A condemned man, he took refuge at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach. By March 1522, however, he was able to return to Wittenberg: the Reformation could no longer be contained.

Luther married the former nun Katharina von Bora. The couple lived in Wittenberg with their children, relatives, staff and students, and when Luther died in 1546, he left a very different world behind.

Luther bibleLuther’s translation of the bible

Convinced of the truth and liberating force of the Holy Scripture, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther began to translate the New Testament from Erasmus Greek version in 1521 while staying in Wartburg castle. He finished the task in eleven weeks. In September 1522, Lotter printed the result (Das Newe Testament Deutzsch), later known as the September Bible. Outspokenly reformist in its extensive prefaces and marginalia, it placed the Letters to the Hebrews and to James at the end. The concluding Apocalypse is illustrated with 21 full-page woodcuts by Cranach that depict the Dragon and the Whore of Babylon wearing a papal tiara. The high retail price of the venture did not impair its success. In December a second, revised edition was printed, with tiaras removed. Luther then started work on the Old Testament. In 1523-4 three volumes appeared, comprising the canon up to the Song of Songs; the Prophets remained a work in progress until 1532, and the apocryphal books, translated jointly with Melanchthon and others, were included only in the complete Bible of 1534, printed by Lufft. All editions were lavishly illustrated by Cranach and his workshop. In 1540, the first two-column version appeared with illustrations by G. Lemberger. A general revision and smaller corrections led to the final edition of 1546. Working from several sources – the original Hebrew (Brescia, 1494) as well as the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and commentaries – Luther created a German of vivid, often graphic and poetic clarity (less lofty than the later King James Bible) that became instantly popular, so much so that the Catholic rivals often felt compelled to imitation. Its impact on the development of the German language and poetry can scarcely be overestimated and is noticeable even today. In Ein Sendbrieff von Dometzschen (1530) and Summarien uber die Psalmen (1533), Luther explained his method, famously demanding that one observe ’mothers, children on the street and the ordinary man on the marketplace and see how their mouths work’. By 1534, more than 80 editions had appeared, prompting other vernacular translations; Tyndale used Luther’s version for his English New Testament (1525/6). By 1626, more than 200,000 bibles had been printed in Wittenberg alone. From 1892 onwards, several revisions have tried to modernize Luther’s vocabulary, but the original remains unsurpassed.

A selection of exhibitions marking the 500th anniversary of the reformation
Part 1 of 2 – US EXHIBITIONS

United States

New York – Morgan Library & Museum
Word and Image: Martin Luther´s Reformation
October 7, 2016 to January 22, 2017

A high-class, focussed “treasure chamber” exhibition will be presented at The Morgan Library & Museum. The events in the life of Martin Luther that were important for the nascent Reformation are at the heart of the exhibition. The visitor follows Luther from the posting of the theses to the Diet of Worms and the Bible translation on the Wartburg up to his work in Wittenberg. Numerous autographs and important writings vividly illustrate the reformer’s work. Selected artworks of the highest quality underline the key statements of the exhibition.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a letter by Luther to Emperor Charles V.

At the Diet of Worms, before the Emperor and the gathered powerful figures of the Holy Roman Empire, Luther had refused to withdraw his works with which he had already antagonised the Pope. At that time, Luther was at the height of his popularity. While traveling back from the Diet to Wittenberg – which he never reached, because he was “kidnapped” to the Wartburg on the way– Martin Luther wrote a letter to Kaiser Karl V., in which he further asserted his standpoint.
This manuscript was offered for auction in 1911 in Leipzig, valued at an estimated 10,000 Reichsmark. The American entrepreneur and patron of the arts John Pierpont Morgan was looking for a spectacular gift for the German Emperor Wilhelm II. He sent two agents, who were entirely unaware of each other, to the auction with orders to purchase the item. This resulted in the unusually high price of 102,000 Reichsmark. The Emperor showed his gratitude to Pierpont Morgan by granting him the Order of the Red Eagle and donated the letter to the Luther House in Wittenberg. Due to its great historical significance, the document was accepted into the index of the UNESCO Memory of the World programme in 2015. (Martin Luther Friedberg, 28. 4. 1521 Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt)

Minneapolis Institute of Art
Art and the Reformation
October 30, 2016 – January 15, 2017

An extensive exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art depicts not only Martin Luther’s life and work, but also the cultural and historical environment of the Reformation in the 16th century. The environment of the Reformer and of his family is portrayed through archaeological finds from the house of Luther’s parents in Mansfeld and the Luther House in Wittenberg.
First-class paintings (e.g. by Lucas Cranach), important printed works, original manuscripts, and unique, large-scale works of art reflect the fundamental changes that took place in the Reformation in art, politics, religion, and everyday life in a multi-facetted way.

Luther Minneapolis


Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University
Law and Grace: Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach and the Promise of Salvation
October 11, 2016 to January 16, 2017

At the renowned Pitts Theology Library of the Candler School of Theology at the Emory University Atlanta an innovative and unique exhibition is being developed.
It places Lucas Cranach’s Reformation image “Law and Grace” at its heart and vividly conveys – by means of many printed works from the Kessler Reformation Collection and selected exhibits from the four cooperating German museums – the iconography of the painting, and thereby the main concern of Luther’s reform: the concept of man’s salvation through the grace of God alone.

Luther catalogueA catalogue for the US exhibitions has been published.

The two-volume publication to “Here I stand…” includes all of the themes of the exhibitions in a concise form. It has been published by the Sandstein Verlag, Dresden and can be ordered here.

Johannes Saltzwedel in The Oxford Companion to the Book, ed. by M. F. Suarez, S.J. and H.R. Woodhuysen; Oxford University Press, 2010
Vol. 2, page 896

Luther 2017: 500 years since the Reformation. Information by the German Ministry of Tourism.

State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt - State Museum of Prehistory Halle

  • share