Luther Visualized 6 – Reform

The German Hercules

Hans Holbein the Younger, Hercules Germanicus, woodcut, c. 1519

This was not part of my sermon and service folder series, but I wanted to include it with this online series. In the midst of Martin Luther’s instructional and reformatory writings of 1519 and 1520, Hans Holbein the Younger of Basel produced this woodcut of “The German Hercules.” Luther with his tonsure and Augustinian habit, from which a lion’s skin hangs down protracted, holds a knotty club with long, sharp spikes in his right hand, in order to deal a crushing blow to the last of his opponents, which he holds down by the neck with his left hand. He is Jacob van Hoogstraaten, the Dominican doctor of theology and inquisitor of Cologne. (Perhaps Holbein produced this woodcut after being acquainted with Luther’s 1519 work A Page Against Jacob Hoogstraaten.) A string is drawn from Luther’s nose, which has a strangled pope hanging from the end of it. Beneath Luther the following have already been beaten down so that they lie there powerless: Aristotle, the philosopher; Thomas Aquinas; William of Ockham; an unnamed monk; Nicholas of Lyra, directly beneath Luther’s feet with his commentary on the Bible in hand; Peter Lombard, wearing a beret, virtually crushed by those around him, and holding his book (which reads “L. IV SENTENCIAR” – short for Libri IV Sententiarum [Four Books of Sentences] – in reflected letters); Robert Holcot, an English Dominican scholastic philospher, theologian, and influential Bible scholar; and Duns Scotus, who was known for his commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, is not visible. In the background are some houses, apparently belonging to a village, beneath a mountain. Between the village and the foreground another hooded, tasseled figure makes good his escape.

The colorized version of this woodcut appeared in the eighth book of the Schweizerchronik by Heinrich Brennwald and his son-in-law Johannes Stumpf, for the beginning of the year 1519. Beneath the woodcut are six Latin distichs, which read:

Do you not shudder, wicked Rome, at your enemy Luther,
the German Hercules, as he does away with monsters?

You see, do you not, how he has suspended the tripled Geryon [allusion to the three-tiered papal tiara]
from an aquiline nose, and how the drooping crest wearies the head?

See for yourself with what might he strikes down the raving sophists,
and how the agile club besets the rabid dogs.

Behold, what falls is a multitude gone mad, to whom Cerberus himself
is inferior, and a Hydra reproducing in new throats.

Why not then acknowledge the gallant man as both lord and father,
since you stretched out conquered hands to him when you were stung the first time?

There has been error enough, believe me; be sensible and cleanse yourself again,
or else impure Lerna’s sacred flame awaits you.

In a December 27, 1531, sermon on Isaiah 9:6, in talking about Christ as a Champion who “deals out blows left and right” “without swinging a sword,” Luther wittingly or not paid tribute to this portrayal of himself:

So too today, what have I done to the pope? I have not taken so much as a Heller [or dime] from him. I simply swing the gospel at the monks, nuns, priests, and bishops, and all their errors and idols have fallen to the ground.

Sources
Theophil Burckhardt-Biedermann, “Über Zeit und Anlaß des Flugblattes: Luther als Hercules Germanicus,” Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde, vol. 4 (1905), pp. 38-40

Martin Luther, Luther at the Manger: Christmas Sermons on Isaiah 9:6 (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2017), pp. 49-51

Title page from a first edition of Martin Luther’s Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (Wittenberg, 1520); full book viewable here

1519 and 1520 were truly the years of the Reformation proper, as far as Luther’s writings are concerned. Among his instructional writings were his lectures on Galatians (May 1519, eventually replaced by his 1535 edition); lectures on Psalms 1-21 (1519), Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519); Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer (April 1519); A Brief Form of the Ten Commandments; A Brief Form of the Creed; A Brief Form of the Lord’s Prayer (1520); A Sermon on Preparing to Die (October 1519); A Sermon on Usury (1519); A Sermon on the Sacrament of Penance (1519); A Brief Instruction on How Confession Should Be Made (January 1519) and How to Confess (March 1520); A Sermon on the Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism (1519); A Sermon on the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods (1519); and his Treatise on Good Works (May 1520).

His two major reformatory writings were To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (June 1520), in which he demanded that the papacy be reformed and celibacy for the priests abolished and proposed that every city should care for its own poor people (leading to the first congregational charity program), and his Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520; pictured), in which he denied that there were seven sacraments and confessed only three or two (depending on whether an external element was part of the definition of sacrament), denied the doctrine of transubstantiation and taught the real presence, and taught that priests should be elected and permitted to marry. The latter work gained such notoriety that it was even rebutted by King Henry VIII of England.

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About redbrickparsonage
Red Brick Parsonage is operated by a confessional Lutheran pastor serving in the South of the U.S.A.

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