Luther Visualized 18 – Physical Appearance

Martin Luther’s Physical Appearance

Luther historian E. G. Schwiebert wrote that Lucas Cranach’s “zeal in reproducing the Reformer outstripped his talent,” and called it “most regrettable” that Luther was never sketched or painted by a more talented artist like Albrecht Dürer or Hans Holbein the Younger (p. 571). However, while Cranach’s reproductions are not exactly photographic, he and the members of his studio were certainly not lacking in skill.

Apart from Cranach’s reproductions of the man, which began in 1520, there was, to our knowledge, only one earlier depiction of him, an anonymous woodcut (#9 below) on the title page of Ein Sermon geprediget tzu Leipßgk uffm Schloß am tag Petri un pauli ym .xviiij. Jar / durch den wirdigen vater Doctorem Martinum Luther augustiner zu Wittenburgk (A Sermon Preached at the Castle in Leipzig on the Day of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Year [15]19 by the Worthy Father, Doctor Martin Luther, Augustinian in Wittenberg), printed by Wolfgang Stöckel in Leipzig. Both this woodcut, originally printed in reverse, and another anonymous woodcut, not included in this post, are consistent with Schwiebert’s assertion that for “the first thirty-eight years of his life [up until 1521] he was extremely thin” (p. 573). The latter woodcut is consistently depicted but erroneously cited in Luther biographies (e.g. Schwiebert, p. 574, where he calls it the “earliest known likeness” without citation or proof, and Brecht, vol. 1, p. 412, where he gives an erroneous source, as evidenced from the actual source he cites, whose woodcut is based on #1 below).

As for the reproductions originating with Cranach and his studio in Wittenberg during Luther’s lifetime (#8 excepted), they can be classified into 8 groups (medium and year[s] that the depictions originated and flourished in parentheses):

  1. Luther the Monk (copper engraving, 1520; variously copied and embellished by a number of artists)
  2. Luther the Doctor of Theology (paintings, c. 1520; copper engraving, 1521)
  3. Luther as Junker Jörg (paintings and woodcut, 1521-1522)
  4. Luther the Husband (paintings, 1525 & 1526)
  5. The Classic Luther (paintings, 1528-1529)
  6. Luther the Professor (paintings, 1532-1533)
  7. Luther the Aging Man (paintings, 1540-1541)
  8. Luther on His Deathbed (painting based on Lukas Fortennagel’s sketch of the dead Luther, 1546)

The other three visual depictions included below are the already mentioned anonymous woodcut (#9), a sketch of Luther lecturing by Johann Reifenstein (#10), and Fortennagel’s already mentioned painting (#11). Scroll down beneath the engravings, woodcuts, and paintings for more on Luther’s appearance.

1. Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, copper engraving, 1520. The caption reads: “The eternal images of his mind Luther himself expresses, while the wax of Lucas expresses the perishable looks.”

2. Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther with Doctor’s Cap, copper engraving, 1521. The caption reads: “The work of Lucas. This is a transient depiction of Luther; the eternal depiction of his mind he himself expresses.”

2. Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk with Doctor’s Cap, oil on panel, c. 1520 (erroneous “1517” in the upper left-hand corner); housed in a private collection. These paintings circa 1520 are lesser known and therefore both are included here.

2. Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther, oil on panel, c. 1520, since transferred to canvas; housed in the Lutherhaus Museum in Wittenberg.

3. Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther as Junker Jörg [Squire George], oil on beechwood, 1521-1522; housed in the Weimar Classics Foundation. Martin Luther likely posed for this painting during his secret trip to Wittenberg in the first half of December 1521, but cf. next image.

3. Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther as Junker Jörg, woodcut, 1522. The Latin superscription accompanying this woodcut read: “The image of Martin Luther, portrayed as he appeared when he returned from Patmos [Luther’s own biblical nickname for the Wartburg Castle] to Wittenberg.”

4. Lucas Cranach, Portraits of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, oil on beechwood, 1525; housed in the Basel Art Museum.

4. Lucas Cranach’s Studio, Portraits of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, oil on beechwood, 1525-1526; housed in the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster.

5. Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther, oil on panel, 1528; housed in the Art Collections of the Veste Coburg. Cf. the similar painting in the Lutherhaus Museum.

6. Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther, oil on beechwood, 1533; housed in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. The prototype for this painting, done on parchment in 1532 and housed in Drumlanrig Castle in Thornhill, Scotland, is one of Cranach’s boldest and finest depictions of Luther.

7. Lucas Cranach’s Studio, Martin Luther, oil on panel, c. 1541; housed in the Lutherhaus Museum, Wittenberg.

8. Lucas Cranach’s Studio, Martin Luther on His Deathbed, oil on oak, 1546; housed in the Lower Saxony State Museum, Hanover. See commentary above.

9. Anonymous, Doctor Martin Lutter [sic] Augustinian, woodcut, 1519. See commentary above.

10. Johann Reifenstein, Luther lecturing in the classroom, sketch, 1545. The inscription was added in 1546 by Melanchthon. It begins with oft-quoted words of Luther: “While alive, I was your plague; when I die, I will be your death, O pope.” After some obituary-esque information, it concludes: “Even dead, he lives.”

11. Lukas Fortennagel, The Dead Luther, sketch, February 19, 1546.

While Cranach did have a virtual monopoly on Luther with regard to visual depictions, there are also written depictions that help us to complete our image of the man. Schwiebert gives the most complete treatment on the subject that I have read:

Vergerio, the papal nuncio, noted that Luther had a heavy, well-developed bone structure and strong shoulders… The Swiss student Kessler accidentally met Luther at the Hotel of the Black Bear in Jena when Luther was returning to Wittenberg from the Wartburg, still dressed as a knight. Kessler wrote in his Sabbata that Luther walked very “erect, bending backwards rather than forwards, with face raised toward heaven.” Erasmus Alber, the table companion, described Luther as well-proportioned and spoke of his general appearance in highest praise. …

One important aspect of his general appearance, noted by every observer, was Luther’s unusual eyes. Melanchthon made a casual remark that Luther’s eyes were brown and compared them to the eyes of a lion or falcon. Kessler, when he became Luther’s pupil, observed that his professor had “deep black eyes and brows, sparkling and burning like stars, so that one could hardly bear looking at them.” Erasmus Alber also likened them to falcon’s eyes. Melanchthon added the observation that the eyes were brown, with golden rings around the edges, as in the case of eagles or men of genius. Nikolaus Selnecker also compared Luther’s eyes to those of a hawk, falcon, fox, and eagle, having a fiery, burning sparkle. …

[Roman] Catholics, on the other hand, saw in these eyes diabolic powers. After the first meeting with Luther at Augsburg, [Cardinal] Cajetan would have no more to do with this man, the “beast with the deep-seated eyes,” because “strange ideas were flitting through his head.” Aleander wrote in his dispatches to the Pope that when Luther left his carriage at Worms, he looked over the crowd with “demoniac eyes.” Johannes Dantiscus, later a [Roman] Catholic bishop, visited Wittenberg in 1523 and noticed that Luther’s eyes were “unusually penetrating and unbelievably sparkling as one finds them now and then in those that are possessed.” His enemies also commonly compared him to a basilisk, that fabulous reptile which hypnotizes and slowly crawls upon its helpless prey. …

Another attribute which greatly enhanced Luther’s physical qualifications as a preacher and professor was his voice. It was clear, penetrating, and of pleasing timbre, which, added to its sonorous, baritone resonance, contributed much to his effectiveness as a public speaker. … Luther’s students enjoyed his classroom lectures because of the pleasing qualities of his delivery. Erasmus Alber added that he never shouted, yet his clear, ringing voice could easily be heard.

Sources
Cranach Digital Archive, combined with the power of Google

E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times: The Reformation from a New Perspective (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), pp. 571-576

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 318,412

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), Plates between pp. 14 & 15, and p. 378

Martin Luther’s Favorite Christmas Hymn?

This woodcut was printed on the page before the hymns “Dies est laetitiae” and “Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich” in the 1535 edition of Luther’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert.

The final section of the 1535 Wittenberg edition of Martin Luther’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Spiritual Songs, Improved Edition), and possibly also of its no-longer-extant 1529 predecessor, was prefaced, “Here follow several hymns composed by the ancients.” The next page read:

These songs of old on the following pages we have also compiled as a testament to several pious Christians who lived before our time in the great darkness of false doctrine, so that you can see how there have still been people at all times who have known Christ rightly and quite amazingly persevered in that knowledge by God’s grace.

The section opens with the Latin Christmas hymn “Dies est leticiae” (Dies est laetitiae) in four stanzas, immediately followed by a loose German translation of that hymn under the title “Der tag der ist so frewden reich” (Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich). The first two stanzas of the German hymn read as follows:

Der tag der ist so frewden reich
aller creature
Denn Gottes Son von himel reich
uber die nature
Von einer jungfraw ist geporn
Maria du bist aus erkorn
das du mutter werest
was geschach so wunderleich?
Gottes Son von himel reich
der ist mensch geporen.

Ein kindelein so löbelich
ist uns geporen heute
Von einer jungfraw seuberlich
zu trost uns armen leuten
Wer uns das kindlein nicht geporn
so wer wir all zumal verlorn
das heil ist unser alle
Ey du süsser Jhesu Christ
das du mensch geporen bist
behüt uns für der helle.

Even though the hymn includes two more stanzas, these first two are the most significant. Each might have appeared independently of the other, and each was often used as its own hymn at first. The second stanza, for instance, was sung by itself after Luther’s sermon on Christmas Eve in 1531.

In fact, one could easily surmise that the second stanza was Luther’s favorite Christmas hymn. He quoted it at least five times in his Christmas sermons. He was no doubt responsible for the paragraph above which cited this hymn, among others, as proof of the perpetuation of the correct knowledge of Christ even in the darkness of the papacy. In the just-mentioned 1531 Christmas Eve sermon, the first of a series on Isaiah 9:6, he quoted it and then commented:

But no one knows what’s being sung. You should be able to sing this song from the heart and not snore so much while you’re singing it, like the world does. It is taken right from the prophet Isaiah.

The following year, in his morning sermon on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, he commented on the hymn more extensively:

Now the angels point to him with their song [like the prophets did in their writings] as the one who does it all and in whom all that we need is found. Their song beats back all the devils who wish to lead people to salvation in a different way. If this newborn child is the Savior, then the Franciscan, Augustinian, and Carthusian orders are most certainly not.

And actually the whole world has cried out against Mary and the priests and monastic orders, and the priests and monks themselves have sung against her at their altars and cried for judgment on their own necks, and we did too. And still today the angel’s words, “A Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord,” are sung in all the churches in the beautiful song “For Us Today Is Born a Child [Ein Kindelein so löbelich].” For what do we sing? “Were he not born, we all had dwelled In fear and fire, from God expelled— Salvation’s ours forever!”

And what does that mean—“we all had dwelled”? Whoever composed this song was a spiritual man, and everyone, both young and old, sings his song. It is a song that glorifies and praises Christ and cries for judgment on all the monks and priests, since when it says “we all had dwelled,” it includes them too. Therefore throughout the world a public judgment of condemnation is sung by every mouth against those who lead people away from Christ, yet no one was able to realize this and no one still does. It is sung everywhere.

Therefore, as I have often urged you, ask God to provide faithful preachers, otherwise, unless he himself should rouse the people, we will keep on singing and reciting those words, but we will not understand them. They are supposed to be aroused in the sermon, from the Gospel, from the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the sacraments, and the canticles. Even the adversaries have all these things that we have—baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, the angel’s song, and the child in the manger. But since they are lacking a man in the pulpit who will open the people’s eyes and make the words in the text clear, so that they know what it says, they consequently have these things in a manner of speaking, but they do not really have them.

Both stanzas date back to at least the early 15th century, and the tune likewise dates to the same century. The Lutheran Hymnal (Concordia Publishing House, 1941) included W. Gustave Polack’s 1940 translation “Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer” (#78). The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS, 1996) also includes it (#131) with a livelier version of the tune, stanza 1 being an altered version of Polack’s translation – “Now Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer” – and stanza 2 an altered version of a translation by C. Døving (1867-1937). The Hymnary’s version did have some influence on my translation below.

This hymn deserves to be resurrected in any circles in which it is not currently popularized. The content is rich, and especially the Hymnary’s setting of the traditional tune is both very joyful (and thus a fitting reflection of the text) and eminently singable.

This Day! So Filled with High Delight
A new translation of Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich and Ein Kindelein so löbelich

1. This day! So filled with high delight
For ev’ry earthborn creature!
God’s Son, from realms of heav’nly light
Beyond the world of nature,
Is born into the human race
Of Mary, God’s own choice of grace
To be the virgin mother.
What awesome, wondrous deed is this?
God’s Son, from realms of heav’nly bliss,
Came down to be our brother!

2. For us today is born a child,
A perfect son so peerless,
Of Mary, fair maid undefiled,
To cheer mankind so cheerless.
Were he not born, we all had dwelled
In fear and fire, from God expelled—
Salvation’s ours forever!
To you, sweet Jesus, glory be
For sharing in humanity!
Let hell subdue us never!

Sources
Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary Handbook

The Free Lutheran Chorale-Book

Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Geschichte des Deutschen Kirchenliedes bis auf Luthers Zeit (Hannover: Carl Rümpler, 1854), pp. 196-197

Martin Luther, ed., Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Wittenberg: Joseph Klug, 1535)

Martin Luther, Luther at the Manger (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2017), pp. 8-10

Philipp Wackernagel, Das deutsche Kirchenlied von der ältesten Zeit bis zu Anfang des XVII. Jahrhunderts, vol. 2 (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von B. G. Teubner, 1867), pp. 520-527

Weimarer Ausgabe 36:399-400; 52:50-51

Luther Visualized 5 – The Tower Discovery

Luther Rediscovers the Gospel

Martin Luther, from his preface to Tomus Primus Omnium Operum Reverendi Domini Martini Lutheri, Doctoris Theologiae, etc. (Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1545)

This is the seventh and final page of Martin Luther’s preface to the first volume of the first attempted compilation of his works, published in 1545. The page begins:

At last, by the mercy of God, as I was earnestly meditating days and nights, I started paying attention to the context of the words [in Romans 1:17], namely, “The righteousness of God is revealed in it [viz., the gospel], just as it is written: ‘The righteous person lives by faith.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous person lives by a gift of God, namely by faith…

Sources
Lewis W. Spitz and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, trans. Lewis. W. Spitz, Sr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 34:323-338

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 2:177, no. 1681 (recorded by Schlaginhaufen in 1532); 3:228, no. 3232abc (recorded by Cordatus in 1532); 4:72-73, no. 4007 (recorded by Lauterbach in 1538); 5:26, no. 5247 (recorded by Mathesius in 1540); 5:210,234-235, nos. 5518,5553 (recorded by Heydenreich in the winter of 1542-1543)

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 221-227

Archeological excavation of the basement of “the tower,” © Red Brick Parsonage, 2013

The published preface mentioned above was the first time Luther made his gospel rediscovery public. From the Table Talk sources cited above, however, you can see that he had often talked about it privately with his friends before 1545. Most of Luther’s retellings focus exclusively on the content of his discovery. But the 1532 retelling, recorded by both Johannes Schlaginhaufen and Conrad Cordatus, is different. There Luther also makes a point of identifying the location (one gets the impression the group was near the site of the famous discovery at the time): “But when I was in this tower one time (in which there was a privy for the monks), I was speculating on those words [in Romans 1:17].” Another copy of Cordatus’ transcription has: “But when I was in this tower and sweating room…” And after describing his epiphany, he concludes, according to both of his transcribers, “The Holy Spirit introduced this art to me on this latrine” or “on this tower” or “on this latrine on the tower.”

Luther’s latrine in the excavation behind the Luther House Museum (© Red Brick Parsonage, 2018).

What are we to make of this? I cannot make anything of it except to take Luther at his words. Consider the following:

  1. The plain language of Luther’s description (with several references varying in explicitness) recorded by two different transcribers
  2. The effort at covering up the location in Johannes Aurifaber’s famous 1566 edition of Luther’s Table Talk, which has Luther concluding: “The Holy Spirit alone introduced this art to me” (emphasis mine). Such a cover-up would be unnecessary if Luther’s companions understood that he was referring to his study, where scholars will frequently try to locate his discovery.
  3. We know that Luther’s study was on the third floor of the tower (Brecht, 227). The latrine, as you can see from the pictures, was clearly not. How could Luther and his conversational transcribers confuse the two, or use the basement latrine to refer to the entire tower, including Luther’s study?
  4. We can only verify that Luther used the tower as his study from 1522 onwards (info marker outside the excavation in 2013), but his epiphany most likely took place in early 1518 (some scholars date it earlier).
  5. In all of his descriptions of his epiphany, Luther never once says he was at his desk or reading; he always says he was speculating or meditating.
  6. The ground floor of the tower had under-floor heating. The warm air from a small stove was led through the pictured conduit under the floor slabs (info marker). Considering that this conduit went right above the latrine, it would have indeed made it a “sweating room.”
  7. According to an info marker outside the excavation in 2013, at some point the tower was demolished and earth was deposited over the top for a garden, preserving the ground floor and basement underneath. (Ironically, it was in an attempt to plant another garden there that the latrine was discovered in 2004.) This fits perfectly with Georg Rörer’s copy of Schlaginhaufen’s transcript; either he or someone else wrote “in the garden” above “on this latrine.”
  8. According to an info marker outside the excavation in 2013, the tower with the latrine “could only be reached from the monastery” (later Luther’s house after the monastery was gifted to him). This accords with its description in Cordatus’ transcription as “a privy [or private place] for the monks.”
  9. Finally – and this is admittedly more speculative – the basement had another, larger room in addition to the latrine. Luther’s 1532 retelling took place in the summer between June 12 and July 12. Would it not make sense for Luther and his companions to be conversing in the basement to get away from the heat, thus enabling Luther to say in effect, “It happened right here” (without us having to imagine a more awkward setting)? To those who would think this unlikely due to some lingering smell down there, an info marker outside the latrine says, “A small drain served to take the sewage waste from the latrine out of the building. At the time it was in use, the land sloped down quite considerably from east to west and from north to south so that the majority of the sewage was washed away.”

Many of course who are convinced that Luther’s famous discovery happened on the toilet, and who are not sympathetic to his reforms and teachings, love to make crude jokes about “the 95 Feces” and Luther going to discharge his waste and having something even worse come out, namely Lutheranism. Never mind all that. The Bible consistently testifies that the triune God’s modus operandi is to bring order and glory out of disorder and shame (creation, Judah and Tamar, crossing of the Red Sea, the Messiah’s birth, etc.) and to hide the truth behind weakness, shame, offense/scandal, and foolishness (Jesus’ choice of apostles, crucifixion, the means of grace, the theology of the cross, etc.), so that only those who are earnestly and genuinely seeking the truth find and remain with the truth (Jeremiah 29:13; Matthew 5:6; 13:11-15). Luther’s tower discovery on the toilet, then, really isn’t all that surprising. If you want to find the truth, you often have to look in the least likely places, according to our natural human reason. And if you want to find the truth of the gospel in 1518, you have to look in the bathroom at a monk from an ordinary copper miner’s family performing one of life’s less attractive chores. If you care nothing for the truth, you will run away disgusted. But to those who love the truth, that bathroom is one of the most attractive places on earth.