Luther Visualized 4 – The 95 Theses

Luther Posts the Ninety-Five Theses on Indulgences

Anonymous, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony’s Dream in Schweinitz on October 31, 1517, woodcut, 1717

This scene, itself a recasting of an earlier one from 1617, depicts a later tradition (dating to 1591), supposedly related thirdhand, that, on the night before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Elector Frederick the Wise had a dream which he related to his brother John the following morning. In the dream, a monk wrote something on the door of his Castle Church with a pen whose quill stretched all the way to Rome and threatened to knock the tiara from the pope’s head.

Source
Johann Georg Theodor Gräße, Der Sagenschatz des Königreichs Sachsen (Dresden: Verlag von G. Schönfeld’s Buchhandlung, 1855), pp. 29-32

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Church of the Foundation of All Saints (Castle Church), woodcut, 1509 (coloring subsequent)

On the evening of October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Or did he? Philipp Melanchthon was the first to report on the posting of the theses as we commonly depict it, but he was not in Wittenberg in 1517 and he didn’t report on the posting of the theses until after Luther’s death. The closest report we get that may have been recorded during Luther’s lifetime is a handwritten note by Georg Rörer in a 1540 copy of the New Testament that was also used by Luther for making translation revisions, but that note says that Luther posted his theses on October 31 on the doors of both churches in Wittenberg. Plus, Rörer later wrote another note that matched Melanchthon’s information, apparently after he had read Melanchthon’s account. We do know that Luther included a copy of the theses with a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz on October 31, and that he himself reckoned the “treading underfoot” of indulgences from that day, but his own correspondence from 1518 strongly implies that he did not immediately make the theses public. Historian Martin Brecht suggests that Luther did not post the theses until perhaps the middle of November 1517. This woodcut of the Castle Church appeared in Das Wittenberger Heiltumsbuch of 1509, which depicted Elector Frederick the Wise’s extensive relic collection and was illustrated with numerous woodcuts by Lucas Cranach. In 1760 the Castle Church, including the wooden doors on which Luther had allegedly posted the theses, was destroyed by fire. In 1858 commemorative bronze doors inscribed with the original Latin theses were mounted where the old wooden doors stood.

Sources
Philipp Melanchthon’s preface to Tomus Secundus Omnium Operum Reverendi Domini Martini Lutheri, Doctoris Theologiae, etc. (Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1546), par. 24 (third par. on the linked page)

Volker Leppin and Timothy J. Wengert, “Sources for and against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses,” Lutheran Quarterly, vol. 29 (Winter 2015), pp. 373-398

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 190-202

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Quote of the Week – Let It Rain Enemies

The following is taken from Martin Luther’s letter to Elector Frederick the Wise, penned at Borna and dated March 5, 1522. While Luther was “kidnapped” at the Wartburg Castle, his university colleague Andreas Karlstadt was rushing forward with all sorts of changes in worship that the people were not ready for. The neighboring Duke George of Leipzig in Albertine Saxony, a devoted Catholic, heard about the changes and vowed to put an end to them and to “the Lutheran heresy.” Thus Martin Luther decided to return to Wittenberg from the safety of the castle—at risk to his life, since he was still an outlaw—so as to put a stop to the hasty changes and restore order in Wittenberg, and to stop the slanders of Duke George. Elector Frederick the Wise did not want Luther to return, but here is what Luther had to say, as he was already on his way back to Wittenberg…

[T]he devil knows quite well that I did not [hide out in the Wartburg Castle] out of any fear. He could see my heart just fine when I entered Worms; he saw that if I had known that as many devils were lying in wait for me as there are tiles on the roofs, I still would have jumped right into their midst with joy.

Now Duke George is still far from the equal of a single devil. And since the Father of boundless mercy has made us gallant lords over all the devils and death through the gospel, and has given us such a wealth of confidence that we may dare to address him, “Dearest Father!”, Your Electoral Grace can see for himself that it is the greatest insult to such a Father not to trust him enough to know that we are also lords over Duke George’s wrath.

I know this much about myself at any rate: If affairs were the same in Leipzig as they are in Wittenberg, I would still ride right in, even if (Your Electoral Grace will pardon my silly speech) it rained nothing but Duke Georges for nine days and each one were nine times as furious as the one we have. He treats my Lord Christ like a doll-man woven out of straw; my Lord and I can certainly endure that for a while.

Source
Weimarer Ausgabe (Briefwechsel) 2:455