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 [Gentleman 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

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Luther Visualized 16 – Busyness and Health

Luther’s Busyness and Ill Health

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Predella of the Reformation Altar in Wittenberg, oil on panel, 1547.

The painting shows Luther preaching, of which he did plenty. From May 1528 to June 1529 and from October 1530 to April 1532, for example, the parish church’s regular pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, was on leave introducing the Reformation in cities like Brunswick (Braunschweig), Hamburg, and Lübeck, and Luther had to take over his preaching duties in the meantime. Toward the end of 1531, Luther told his table companions, “I am extremely busy. Four people are relying on me, and each one of them was in need of someone all to him- or herself. I’m supposed to preach four times during the week, lecture twice, marriage cases need to be heard and letters need to be written, plus I’m supposed to work on books for publication.”

The pulpit from which Luther preached thousands of sermons in the Wittenberg parish church, today housed in the Lutherhaus museum in Wittenberg (© Red Brick Parsonage, 2013). The two reliefs are of the apostles and evangelists Matthew (left) and John (right).

Several details in the Cranach painting above merit further comment. The writing in Luther’s Bible is indistinct; regardless of his sermon text, he can and ought to point his audience to Jesus (John 5:39). The audience consists of people of every age; the gospel of Jesus is for all (Matthew 28:19,20; Mark 16:15; Luke 18:15-17). Cranach painted himself in the front of the male audience; he viewed the message of Christ crucified for sinners as one needed by him first (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15,16). Katy and little Hans Luther are in the front of the female audience; even the reformer’s son needed to be restrained and taught to stay still and listen. In spite of the fact that the great reformer himself is preaching, there are still some in the audience paying attention to the “picture-taker” and not to God’s Word. At his table in the evening of December 26, 1531, Luther told his companions, “My preaching is useless. It’s like a man who sings in a forest to the trees and hears only the glad-sounding echo in return.” And yet, as he went on to say, “although many people badmouth [gospel preaching], it is still good to preach Christ for the sake of the few who do not.”

In addition to the strain of his professional duties and callings as husband and father, Luther also suffered at various times from the following health issues:

  • Periods of depression occasioned by personal doubts, disease and death in his circle of family and friends, disturbances in the church, and the other health problems in this list
  • Constipation
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Ménière’s (pronounced mane-YAIRZ) disease
  • Recurring dizzy and fainting spells (likely caused by the previous)
  • Soreness in his teeth and throat
  • Recurring kidney stones (the most famous instance in February 1537)
  • Gallstones
  • Abscess on the lower part of one of his legs
  • Recurring colds
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe heart attack in December 1536
  • Dysentery
  • Abscess on his neck
  • Recurring headaches toward the end of his life
  • Gout
  • Arthritis
  • Loss of sight in one eye (cataract?)
  • Exacerbation of health issues from ill-advised treatments

Luther had definitely abused his body earlier in his life with, for example, his excessive fasting in the monastery. His life then changed drastically when he got married and went from not taking good care of himself to eating regular homemade meals prepared by his wife—a change to which his body probably never completely adjusted. But ultimately, it was the Lord who used these recurring health issues to keep Luther from becoming conceited, to show him the all-sufficiency of his grace, and to demonstrate that his power is made perfect in weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

Sources
E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950), pp. 580,581,748-750

Kurt K. Hendel, Johannes Bugenhagen: Selected Writings, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), pp. 33-53

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 204-211,429-433

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 21-23,185-188,229-235

Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 1:73, no. 154; 2:417-418, no. 2320

Luther Visualized 12 – Marriage and Family

Luther’s Marriage and Family

Oil paintings on panel by Lucas Cranach the Elder’s studio, on display at the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg. Left: Martin Luther, 1528. Right: Katharina von Bora, 1528 or later.

Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, a runaway Cistercian nun, were betrothed and married on June 13, 1525. Neither had a strong physical or emotional attachment to the other at first, but these eventually blossomed from their commitment to each other. Martin would eventually praise his wife highly and famously said in 1531, “I wouldn’t give up my Katy for France or for Venice…” They had six children together – Johann (or Hans), Elizabeth, Magdalena (or Lena), Martin, Paul, and Margarethe – but the two older girls died prematurely.

Sources
Weimarer Ausgabe, Tischreden 4:503-504, no. 4786 (recorded by an anonymous source in the 1530s and copied by Pastor Kaspar Khummer)

Gustav Kawerau, ed., Der Briefwechsel des Justus Jonas, first half, vol. 16 of Geschichtsquellen der Provinz Sachsen und angrenzender Gebiete, ed. Historische Commission der Provinz Sachsen (Halle: Druck und Verlag von Otto Hendel, 1884), p. 94, no. 90 (14 June 1525)

Gottfried G. Krodel and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 49:116-117

Theodore G. Tappert and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 54:7-8, no. 49 (recorded by Veit Dietrich in the Summer or Fall of 1531)

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 195-204

Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 237-238

16th century copy of Portrait of a Girl, an oil painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. This copy hangs in the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg. It is based on the original in the Louvre in Paris, which is dated to between 1520 and 1528. For years the sitter was identified as Magdalena Luther (rf., e.g, the “Album of Photographs” in Schwiebert’s Luther and His Times [St. Louis: CPH, 1950]). But this identification is erroneous, since this sitter is about 10 years old and even the latest dating, 1528, predates Magdalena’s birth.

The account of the illness and death of Luther’s 13-year-old daughter Magdalena in 1542 is so heart-rending and touching that it almost demands a human face. Perhaps that is why this portrait has been linked to her for so long. The account perhaps bespeaks the qualities of Luther as a father better than any other. During her illness Martin asked his daughter whether she was willing to go to her Father above, to which she replied, “Yes, dear father, whatever God wills.” She died in his arms not long thereafter.

A funeral was held the same day Lena died, September 20, at which Luther broke down in tears. However, as the casket was being closed, Luther gathered himself enough to express his sure hope that his daughter would rise again on the Last Day. The Christian bond and character of the Luther family serves as a model to this day.

Luther in Need of Every Comfort

Letter from Martin Luther to Nikolaus von Amsdorf in Magdeburg
Wittenberg, November 1, 1527

Sources

Translated from the WA Br, no. 1164; De Wette, no. 910; Enders, no. 1219. The German translation in StL-Walch, no. 1137, was also consulted.

Letter

Grace and peace. As it pleases the Lord, so it happens, my Amsdorf, that I who used to comfort everyone else up till now, am now in need of every comfort myself. This one thing I ask, and you will ask it with me, that my Christ may do with me as he has pleased, only may he keep me from becoming an ingrate and an enemy of him whom I have preached and worshiped with such great zeal and fervor up till now, though not without sins many and great have I offended him during that same time.1 Satan is asking for a Job to be given to him once again,2 and to sift Peter with his brothers,3 but may Christ see fit to say to him, “Spare his life,”4 and to me, “I am your salvation,”5 even as I continue to hope that he will not be angry at my sins to the end. I wish to respond to the Sacramentarians, but until I get stronger in spirit, I can do nothing. I will keep your copy of the book,6 but will return it in due time.

A hospital has started up in my house. Augustin’s Hanna7 has been nursing the plague inside of her, but she is getting back on her feet. Margaretha Mochinna8 caused us some fright with a suspicious abscess and other symptoms, although she too is getting better. I am very fearful for my Katy, who is close to delivering,9 for my little son10 has also been sick for three days now and is not eating anything and is doing poorly; they say it’s violence of the teeth,11 and they believe that both are at very high risk.12 For Deacon Georg’s wife, also close to delivering herself, has been seized by the plague and is now busy trying to find out if there is any way the infant can be rescued.13 May the Lord Jesus mercifully stand by her side. Thus there are conflicts without, anxieties within,14 and sufficiently rough ones at that; Christ is visiting us. There is one consolation that we set against Satan as he rages, namely that at least we have the word of God for preserving the souls of believers, no matter how he may devour their bodies. Accordingly you may commend us to the brothers and to yourself, in order that you all might pray for us to endure the Lord’s hand bravely and to prevail against Satan’s might and cunning, whether through death or through life, Amen. At Wittenberg on the day of All Saints, in the tenth year of indulgences having been tread underfoot, in memory of which we are drinking at this hour, comforted on both sides, 1527.

Your Martin Luther.

Endnotes

1 This double negative construction seems to be as awkward in Latin as it is in English. A footnote in the St. Louis edition reads: “The reading non sine is so repulsive [anstößig] to us that we have employed sane [‘certainly’] in its place. It did not seem right to the former translator either” (21/1:1028, no. 1137). However, it is highly unlikely that sane was the original reading.

2 Cf. Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5.

3 Cf. Luke 22:31-32.

4 Job 2:6

5 Psalm 35:3 (34:3 Vulgate)

6 The book Das dise wort Jesu Christi / Das ist min lychnam der für üch hinggeben wirt / ewigklich den alten eynigen sinn haben werdend / und M. Luter mit seinem letsten büch sinen und des Bapsts sinn / gar nit gelert noch bewärt hat. Huldrych Zuinglis Christenlich Antwurt. (That These Words of Jesus Christ, “This Is My Body Which Is Given For You,” Will Forever Retain Their Ancient, Single Meaning, And Martin Luther With His Latest Book Has By No Means Proved or Established His Own and the Pope’s View: Ulrich Zwingli’s Christian Answer), published in Zurich in June 1527. Cf. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation (1521-1532), p. 313-315.

7 Hanna or Anna, the daughter of the Torgau burgomaster Matthäus Moschwitz or Muschwitz, had married Augustin Schurf, professor of medicine in Wittenberg, prior to the fall of 1522. She died on January 26 or 27, 1540. Rf. Nikolaus Müller, Die Wittenberger Bewegung, p. 332.

8 Margaretha of Mochau from Seegrehna, probably a sister of Karlstadt’s wife

9 She gave birth to Elisabeth on December 10.

10 Johannes (Hans) Luther

11 That is, teething

12 That is, of falling victim to the plague

13 Deacon Georg Rörer had married Johannes Bugenhagen’s sister, Hanna, in 1525. She had given birth to their first son, Paul, on January 27, 1527. She died from the plague the day after Luther wrote this letter, a few hours after giving birth to a stillborn child. Cf. Brecht, op. cit., p. 208-209. As far as Hanna Rörer’s efforts to save her infant, performing a cesarean section on pregnant women who had passed away was already stipulated in the Royal Law (Lex Regia) at the time of Numa Pompilius. The Medieval Church firmly adhered to that stipulation, but this operation was not performed on living women until the 16th century (Heinrich Haeser, Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Medizin und der epidemischen Krankheiten, 1:803; 2:209).

14 Cf. 2 Corinthians 7:5.