499 years ago this Halloween, Martin Luther changed the world with his 95 theses — protesting the sale of indulgences and calling for a reformation of Catholic Church practices. As the half-millennium anniversary of Luther's historic action approaches, the world is looking back at the life and times of the man who created a schism that splits Christians to this day.
Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation is a new exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art — an unprecedented collection of artifacts related to Luther, lending new insights and opening a window into a turbulent world on the cusp of transformation.
The artifact that most immediately jolts visitors into recognition of Luther's dangerous era is a plague doctor's hood: one of the beaked masks worn by physicians who treated cases of the Plague (the "nose" contained herbs and oils thought to reduce the likelihood of contagion). The disposal of household artifacts thought to be infected has allowed archaeologists to excavate material related to Luther's life, including some items used by Luther himself.
One revelation of recent research is that Luther wasn't as poor as has long been supposed — in fact, his father was quite wealthy. This helps to explain some of the otherwise confounding aristocratic sympathies evinced by Luther in later life, curators explained at a media preview of the Mia exhibit.
Despite his comfortable upbringing, when Luther spoke his truth to power, he was speaking to powers far greater than himself. One of the exhibit's artifacts never before shown in America is the pilgrimage robe of Maximilian I: a majestic white garment meant to look humble from a distance, but woven with an incredible intricacy for the benefit of those who approached the emperor. It stands in marked contrast to a simple brown hermit's habit characteristic of those Luther chose to wear for most of his adult life.
The Mia exhibit includes a number of items demonstrating the ostentatious power of the church in Luther's day, as well as items directly related to the reformer's life. There's a recreation of an entire studio used by Luther, with original fixtures including a table and a door. (The many visible notches in the table aren't all from normal wear: over the centuries, devotees visiting the Luther House in Wittenberg have cut away little souvenirs for themselves.)
Bringing visitors closer to Luther, though, isn't the only purpose of the exhibit. It also demonstrates the complexity of the world Luther inhabited, a world that was ready to hear the message he proclaimed. As Europe fell into conflict over the legitimacy of the Holy See, Luther and his followers used art to spread their message. Paintings such as Lucas Cranach the Younger's Law and Grace celebrated the new theology, and widely-circulated portraits perpetuated an image of Luther as a dignified, scholarly leader.
Though it's not the focus of the Mia exhibit, music was integral to the Reformation. Luther and his followers knew that with music being so central to worship services, they would need new compositions to spread their message of change.
New German words were written for some existing melodies — plainsong and polyphony, standard liturgical music at the time — and eventually Lutherans developed new songs meant to be sung in unison by the congregation. Those songs were the ancestors of Lutheran hymns as we know them today: songs of personal devotion and shared faith.
Though choral singing obviously predated Luther (as shown in the exhibit by an ornate illuminated choir book from the early 16th century), it has a special place in the Protestant tradition. That's the basis of much of Minnesota's choral richness, with ensembles founded by Lutheran immigrants and their descendants singing songs that evoke Luther's trust in God and his community.
Perhaps the most compelling object in the Mia exhibit is the very pulpit where Luther preached his final sermons, disassembled and temporarily transported from Eisleben to Minneapolis in an unprecedented move that included its careful restoration. On that 1518 pulpit, Catholic and Protestant imagery mix, telling of a world in transition. That transition continues, and visitors to the Mia exhibit may find that the hymns they hear this holiday season echo all the more resonantly.