One of the perks of working at The Morgan Library & Museum is that they (now and then) let you go on tours during your shift.
I joined a docent tour last Saturday that I found to be illuminating. (Really the docents at The Morgan are spectacular. Treat yourself). The life of Martin Luther is a bit like Diary, the now defunct but forever glorious MTV series whose tagline was “You think you know…but you have no idea.”
For instance, I had no idea that Martin Luther was a rich boy. His family was actually in the upper echelons of society, which helps explain why he was able to attend university at all. My surprise is just a testament to the efficiency of the stories Luther Inc. told during his life. Luther portrayed himself as a humble monk of modest origins, and for centuries, everyone believed him. The extent of his wealth really wasn’t known until 2003, when researchers in his hometown of Mansfeld found objects that surely did not belong to someone of immodest beginnings.
This exhibition is called “Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation,” and it’s a perfect name for the exhibition. Through word and image, Martin Luther quite literally controlled the reformation.
Luther was a master of crafting words to meet an audience. When he spoke to the common folk, he spoke in “vulgar” German and used simple declarative sentences, as opposed to the church’s ornate Latin. He could devise a catechism as well as the next monk, but he knew that to get his message across, he had to communicate with a massive, largely ignorant population.
It’s been nearly 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the castle walls of Wittenberg, and museums around the world are celebrating. In the US, museums in Atlantic and Minneapolis are focusing on different aspects of Luther’s life. Many of the objects each of these museums currently hosts have never left Europe.
One of the surprising things I learned on the tour was that Cranach the Elder, who painted some of the most circulated images of Luther (now and then) portrayed him in profile. This was a big deal, as painting someone in profile was often reserved for holy figures or the impossibly wealthy. Cranach E. also made Luther chubbier than he was in real life, a compliment back then as it demonstrated you could enjoy the meatier things in life. Interestingly enough, the image actually reflects Luther’s belief that people actually insult God by denying the desires of the flesh. Grace happened through good deeds, according to Luther. It wasn’t a quid pro quo situation where you could bargain with god for entrance into heaven.
I love that the Martin Luther exhibit is across the hall of the Dubuffet Drawings, 1935-1962. Obviously radically different in temperament, interests, and beliefs, both men demanded that the space be created to see the world in a new fashion. They changed the dimensions of our world. They gave us a new vision, a sight that is more sensual, humane, and honest than what came before.