The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s exhibition kicks off the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing (or maybe not) of the 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg and hence triggering the Protestant Reformation. This major exhibition includes many pieces that have not been seen outside Germany before, including items from the Luther house in Wittenberg and the parish church of Eisleben, the German Reformer’s home town. There are also archaeological finds from excavations around Luther’s birthplace and Wittenberg.
Over eight rooms, the exhibition explores Luther’s life, theology and the emergent Reformation. There are many objects recognisable to those familiar with the history and literature of the German Reformation. These include Lucas Cranach’s portraits of Luther, the Saxon electors and his ‘Law and Grace’ painting; satirical woodcuts attacking the Papacy and Catholic Church; texts such as the 95 theses, the papal bull ofexcommunication, German bibles and theological treatises.
There are also a number of surprises and my personal highlights in this exhibition include the painting recording the pilgrimage of the Elector Frederick the Wise to the Holy Land in 1493. In addition, there are the magnificent and intricately embroidered full length white robes worn by the Emperor Maximilian on his pilgrimage to Echternach.
Also in the exhibition is the pulpit from the parish church of Eisleben, from which Luther preached his last sermon; its restoration for the exhibition revealed the date ‘1518’ and prompted the claim that this is the first ‘Lutheran’ pulpit. Other items from Eisleben, such as the Catholic chalice and chasuble, used during Luther’s time illustrate not only the ‘preserving power of Lutheranism’ but also reflect the complex confessional environment in the town.
Religious and political uncertainties increased interest in astrology, despite Luther’s condemnation. Nonetheless, his Wittenberg associate Philip Melanchthon composed horoscopes, one of which is displayed here.
The exhibition illustrates the cult of Luther, and ‘relics’ associated with the German Reformer and his life. These include the portrait of Luther on his deathbed, commemorative engravings and collections of his works with decorative bindings. There is also a rosary which might have belonged to Luther’s wife, Katherine von Bora, and possibly Luther’s beer mug.
The exhibition is accompanied not only by two hefty volumes, a catalogue as well as a substantial collection of related essays by Reformation historians, Martin Luther and Katherine von Bora bobble heads and ‘nailed it’ post-it notes are also available! This is an impressive and informative exhibition with which to begin the Luther anniversary year.