David Gibson of Religious News Service tells about three major exhibitions opening this month on Luther’s Reformation: at the Morgan Library in New York City; at the Minneapolis Art Institute; and at Emory University in Atlanta. These sound extremely interesting and worth going to.
I was struck by what the Morgan library curator says about Luther’s use of the new information technology of the time (with the assistance of artist and printer Lucas Cranach). See what he says after the jump. But read Gibson’s whole article, which includes the point about how Luther became the model for “speaking truth to power.”
Movable type printing — invented in Europe six decades earlier by Luther’s fellow German, Johannes Gutenberg — was gaining steam as an industry, and Luther and the popularity of his ideas gave printers an enormous boost.
[Curator John] McQuillen stressed that the success of the Reformation was really the result of a kind of “perfect storm” of conditions as much as Luther’s theological concepts: Sentiment in Germany was already growing against the church’s corrupt practices, as was resentment that so much money was going to Rome instead of staying closer to home.
In addition, local princes were looking for more autonomy and were willing to protect Luther when the forces of church and empire were out for his head — a campaign that also brought Luther fame, and more grass-roots support.But it was the combination of a new technology and a new theology — and, as McQuillen said, “someone who knew that message had to get out with little short texts that were very understandable to the average reader” — that made the difference.
Luther, working with Cranach and his shop of painters and engravers, was also able to distribute mass-produced woodcut images that mocked the pope or showed charity workers in a positive light.
“He took the message to the people. It is like 16th-century tweeting – throwing out these little pamphlets, these little single-page tracts, and almost poster prints of eye-catching woodcut illustrations,” McQuillen said.
It was as big a shift as the transition 1,500 years before Luther from scrolls to the bound codex, and it changed the Western world, religiously, politically and culturally.
“We are on a continuum of media. This is not something that was just invented with Facebook and Twitter,” McQuillen said. “We perpetually revisit the way that information gets out, how and what it is. And the fact that we are still dealing with the same problems and issues that they were dealing with 500 years ago is very telling to how important this subject matter is.”
From Martin Luther to Bernie Sanders to, yes, perhaps, Donald Trump – the medium is the message, once again.
Luther’s life “is almost ridiculously relevant today as to how a grass-roots movement gets going and actually can change something,” McQuillen said.