Martin Luther


Martin Luther

            Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an Augustinian friar, University of Wittenberg teacher of Christian theology, radical Church of Rome reformer, father of the German Evangelical Protestant movement, populist preacher come Saxon hero, and an anti-Semite.

Much of the following essay relies upon Martin Brecht's1980s three volume syntheses of German resaerch on Luther, published by Calwer Verlag, Stuttgart, and subsequently translated into English by James L. Schaaf.

The drama of Luther's life undoubtaby begins during his university years.



                                 Luther as a University Student and Augustinian Friar/Priest


Luther as a Student at University.  Luther attended the University of Erfurt from 1501-1505. The city of Erfurt (with a population of ca. 20,000) was one of the larger towns in Germany (Brecht 1981: 23-27). It was a commercial center at the intersection of major trade routes near the wine country of the Thuringian basin. Territorially caught between the principalities of Mainz and Saxony, the city had never achieved imperial free status. The town was wealthy, however, with over twenty-five churches, and large monasteries of Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinian Hermits. Among the clergy there was also a noteworthy preaching tradition following the Crusades, and as Brecht (p.27) puts it "Occasionally in their sermons they were able to break away from the sterility of scholasticism; critical accents were also not absent from them."  

            The city had established its university in 1392, the fifth in Germany beginning with Prague in 1347. Like Cologne, it was a civic, not princely, institution developed from city schools (Brecht 1985: 27-29). The mendicant orders furnished theology professors, and the masters of Prague who initially taught at Erfurt established its relatively modern tradition of education. Endowments helped to establish its extensive libraries. The University of Erfurt's reputation was at its height in the mid-1400s. Even in Luther's time over 200 new students enrolled each year.

            The University of Erfurt was divided into four faculties. The liberal arts or philosophy faculty is said to have enjoyed a special reputation. The three higher faculties were theology, jurisprudence, and medicine: the first well respected; the second also had a good reputation.

            Luther enrolled at U. Erfurt for the summer semester of 1501 at the age of 18 (Brecht 1985: 29-33). New students began their studies under the faculty of liberal arts. This insured a basic knowledge for further studies. It should be noted that life-style in one of the university's bursae was more like that of a monastery than that of modern dormitory life in an all-male college.

            Luther passed the baccalaureate exam in the early fall of 1502, thirteenth in a group of fifty-seven (Ibid: 33-38). This exam could be taken after three semesters. The lectures and course work were in the continuing medieval tradition of syncretizing pagan and Christian education with the proviso that reason was limited to the material world, with the understanding that it was to be corrected on the authority of divine revelation in the Bible. The undergraduate course work included grammar, Aristotelian logic, Aristotelian natural philosophy, and rhetoric.

             Luther took the Master of Arts exam at the beginning of 1505, ranking second in a group of seventeen. MA work continued the study of Aristotle's logic, his natural philosophies, plus Euclidian math, theory of music, and the practice of disputation. Brecht notes that upon graduating with the MA, Luther received the red-brown biretta, master's ring, delivered an inaugural address, and enjoyed the customary pompous procession with torches and horses at the promotion of the masters and doctors.

            Although Luther's education was Aristotelian, in matters of the supernatural his teachers were influenced by the nominalism of the English churchman William of Ockham (Brecht 1985; 34-38; Tomlin 2002). Traditional university theology taught that Christian doctrine was fundamentally rational, and that the scholastic dialectical method could be used to answer theological questions by logical analyses. The new approach, the via moderna, moved away from the complex constructions and abstract formulations of high scholasticism by emphasizing that statements of belief-in-faith could only be verified by direct revelation from God in scripture, what God choose to reveal to man. Moreover, nominalists held that metaphysical universals, beyond that of God, were simply concepts represented by words, names that have no extra-mental existence. By Luther's time at Erfurt his two main teachers had established a program of teaching disputation that was influenced by nominalist ideas, and the Faculty of Theology had become "something of a stronghold of the via moderna" (Tomlin 2002: 32). It was at Erfurt that Luther learned the "scriptural principle" (Brecht 1985: 35). And although Luther would later use the disputation artistry of the dialectic in an Augustinian style when it suited him, he also "liberated himself" in favor of the Crusading manner of preaching with a more informal spontaneous vernacular style of speaking (Ibid: 37-38).



          At Erfurt U., Luther was also influenced by the Renaissance humanist movement. Humanism slowly made its way north into the German universities in the 1400s, at first primarily through literature and students (including clerics) who had studied in Italy (Brecht 1985: 38-44). The humanists emphasized the study of grammar, philology (at first limited to the classical written languages, including Hebrew), rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy, subjects important for the undergraduate (i.e., liberal arts) degree. They had little concern for the dialectics of disputation, the heart of philosophical study at that time. Wisdom and morals were to be learned by the mastery of cultivated language, a new linguistic culture grounded in the classical authors of antiquity. By 1500 the deans of all the Erfurt U. bursae and significant members of the town's elite were associated with humanism. As Brecht puts it, the city had become "a sort of outpost of humanism in northern Germany".  Moreover, in Luther's time at Erfurt U. there was still a peaceful coexistence between traditional piety, nominalist dialectics, and the humanist enthusiasm for languages and the language arts. It seems humanism was seen as a supplement to scholasticism. Students could take an interest in both of these disciplines and combine these interests one with the other. Luther learned both, and although he many have considered himself to have been a nominalist he took his Virgil and Plautus with him when he entered the Augustinian monastery in July of 1505. [Plautus (ca. 254?-184 BCE) was a popular Roman comic playwright. He adapted Greek comedy in new ways for the intimacy of the Roman theater. His works were an influence on Shakespeare, some 1700 years later.  On the other hand, Virgil (70-19 BCE) was arguably the greatest of the Roman poets, venerated in his lifetime and in the Middle Ages.]  Virgil's Homeric epic Aeneid is heroic and imperial, a magnificent read in its phrasing and story-telling imagery: it would carry an unsophisticated Christian reader such Luther far beyond most anything in the imagination of the scriptures. Plautus' irreverent plots and characterizations, his raucous humor, would have provided Luther with relaxing amusement in an otherwise regimented environment, being quite unlike the later vulgar Christian Gothicisms associated with Luther.

            Perhaps it seems Luther's university days were rather uneventful. One exception (Brecht 1985:46-47) was in 1503 or 1504 while traveling home to Mansfeld at Easter "he cut the artery in his thigh with the student's sword that he carried".  He called upon the Virgin Mary in his distress, while his traveling companion summoned a surgeon. He was fortunate, and "used the time of recuperation learning to play the lute and copying music for that instrument".  Much more eventful circumstances would soon unfold.

            Luther's father wanted his son to study jurisprudence, and Luther began the study of law at the University of Erfurt in the summer semester of 1505, although he was profoundly uncertain of himself and soon faced an emotional crisis (Brecht 1985: 44-50). In fact, Luther's emotional makeup could never have brought him success in this discipline and professional calling. Luther would always be first-and-foremost concerned with absolute certainty. Brecht notes that at the beginning of the statutes of the Erfurt faculty of jurisprudence there are relevant remarks that deserve consideration here. Among these: "that legal decisions, even those expounded by learned council, cannot dispose of all cases they treat in a way that satisfies everyone, especially those [cases] that are novel, and neither can those be fully resolved on its basis".

            Luther recalled that as a young master in Erfurt he continually wandered about sadly because of the Anfechtungen (spiritual trials by God, and assaults by Satan), so he began to devote himself to reading the Bible. This and the outbreak of plague in 1505 help explain his predisposition that year to become a monk. The supernatural calling took place in the middle of the summer semester when Luther was returning from a trip to his parents in Mansfeld. Nearing Erfurt by the Stollberg hills on 2 July Luther found himself surrounded by a thunderstorm. Then a bolt of lightning struck nearby, and possessed by fear and in terror of sudden death, Luther vowed "Help me, St. Anne, I will become a monk".  The cult of St. Anne (the apocryphal mother of the Virgin Mary) was at that time in vogue in Germany. She was a fashionable saint to whom Luther had become enamored during his mid-teens. She was venerated in Germany for, among other things, her help in danger from thunderstorms and sudden death (e.g., in the mines). Later Luther's father would become angry at this decision: he suspected deception and the work of witches.



          Today, it is not easy for most of us to understand what was happening to Luther, and the character of his choices, without some comprehension of the psychological-cultural times in which he lived. Arguably, above all he lived in an Age of Anxiety, and his personality was, in part, a German Christian expression of those times including the complex backdrop of Germany's geopolitical vulnerability.


                                                            An Age of Anxiety 

                                                The Ambient and the Penetralium

The Ambient

The High Middle Age and Early Renaissance were an Age of Anxiety for much of Europe. The sources of this psychological-cultural anxiety were both internal (e.g., the inheritance of original sin from Adam, and associated perennial guilt) and external (related to the expansion and cultural challenges of Islam). First we briefly review the external causes, referred to here as The Ambient. More details on this are provided in the appendix Background.

With the astonishing Islamic conquests of the Near East and North Africa in the seventeenth century, and then Hispania in the early years of the following century (along with raids into France), western Europeans begin to ask themselves whether God, in effect, was on the side of the infidel. This rhetorical theme becomes prevalent in response to failures during the Holy Land crusades, Holy Wars which were massive socio-cultural campaigns touching all aspects of European life, preached and organized by the Roman Latin Church during the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. 'Taking the cross' became emblematic of Holy War: the battle cry was Deus vult (God wills it). The humiliating failures that occur after the First Crusade over a period of the next five hundred years ultimately call into question the institutions of the Church as an agent of Christ, in more ways than just the failed Holy Wars against Islam.

The First Crusade was the most militarily successful of the crusades, establishing the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099 CE) and three other crusader states along the coast of the Levant. But within two generations Edessa, the most northerly of these crusader states, falls to the Turks (1144 CE), and a series of episodic military humiliations and fiascoes begin for the crusading Christians that cloud the purpose of their God's Plan, on thru and after the final loss of Jerusalem in 1244 CE, a loss that lasts for the next 673 years, until the Plan (at least to some of the evangelical minded) comes into clear focus once again at the end of World War I. The failures of the Holy Land crusades of the Middle Ages would have been interpreted as (providential?) misfortunes in late Antiquity, but to the Medieval Latin Christian mind they are interpreted as God's abandonment of the faithful, punishment for their sins.

In the Second Crusade the army of the King of Germany is defeated by the Turks in 1147 while trying to cross Anatolia. The retreating remnants are taken into the army of the King of France, which attacks Damascus in 1148, fails, and fearing the imminent arrival of Muslim forces retreats to Palestine. The crusade collapses, sterile, with an army still largely intact. The German king departs for home sick in body, spirit, and reputation.   

Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, destroys the army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187 and the city surrenders. The Christians that are able to pay ransom are escorted to the coast, the remainder, without royal funds, are sold into slavery. Because of what Europeans see (in comparison to themselves) as his magnanimities and piousness, Saladin becomes in European legends and poetry the epitome of the chivalrous warrior and ruler, a Muslim ruler who appeared to be favored by the God of Christendom.

In the Third Crusade the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, Frederick Barbarossa (red beard), dies in 1190 attempting to cross the Selif River in southern Anatolia. A  German cleric recorded the scene, and relates that some of the nobles "…despaired, as if they thought that God did not care about them, renounced the Christian faith, and joined the heathen". His great army disintegrates, remnants arriving at the crusader siege of the coastal city of Acre later that year. In 1191 the Kings of France and England arrive at Acre. After six weeks of heavy assault the city surrenders. An English cleric describes the Muslim defenders of Acre as outstanding warriors of exceptional valor, who stunned the Christians by their comportment as they came out of the city to surrender.

The French king returns home. The King of England, Richard the Lionhearted, remains to negotiate with and wage war against Saladin. Richard holds prisoners from the Acre surrender, and before he moves his army out on the march to try to capture Jerusalem he has most of these men, bound in ropes, ca. 2600 by his own assessment, taken out onto an open plain and slaughtered. After, he arrives with his army within a few miles of Jerusalem in bad weather and retreats to the coast, to advance again for a second time in 1192, retreating once more to the coast. Then, before sailing for Europe, he negotiates a truce with Saladin wherein Christian pilgrims may continue to visit Jerusalem, and European merchants continue commerce with the Muslims as usual.

Next we have the German Crusade of 1197-1198 CE. The King of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, raises an army in 1195-1196 to assuage the crusading failure of his father Frederick Barbarossa. After his army sails for the Holy Land in1197 he dies before leaving, in Sicily. After successes reconquering the coast of the Levant, his army receives word of his death and most of the German nobles soon return home in 1198, abandoning their vows.

The so-called Fourth Crusade is largely manned by the French. Their organization is less than competent and becomes debt ridden. Ultimately, to raise funds, their crusade is re-directed to the looting of Constantinople, and greatest city in Christendom. Crusading honor is lost but the value to the Latin Church of the stolen religious relics alone makes the dishonor honorable for the French after they return home (also see notes on Louis IX and his crusade propaganda).

The Fifth Crusade is arguably the most elaborately organized of all the crusades. Its goal is first and foremost the conquest of Egypt. The King of Germany, Frederick II, is the putative leader of the crusading army which is made up of contingents from across western Europe. Frederick repeatedly procrastinates fulfilling his crusading vow. In 1221, three years after the first crusaders reach the Nile Delta, Frederick is still at home, having been crowned the Holy Roman Emperor. After a series of strategic and tactical errors, in August 1221 the crusader army is routed and surrenders to the Sultan of Egypt, then exits from Egypt to return home ignobly.

Frederick II finally makes a crusade to the Holy Land in 1228, after he has been excommunicated for failure to honor his crusading pledges. His crusader army is not strong enough to conquer Jerusalem, but the Egyptian Sultan is preoccupied in campaigns to expand the territories under his regime, and negotiates a ten year treaty with Frederick II, wherein the Christians are granted control of their holiest sites, including the city of Jerusalem.

In 1239 the French launch a new crusade to the Holy Land, and negotiate in 1240 a new treaty to regain Jerusalem, which in the meantime had been lost to the Muslims again. They depart for home having lost hundreds of men at a battle the year before near Gaza. Then the English arrive on crusade and secure the 1240 treaty that same year, plus burial of the hundreds of French troops killed at the Battle of Gaza, and the release of remaining French prisoners. They depart leaving behind an insecure Christian foothold in Palestine.

In 1244 Jerusalem falls to Turks in service to the Sultan of Egypt, not to be regained by Christian forces until near the end of World War I (1917), some six hundred and seventy years later.

The Islamic Ottoman Empire continues its expansion, while Europe, with the notable exception of the Iberians, turns inward. From 1244 to 1291 the crusading Christian holy warriors suffer defeats, and dreams shattered, in the Levant and Egypt. Everything in the Holy Land is lost, except the Islamic 'courtesy' of Christian holy-land tourism. Some Christian clerics give voice to what had become a widespread European sentiment that, after all, it was not 'God's will' that the Holy Land be recovered. But why? Simply put, the answer was Christian sin. By the time of Luther (b.1483- d.1546), the Ottoman's have conquered Greece (including Constantinople), Eastern Europe (the Balkans through the Crimea), Asia Minor (incl. Bagdad and Mosel), and are threatening Austria. Moreover, the French have accommodated themselves to Ottoman power, and made an alliance with them against the Germans.


The Penetralium

Luther OSA. Luther enters the Erfurt monastery of the Order of the Augustinian Hermits on 17 July 1505 (Brecht 1985: 58-63).  After an initial period, lasting a few weeks, during which the Prior became intimately acquainted with the applicant, Luther was formally admitted as a novice for the probationary period of one year and a day. During this ritual of admittance, known as the "prayer for mercy", in the presence of the assembled monks "the prior held up before the applicant the severity of life in the order: the renunciation of one's own will, the simplicity of diet, the rudeness of clothing, the vigils during the night, the work during the day, the castigation of the flesh, the disgrace of poverty, the shame of begging, the fatigue from fasting, the weariness of seclusion". Only those who persevered until the end (and onward in their life as a monk) would be blessed. In taking this arduous path Luther sought to insure his salvation, to escape the world of uncertainty, to salve his mind with prayer and confession, to merit eternal life and quiet his fear of Christ as Judge (Ibid.: 49-50). After the probationary year Luther took the final vow and was admitted to the order as a monk (autumn 1506).

            Luther had entered one of Erfurt's large flourishing monasteries, the largest and most significant Augustinian monastery in that order's Saxon province (Brecht 1985: 51-57). Historically, the Augustinian Hermits had begun adapting to town life after the 1256 amalgamation of the eremites by Pope Alexander IV. From lives of solitude and penance the Pope summoned them to provide pastoral care supplementing that of the secular clergy. In the 1400s a new-wave of reformed Augustinism developed in Germany with the revitalizing goal of scrupulously following the rules and strict discipline of the ideal monastic order.  Coalitions between reformers and political authorities, sympathetic princes and city councils, were developed to introduce reforms into local monasteries. By the time of Luther this Augustinian reform movement had spread to a number of monasteries in Germany, with Erfurt the center of the movement in Thuringia-Saxony. These reformed Augustinians were nominalists in their academic orientation and represented an elite monasticism. Later in life, Luther, as an example, would refer in his gothic style to the Franciscans as the lice the devil had put in Adam's hair, while the Dominicans were the fleas, each perpetually biting each other (Ibid.: 52). He considered the Dominicans arrogant [sic] though educated, while the Franciscans were in his view superstitious and dumb.

            In 1508 Luther was one of fifty-two monks in residence at the Erfurt Augustinian monastery. Among his duties he was a lecturer of philosophy in the order's school. He had also been ordained a priest in the spring of 1507. His main tasks as a monk were praying and participating in worship services, and additionally as a priest they were celebrating mass and hearing confessions (Ibid.: 63-76). As a novitiate he had been taught by the novice master how to bow, genuflect, and prostrate himself, and the proper comportment of every behavior, including how to control facial expressions. It was a minor sin to laugh, or cause another to laugh. As repentance for such a light sin one or more Psalms had to be prayed. Luther knew the Psalter by heart.  After his probationary year he put on the monk's cowl (worn even at night while sleeping) and settled in to a life of prayer, the canonical hours beginning in the middle of each night with matins.  In the afternoon nones and vespers were sung. Singing was permitted in the order, follow St. Augustine, 'so that the weaker minds might be put in a more devotional mood' (Burke 1961:139). Luther took worship extremely seriously, but what was missing for him was the certainty of heart: he was uncertain as to whether his prayers had been done correctly and thus appeased the angry God and merited salvation. He fasted intensively, often three days at a time, not just on Fridays, attempting to gain merit before God, repulse sin, and gain grace and heaven. [Fasting for three days and praying the Psalms was the penance for a serious sin such as lying.]  He made this practice a part of him. In addition he was obsessive in self-examination for sin and the practice of confession, formal and private. "I once confessed for six hours," he said, and a priest acting as his confessor at least on one occasion put an end to one of his excessive confessions. And later Luther also related that Johann von Staupitz, the Vicar General of the Augustinian Order in Germany, had labelled Luther's confessed sins as weak excuses and play sins. But Luther thought of himself as an extraordinary holy monk and at times in his first years in the monastery he experienced inner peace, only to have his innermost doubts return.

            Following Luther's ordination to the priesthood his uncertainties about his worthiness grew worse (Brecht 1985: 70-76). During his time the chief task of a priest was celebrating mass. In the mass Christ was bodily present, as Judge and Savior. The question for Luther was whether he had confessed all of his sins and therefore meet Him purely. Was he worthy? He had nocturnal emissions, occasionally, after which no mass could be said. Rules such as these were easy to follow. But the further concern for Luther was not just unworthiness but whether he could conduct himself without error both in the words and the gestures of Holy performance. At his first celebration of mass as a new priest a great fear came upon him and he faltered. Normally this was a festive occasion. His family was there. He faltered and wanted to run away from the altar. He told this to the superior who was assisting him on that first occasion, and he was ordered to continue. It was as if Luther did not believe that Christ's promises applied to him. He did not accept the assurance of forgiveness, perhaps related to the unforgiving treatment he received from his father, Hans. In any case, Luther now approached the altar with anxiety and fear. Moreover, his self-doubt and anxiety over Christ the Judge increased. Even though he repeatedly prepared himself by confession and prayers, a priest might have to be summoned during his celebration of the mass, to hear his confession once again. These problems, he later learned, were not unique to him. Although his symptoms were rather extreme, they were more widespread. This mental disorder is still known to us today as scrupulosity. In the OED the term scrupulousness is as first seen in 1526 in Pylgrimage of Perfection by the English priest William Bonde, who lists it as one of the spiritual diseases.fn1  Now-a-days scrupulosity is sometimes treated psychiatrically as an obsessive compulsive disorder.   


Medieval Symbolism.  Another aspect of this medieval syndrome is the iconography of Christ, the gothic concept of Christ the Judge, and the Crusader ideology of Holy War to avenge the Crucified One, wherein the insignia of the iconoclastic Cross becomes a sign of wrath. And by a logical inversion based on Medieval Christian epistemology (see Throop 2011), the sign of the crucifixion becomes the sign of the rejection by infidels of the Passion of Jesus, Christ's Resurrection, and Christian Salvation. It would appear that for many Western Christians, love of God begat hatred of unbelievers, whether Jews, Muslims, heretics, pagans, or for that matter Greek Christians at the Latin Christian Crusader plunder of Constantinople. Understanding Luther and the mentality of his times requires some background in the iconography of Christ as manifold Holy signage.

            From the age of Constantine (, d.337 CE) and Augustine of Hippo (b.354, d.430 CE) the facial image of Christ is stern, if not miserable, in countenance.  At ca.500 CE in the Archbishop's Chapel (now dedicated to St Andrew), in Ravenna (northeast Italy), Christ is represented as a beardless young man in military dress (the chlamys), an Emperor with victory iconography (a lion and a serpent underfoot) and a book open to John 14:6 (Figure CB).       


Figure CB. Christ Treading the Beasts, ca.500CE. Chapel of Saint Andrew, Ravenna (Italy). Photo by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro: Wikimedia Commons.


                The later more stereotyped image of the bearded Christ with long brown hair retains the ideal of the stern visage, and the Roman imperial imagery, in both Latin and Byzantine church iconography. Examples include the following.                 

                From ca.1080: Christ Pantocrater (Ruler of All, Lord of the Universe) Judge of humanity, wearing the imperial purple robe, watching over His realm from the crown of the church dome in the Daphni Monastery, Greece (Figure CP1 and Figure CP2).         


               Figure CP1. Christ Pantocrater, ca.1080. Daphni Monastery, near Athens (Greece). Photo                          from



Figure CP2. Christ Pantocrater, ca.1080, Up Close. Daphni Monastery, near Athens (Greece). Photo from Diez and Demus (1931).


                From ca.1123: Christ in Majesty, severe and all-powerful Christ of the Day of Judgement. Central apse of St. Climent de Taull, Catalonia, Spain (Figure CM).


Figure CM. Christ in Majesty, ca.1123. Church of St. Climent de Taull, Catalonia (Spain). Photo MNAC: Wikimedia Commons.


              From ca.1270: Christ in Majesty with a softer vision of Christ's somber facial image at the Last Judgement, gesturing sinners with His left hand to Hell and with His right hand to Heaven. Attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo. Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Italy (Figure CMS).


   Figure CMS. Christ in Majesty, ca.1270. Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence (Italy). Photo by Geobia: Wikimedia Commons; also see                     


                From ca.1310: Christ as Judge of the World, the 'Universal Judge'. St Mary's Church, Wittenberg, Germany. Stone relief once located on the northern outside wall of the city's parish church, now in the sacristy (Figure CJW).  Mann (1982) notes, in his caption to this illustration, that "Because of its terrible severity, Luther could not bear to look at this image and hurried past it shielding his eyes with his hand, as he recalls in his Table Talk."fn2                                  Is this Christ Ultor?



 Figure CJW.  Christ as Judge of the World, ca.1310. St Mary's Church, Wittenberg (Germany). Photo by Helmuth Nils Loose, in Manns (1982).   Brecht (1985:77) adds the note that two swords are protruding from His mouth.                                             


            In the Biblical tradition of God the Father, and like the Roman military leader and the Caesars, Christ is to be both feared and loved. The part that was apparently the problem for Luther was the love.

            The other (still universally with us) major part of Christian iconography is that of the Crucifixion. Taking the Cross, sewing the unadorned cross to one's clothes was a graphic part of the crusading vow from the First Crusade onwards. It symbolized the wrath of the warrior righting the injustice of the injuries done to the Body of Christ. Here one of the major crusading themes is that of vengeance. Throop's (2011) research on this is the most detailed and revealing. Part of this is very briefly reviewed in the appendix Papal Power and the German Holy Roman Emperor.

            An aspect of the crucifix representing the crucifixion as the sign-of-signs that has been overlooked is also developed briefly by Throop (2011:107) in her acknowledgement of the increased attention given to the crucifixion in devotional practices during the twelfth century. This sign-of-signs is implicitly developed in crusader ideology by inverting the signification of the Cross to a complimentary symbolization of the unholy malevolence of non-Christians: the crucifixion of Christ becomes, in the company of Holy Wrath, the physical embodiment of the crime of infidel disbelief.  And as such, this duplex view of the crucifixion/crucifix symbolizes the threat posed to Christendom by the various communities of nonbelievers in both Europe and the Middle East.

            There is another aspect to the medieval depiction of the Crucifixion that is relevant here. It changes in apparent accommodation to the deteriorating crusading circumstances of the times. To understand these changes in iconography we need to recall this aspect of the medieval Age of Anxiety, in very brief summary. After the initial successes of the Holy Land First Crusade (1099 CE), within 50 years the most northern of the newly conquered Levantine crusader territories, Edessa (NE Turkey/N Syria) falls to the Turks (1144 CE). Jerusalem is lost one hundred years later (1244 CE). And from 1244-to-1291CE Christian holy warriors suffer defeats and dreams for Christian conquest shattered, in the Levant and Egypt. The Ottomans then conquer the Christian Balkans in the 1300s, the remainder of the Byzantine Empire in the 1400s, and much of eastern Europe by 1526 CE (while, for contrast, the Spanish are conquering the Aztecs in Mexico, enriching Spain immeasurably).   

            Christian Crusader loss of Jerusalem and the Holy Land is reflected in a deteriorating European cultural self-imagery seen cryptically in the iconography of the crucifixion. Richard Stracke's (13Feb'18) historical review of this iconography is revealing (seeThe Crucifixion In Art/Christian Iconography: During the High Medieval through Gothic period there is a growing emphasis in Western Europe on the imagery of pathos and suffering. Jesus Christ is not dead, at peace on the Cross. Instead, as seen in earlier Byzantine iconography (even the Byzantine influenced German Gero Cross of the late 10th Century), in the later 1200s of Western Europe, continuing on into the early 1500s, peaking in the 1400s in Germany, the imagery is of Christ with a vulnerable, weak, body-build (esp. skinny outstretched arms), head and body sagging, blood flowing as a fountain from the vulvar-like open wound in His side, while there is grief, not solemnity, in the righteous onlookers (notably Mary). Later, in the Italian Renaissance this imagery sometimes becomes one of a muscular Christ upright on the Cross once again.fn3  But then we have Mary fainting away in the crowd below, popular for a few years in the new fashion of 'realism'. But before this, in the High Medieval through Gothic period we see Christ as the perfect victim, created by His Father to suffer and die as a man sacrificed alongside criminals on the cross, for the redemption of humankind. There is a certain transcendent majesty to some of this art, but as Protestantism adopts the iconoclastic crucifix style of the plain cross in the face of Islamic accusations of idolatry and polytheism, the more gruesome motivation for the medieval imagery is lost in much of Western Europe.

            There is a parallel imagery to the crucifixion in the Man of Sorrows. Developed out of the Lamentation and Entombment-of-Christ imageries in the 10th and 11th Centuries, the Man-of-Sorrows images vividly show the wounds of the Crucifixion on Christ's partially naked body ( As devotional images, in pictures, sculptures, and manuscripts, they were apparently intended for mystical contemplation/meditation, not theological dialectics. Especially popular in the later Middle Ages of northern Europe, in paintings by the Dutch and Germans, Christ's eyes are usually open, often looking at the viewer.  


Figure MSChrist as Man of Sorrows, ca.1465-1470. German hand-colored woodcut. Originally, inside face of a wooden book-cover. (Woodcut in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago). Wikimedia Commons.


           The symbolisms and imagery we have briefly reviewed here were a prominent part of the Christian religious world that Luther was born into. He had an imagination that was a byproduct of that medieval Age of Anxiety, as well as the reformations of the renaissance.





Luther In His Maturity

            In 1525, as an elder, four years after his excommunication, two years after laying aside his friar's habit, in the year that he marries Katherina von Bora, a former nun, Luther writes Bondage of the Will.

Winter (1961) notes that Luther repeatedly described his 1525 De Servo Arbitrio as one of the two best expressions of his thought. The other was his 1529 Catechism

 De Servo Arbitrio (The Enslaved Will) was a diatribe against Desiderius Erasmus's De Libero Arbitrio, which was an argument against Luther's teaching of the doctrine of predestination. Setting aside Luther's widely shared penchant for allegory, we get a feel for his German 'new' Christian style of exposition in Winter's translation of The Bondage of the Will.  For example

Since God moves and works all in all, He necessarily moves and works even in Satan and wicked man. But He works according to what they are and what He finds them to be, i.e., since they are perverted and evil, being carried along by that motion of Divine Omnipotence, they cannot but do what is perverse and evil…

Here you see then that when God works in and by evil man, evil deeds result. Yet God cannot do evil Himself, for He is good. He uses evil instruments, which cannot escape the sway and motion of His Omnipotence. The fault which accounts for evil being done when God moves to action lies in these instruments which God does not allow to lie idle…  Hence it is that the wicked man cannot but always err and sin, because under the impulse of Divine Power he is not permitted to remain motionless, but must will, desire and act according to his nature… [Luther 1525, translation by Winter 1966:130.]


Here we see, among other things, examples of Luther's Erfurt training in disputation (Brecht 1985), and the pagan Roman derisive rhetorical style that Augustine so effectively brought into imperial Christianity (Burke 1961).

He also appears to show a foundness for Isaiah 45:7;  "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and I create evil: I the Lord do all these things."  


But Luther's German crusader-preaching style is the more remarkable.  From an earlier passage we have  

          You say: Who will endeavour to reform his life?  I answer: Nobody!  No man can!  God has no time               for your self-reformers, for they are hypocrites. The elect who fear God will be reformed by the                     Holy Spirit. The rest will perish unreformed.  [Luther 1525, translation by Winter 1966:110.]




BRECHT, M., 1985. Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521. Translated by J.L. Schaaf. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

BURKE, K., 1961. The Rhetoric of Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.

DIEZ, E. and O. DEMUS. 1931. Byzantine Mosaics in Greece. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

EDSON, Evelyn, and Emilie SAVAGE-SMITH. 2004. Medieval views of the cosmos. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

GARIN, E., 1965. Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance. Translated from the Italian revised edition by Peter Munz. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

GARIN, E., 1969. Science and Civic Life in the Italian Renaissance. Translated from the Italian by Peter Munz. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books Doubleday & Company.

HARRISON, P., 1998. The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

KRAYE, J., 2002. Ficino in the Firing Line: A Renaissance Neoplatonist and His Critics. In: M.J.B. ALLEN and V. REES with M. DAVIES, eds, Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy. Leiden: Brill, pp. 377-397.

KRISTELLER, P.O., 1972. Renaissance Concepts of Man and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row.

LEWIS, C.S., 1964. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

LUTHER, M. 1525. De Servo Arbitrio (The Enslaved Will). Translated and edited by E.F. WINTER, 1961, in Erasmus-Luther Discourse on Free Will. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing.

MANNS, P. 1982. Martin Luther: An Illustrated History. Translated from the German by Michael Shaw. New York: Crossroad.

MARTY, M., 2004. Martin Luther. New York: Viking Penguin.

SHAW, G., 1995. Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. University Park, PA.: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

SHERRARD, P., 1998. Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

STRIPLING, J., 2015. At Home on the Range, Liberty U.'s President Talks Guns and God .The Chronicle of Higher Education: 17 December 2015 online. 



You are here