Short Biographies

Martin Luther

The biography of Martin Luther is the story of a German monk who challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and set off the Protestant Reformation. Luther was born in 1483 in eastern Germany. He was a good student. In 1501, he went to the University of Erfurt, where he earned his bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees in theology.

On a stormy afternoon in 1505, Luther was walking along a road when suddenly a lightning bolt struck nearby. In his terror, he vowed to become a monk and two weeks later joined the Augustinian order. He eventually taught theology at the University of Erfurt and later at the University of Wittenberg, where he earned his doctorate degree in theology.

The sale of indulgences was a major funding source for church activities. An indulgence was a get out of purgatory card that could be obtained by paying the church a certain sum of money. Pope Leo X was selling indulgences and church positions to raise funds for his ambitious building programs and lavish lifestyle. Luther felt pious Christians were being duped.

Luther rejected the doctrine that acts of penance and good works were the keys to heaven. He had also been tormented that all men were hopeless sinners. He later came to believe that Christians could only be saved through their faith in Christ.

Woodcut from Cranach's “The Passionary of Christ and Antichrist (1521)
showing Christ driving the moneychangers from the temple
while the Antichrist Pope sells indulgences.

In 1517, Luther wrote out his objections and nailed his ninety-five theses, or points of discussion, on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. Some local princes were sympathetic to Luther and German resentment against sending money to Rome was on the rise. The Pope was furious.

After a hearing in Leipzig, the Pope sent Luther a notice that he would be excommunicated unless he renounced his heretical views. Luther refused and burned the letter. In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to Worms where he was offered an opportunity to recant his views. Luther replied, Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of popes and councils....” Luther left Worms and shortly thereafter the emperor issued the Edict of Worms, declaring Luther a heretic and ordering his death.

Frederick the Wise of Saxony favored Luther and arranged for him to be sheltered at Wartburg Castle. Luther disguised himself as a nobleman, grew a beard, and called himself Junker Jörg (Knight George). While in seclusion, he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, thereby offering ordinary people the opportunity to read God’s word.

Wartburg Castle

1522 New Testament Title Page

At this time, destructive uprisings were taking place against the church in Wittenberg. Violent groups were smashing church statuary and even dragging priests from altars. The town council begged Luther to return and restore order. In 1522, he did return and established what he saw as proper Christian behavior. Three years later, in 1525, he married Katharina von Bora with whom he would have six children.

Martin Luther spent the rest of his life in Wittenberg as the Protestant Reformation spread rapidly across northern Germany. He continued to write and preach throughout his life. He died in 1546 and was buried in Wittenberg's Castle Church. His grave is still there. (1)

Castle Church Interior
Wittenberg, Germany

Martin Luther
Grave Site

Katharina von Bora

Katharina von Bora was placed in a convent when still a child and became a nun in 1515. In 1523, due to religious turmoil, she and eight other nuns were rescued from the convent and brought to Wittenberg. Within two years, Martin Luther was able to arrange homes, marriages, or employment for all but one of the escaped nuns: Katharina. She let it be known that she would accept Luther in marriage.

Katharina and Martin were married on June 13, 1525. She skillfully managed the Luther household, including raising their six children, breeding and selling cattle, managing the family farm, running a brewery, tending to the steady stream of students who boarded with them, and overseeing the numerous visitors seeking audiences with her husband.

Martin Luther Home
Central Part of Building
Wittenberg, Germany

Entrance Door

After Luther’s death in 1546, Katharina remained in Wittenberg, living much of the rest of her life in poverty. In 1552, an outbreak of the Black Plague forced her to leave the city. She fled to Torgau, where she was seriously injured when her cart was involved in an accident near the city gates. She died three months later at the age of fifty-three and was buried in Torgau’s St. Mary's Church. (2)

Katharina von Bora Grave Marker
St. Mary's Church
Torgau, Germany

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lucas Cranach was born Lucas Maler in 1472 but took his formal name from his birth town, Kronach. Around 1501, he traveled to Vienna, where he stayed until at least 1504. Although the exact date of his appointment is unknown, he was court painter at the Wittenberg court of Frederick the Wise of Saxony by 1505. He remained in this position for forty-five years.

Cranach headed a large workshop in Wittenberg. His early works are often signed with the monogram “LC.” In 1508, Frederick the Wise granted him a coat of arms depicting a winged serpent holding a ring in its mouth. Cranach began using this image as his pictorial signature.

Cranach 1506 Signature
"St. Michael" Woodcut
The Museum of Fine Arts
Houston, Texas

Cranach 1514 Signature
"Duchess Katharina of Mecklenburg"
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen
Dresden, Germany

Cranach is probably the artist most closely associated with the Protestant Reformation. He was a close friend of Martin Luther and produced numerous portraits of Luther and his wife, Katharina. His relationship with the couple went far beyond professional interests for he was a witness to their marriage and godfather of their first son.

In 1521, Cranach became the leading pictorial propagandist for the Protestant cause when he imaged the pope as the Antichrist in a set of twenty-six woodcuts titled The Passionary of Christ and Antichrist. The following year he illustrated Luther’s German translation of the New Testament.

Woodcut from Cranach's “The Passionary of Christ and Antichrist (1521)
in which Christ humbly washes his disciples' feet
while the Antichrist Pope allows his foot to be kissed.

The range of subject matter in Cranach's paintings is wide. In addition to religious works, he produced a variety of mythological and secular subjects, probably intended for humanist or courtly patrons. Numerous documents testify to Cranach's industry and prosperity. As one of the leading citizens of Wittenberg, he owned several houses, an apothecary, a publishing firm that specialized in Reformation literature, and on several occasions served on the city council and as buergermeister.

During the 1530s, Cranach’s sons, Hans and Lucas, were active members within his workshop that often employed ten or more assistants. They were both capable artists and painted in the “family style,” even using their father’s signature well after his death. This situation confuses definitive attributions today and is further complicated by the fact that several paintings exist in more than one version. Over one thousand paintings are either attributed to Cranach or his workshop. Lucas Cranach died in 1553 and was buried in Weimar, Germany. (3)

Signature examples from Cranach's
studio after his death in 1553.

Page 3--Examination

Index Page,   Page 1--Introduction,   Page 2--Short Biographies,   Page 3--Examination,   Page 4--Treatment,
Page 5--The Hunt,   Page 6--The Inscriptions,   Page 7--The Rose,   Page 8--Final Thoughts,
Page 9--Endnotes


1. Biographical information and get out of purgatory card phrase from Bainton, R. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Peabody, Massachusetts. 2009. First printing 1950, and first accessed 6/12/14. The material was rewritten or drawn without quotes.

2. Biographical information from Bainton, R. pp.291-311, accessed 3/14/14, and accessed 6/12/14.

3. Biographical information from National Gallery of Art accessed 6/12/14, accessed 6/12/14 and the Cranach Digital Archive first accessed 4/9/14.



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