In the beginning was the word and the image

Cultural highlights of the year 2017

by Urs Knoblauch, cultural publisher, Fruthwilen TG

Not only in Saxony, but also in other states, Martin Luther (1483–1546) was honored 500 years after the Reformation under the motto “In the Beginning was the Word”. Luther and the Reformation were also an important topic at this year‘s traditional “Leipzig Book Fair”, with a record high number of 285,000 visitors and 2,493 exhibitors from 43 countries.
Numerous listeners, for example, were able to witness an impressive tribute to Luther and book presentation of the well-known theologian Friedrich Schorlemmer, who also worked as a lecturer in the Protestant preacher‘s seminar and preacher at the castle church in Wittenberg. The fact that Schorlemmer gave great importance to the cause of peace and also appreciated the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam in his book “Luther – Leben und Wirkung” (Luther, Life and Impact, Berlin, 2017) is particularly gratifying.
Only looking at the publishing house C. H. Beck, there are numerous new publications on the Reformation. The richly illustrated volume “Erlöste und Verdamm­te: Eine Geschichte der Reformation (Redeemed and Damned – A History of the Reformation)” by Thomas Kaufmann, is very readable. The works on Luther‘s companion Melanchthon and on Thomas­ Müntzer, as well as the book edited by the (Catholic) law professor Udo Di Fabio and Johannes Schilling, professor of church history, “Weltwirkung der Reformation. Wie der Protestantismus unsere Welt verändert hat (The Global Impact of the Reformation. How Protestantism has changed our world)”, offer a lot of interesting and stimulating material for the 2017 Reformation Jubilee.

Lucas Cranach The Elder, Retabel before 1539, detail, painting in St. Wolfgangskirche in Schneeberg/Erzgebirge. The dove with the olive branche points to peace and thus to the connecting of all men, religions and cultures.

Johannes Gutenberg’s book printing

The book-making industry, which was decisive for the Reformation, and Johannes Gutenberg (1400–1468) attracted many interested people at the book fair. Various printing presses were in use to demonstrate the process of printing texts and images. Here and there visitors could also be active. The brochure „Gutenberg not only for children“ (Gutenbergmuseum Mainz) gives a vivid introduction into the time of Gutenberg and in the book printing art. At the time, reading and writing was reserved for only a few. Through illustrated leaflets the aims of the Reformation such as the demand for the abolition of the indulgences, were spread among the vast majority of people.
Especially for children, young people and numerous school classes, the encounter with this Enlightenment theme at the book fair was far more constructive than staying in the “Manga-Comic-Con-Hall” with a lot of obscurity, destructiveness and absurdity. The young who are our future, are very responsive to humanity and an ethically sound culture.

Ways to Cranach – great works from the Reformation period

Particularly impressive are the works of the painter and Luther-confidant Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586) and his painting workshop. Cranach was the court painter of the Saxon electors and created great portraits of personalities of that time. Electors and dukes, who remained Catholic like Duke George of Meissen, awarded contracts for paintings both ecclesiastical and secular to Cranach. In a small, beautifully designed brochure “Ways to Cranach. A journey of discovery” contains introductions to all of his works. The introductory section reads: “Let us invite you to a trip on the way to Cranach. Follow the traces of a painter who not only summed up the great themes of his time in important paintings but, as a friend of Luther, was also an important companion of the Reformation and thus part of an epoch-break on the way to modernity.” The reader learns that numerous paintings in Dessau “with the theme of the Virgin Mary are typical of the early Catholic Cranach”. Already in these works the renaturalisation of the holy figures with a clearer realistic characterisation of people and nature, typical of Renaissance art, can be identified.
Alongside Albrecht Dürer (1471– 1528), Cranach the Elder is the outstanding painter of German Renaissance. The paintings in the architecturally impressive church lead the visitors into the historical situation, into the Reformation and into the deep faith, which gave man the necessary support and hope. At thirteen historical sites in Saxony, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Bavaria, the original works of art can be admired in churches and art collections, from Kronach, Cranach’s birthplace, via Coburg, Luther town Wittenberg with numerous sights, Dessau, Rosslau, Torgau, Erfurt, Eisenach, Weimar to Nuremberg. The exhibition “Lucas Cranach the Elder. Meister – Marke – Mo­derne” in the “Kunstpalast” in Düsseldorf shows the artist’s work, in rare completeness, until 30 July.

Cranach’s Reformation altar piece in the church of St. Wolfgang in Schneeberg

It is a cultural blessing that so many masterpieces have been preserved and have not fallen victim to the destructive picture storm and vandalism of the Reformation. In contrast to other reformers and their secular rulers, Martin Luther was opposed to the destruction of paintings and church treasures.
Thus the visit of the church of St. Wolfgang in Schneeberg, in the mining area of the Vogtland, is a special experience. Here you can see Lucas Cranach’s first great Reformation altar piece. It is one of the largest works by the Cranach family and was produced between 1532 and 1539. The altar has a clear pictorial programme that represents important texts of the Bible in the theological context of the new faith. Man is shown in their specific relationship to God, to their fellow beings and to themeselves. St. Wolfgang is one of the great and bright late-Gothic churches in Saxony. It owes itself to the silver mining in the Erzgebirge in the 15th and 16th centuries. During an air raid on 19 April 1945, it was almost completely destroyed. As the only work of art, eleven of the twelve pieces of the Cranach altar were saved. They are now united in the winged altar. The church was rebuilt until 1996 in its original beauty. An admirable achievement of the citizens of the town after the destruction during the war.
Here and there also historical Bible editions are on display, Luther‘s great deed of the bible translation into the German language becomes clear. Everyone should participate in the knowledge of the time, to be able to act responsibly towards themselves, their neighbours and for the common good. The honest word, the careful writing, the constructive texts and pictures are to contribute today to the education and the social bonding of the people. A cultural journey in the footsteps of Cranach and Luther, with a substantive deepening in the cultural and historical events, is well worth a trip.     •