Part 3 – Martin Luther Dragon Slayer
Above: Martin Luther Dragon Slayer
1929 British postage stamp adaptation (2017) by Michelle L Hofer
Martin Luther Dragon Slayer?
You can see I had a little Photoshop fun turning an old British Postage stamp into a Martin Luther poster. This was inspired by a bit of information I gained while attending the Martin Luther: Treasures of the Reformation exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in early 2017. I’d had this show on my wish list all fall and we finally got some tickets at the very last minute to see the exhibit on its very last weekend in January. Boy was I glad we did, it turned out to be for me one of the best art shows of all time. I think every single artifact connected to Luther had been imported from Germany for this show (maybe not, but close to it). It was incredible. It was also packed to the gills with other show goers. About midway through the exhibit were 3 small etchings – one by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, one by Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther’s artist friend and a third by Heinrich Göding the Elder.
Now there is something that I should mention about myself: I love a good metaphor. Much in art is about metaphor – artists paint, draw, sculpt as a way to communicate.
Artwork can be a representation of…an idea…an event…a feeling…a person…a belief…a truth…a lie.
The wonder of art is the ability for the art piece to convey multiple messages at once (even unique and personal messages to each individual who views it), and in this way, it can push far beyond what mere words can communicate. A picture is worth a thousand words? Absolutely! For me those three etchings were the most intriguing pieces in the whole Martin Luther show, because they all three had metaphorical stories to tell. All three connect to what I now find to be a critical period of time in regards to the Protestant Reformation in the life of Martin Luther.
Saint George and the Dragon
There is an historical figure known as Saint George who lived at the end of the second century. He was a martyr and wonder-worker. A soldier of the Roman army, George is said to have boldly proclaimed his faith upon hearing a royal decree to further persecute Christians. Having distributed his wealth to the poor and freed his servants in anticipation of his own death, George stood bravely and professed before the Emperor and the Roman Senate:
“I am a servant of Christ, my God, and trusting in Him, I have come among you voluntarily, to bear witness concerning the Truth.” – George, soldier of the Roman army
Unable to persuade this accomplished soldier, Emperor Diocletian who had great respect and love for George, ordered he be taken out and tortured until he retracted his statement. Enduring one torture method after another including having chunks of flesh ripped from his body, George continued to survive, his wounds being healed in the power of God. During his prison stays, people in need of healing came to George and received restoration. The drama (which is said to have brought about the conversion of numerous individuals including Empress Alexandra) escalated until George was finally beheaded on April 23, AD 303.
I have yet to discover a modern Protestant collection of the saints stories, but I often make my way to the Orthodox Church of America’s Lives of the Saints directory. You can read a fuller account of George’s story here>
In the art world, George is a well-known and beloved figure to this day. But it is the “legend of Saint George” artists have continually chosen to bring to life. An event with little historical documentation, the legend says that George rose from the dead to deliver the people of his native city, modern-day Beruit, from a dragon who had been terrorizing them. To keep the dragon at bay, the ruler declared that each day a child would be sacrificed after being chosen by drawing lots. On the day the ruler’s own daughter had been selected, as she stood weeping on the shore of the lake were the monster resided, valiant George, riding a gorgeous white steed rushed in and gave the dragon a crushing blow, piercing it with his spear and trampling it with his horse. The many grand and dramatic depictions of a powerful soldier upon a majestic stallion slaying a hideous devilish beast will perhaps forever inspire artists, including myself.
This image is symbolic of George’s stand before the Roman Senate – the dragon.Though he was martyred, his miraculous survival of the most brutal tortures was a victory for God and many came to the faith.
But wait! There’s more! <said with full-on infomercial corniness> This image is also symbolic of John’s vision of Christ in Revelation 19 riding upon a white horse into battle against the beast:
“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war…” – Revelation 19:11
Martin Luther Dragon Slayer
Saint George and the Dragon – here was an image Martin Luther could relate to!
On April 16, 1521 Martin Luther rolled into the city of Worms to make his case before the emperor, Charles V. Trumpets blasted, crowds cheered. Eric Metaxas* compares the event to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. Having risen to celebrity status (thanks to widespread distribution of his writings), Martin Luther in his challenging of the Church (and Empire), had started a movement. A movement many people were now getting behind. Here was a man denouncing the injustices, the schemes, the abuses inflicted on the innocent by the Church’s egocentric leaders and their minions. And like Christ entering the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Luther envisioned these as his last days. He anticipated his own death. Not forgetting our metaphor, this too would be his Saint George moment with that same old dragon – the Holy Roman Empire.
The trial commenced with both Empire and Church officials in attendance. Luther was ushered into the chamber and told were to stand. A table piled high with books, 40 of Luther’s publications, was also in the chamber. He was asked to answer two questions:
- Are all these books written by you? Those attending listened as the titles were painstakingly read one after another in both German and Latin.
- Do you wish to recant anything in these writings? Completely unexpected, Luther chose to ask for some time to think it over. Emperor Charles granted one day’s time and asked Luther to report back with his answer the following day.
On April 18th, Luther ended his eloquent speech with the famous words…
“I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.” – Martin Luther
Luther was ushered out of the chamber by guards everyone assumed would be taking him to a prison cell to await the emperor’s verdict and possibly his execution. Oddly, Luther was released outside to his comrades. What unfolded over the next few days saved Luther’s life. Frederick the Wise (ruler over Wittenberg and Ernestine Saxony, Germany) and Luther’s friends masterminded a plan to kidnap and hide Luther away – a major victory that appeared on the outside to be a devastating loss. The public believed that the Empire had orchestrated Luther’s demise through a vigilante raid on Luther’s caravan and their hero was now dead.
*Eric Metaxas’ recent book, Martin Luther – The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World is a book worthy of your time. I am thoroughly enjoying it and highly recommend it. learn more>
Knight George AKA Martin Luther
Luther now found himself locked away in Wartburg castle, late spring 1521. At first these new circumstances were difficult for Luther – he experienced health issues and was most concerned about what might be going on in Wittenberg in his absence. He dared not even leave his room as no one in the castle save the castle keeper. But once his hair and beard had grown out, he was a bit more free to roam. Incognito he had become Junker Jörge, or Knight George in English.
By the winter of 1521, Luther’s friends including his artist friend, Lucas Cranach the Elder (more on this dynamic-duo in a later post), persuaded Luther to sneak into Wittenberg as things were more and more getting out of hand there. Seems one priest in particular, Andreas von Karlstadt, had taken the reigns of Luther’s movement and was madly racing it towards a cliff (that’s a metaphor of course). Of concern to Cranach (and Luther) was Karlstadt’s new views on images in the Church believing these things are a danger to simple folk and must be destroyed. Hmm…seems Luther may have a new dragon to slay. Luther writes:
“Their prophets stand, crying and arousing the masses, saying: heigh, hew, rig, rend, smash, dash, stab, strike, run, throw, hit the idols in the mouth. If you see a crucifix, spit in its face. This is to do away with images in a Karlstadtian manner, to make the masses mad and foolish, and secretly to accustom them to insurrection.” – Martin Luther*
*p. 20, A Magnificent Faith: Art and Identity in Lutheran Germany (2017) by Bridget Heal
During his short expedition to Wittenberg that December, Cranach was able to capture Luther’s portrait as Junker Jörge which was then printed and circulated in 1522 when Luther emerged from his hiding as evidence that he was indeed alive. The caption below the portrait reads:
“As much as I have been sought and pursued by you, Rome, see that I, Luther, still live through Christ. Jesus is my hope, and has not deceived me. As long as I have this, fare thee well, false Rome.”
It’s as if Saint George, raised from the dead, has galloped into town on his valiant steed. Yes, Luther has returned and shall rescue the people from the jaws of the Roman Dragon!
Being urged to work on a German translation of the New Testament, Luther determined he would return to the solitude of Wartburg Castle and give this task his undivided attention in the months up until Easter of 1522. Luther completed the project in 11 weeks time. (Another dragon slayed by our hero!) Luther was known to have a heart for people, and it was his desire and calling to help them relate to God uninhibited and unshackled by the Church. Thus, his Scripture translation placed God’s Word directly into the hands of the German people.
Cranach had titled his etching, “Portrait of Martin Luther showing how he appeared when he returned from Patmos to Wittenberg, AD 1522.” Cranach draws a parallel between Luther’s accomplishment at Wartburg and the apostle John’s writing of Revelation while exiled on the island of Patmos.
And Göding, a student under Cranach, takes the analogy a step further, showing us a full length image of Luther as Knight George. It’s a commemorative portrait, in it we see the cityscape of Worms where Luther made his stand before the Emperor. His translation of the New Testament lays open and features verses from Matthew, Mark and John. This noble Knight has slayed many a dragon.
I tell you, we have so much to regain from just an educational standpoint when it comes to art and the Christian faith. The glorious beauty of art which portrays a subject like Saint George and the Dragon and can serve as a culmination of multiple saints’ stories (be it real or metaphorical) along with visions of a triumphant Savior who risks everything to call each of us his beloved children. ART does that in amazing, even miraculous ways. I am grateful Martin Luther totally understood this.
Additional Source: The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the Making of the Reformation (2011) by Steven Ozment
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