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MIA exhibit offers unique look at artifacts from Luther's life

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Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation
"Martin Luther," 1528 by Lucas Cranch the Elder, c Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt.
Courtesy of MIA

A unique show on the life and times of Protestant reformer Martin Luther opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Art this weekend. The exhibition "Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation" displays artifacts from Luther's personal life, as well as art, books and religious items.

    The show will only be displayed in Minnesota, and only through Jan. 15.

    Many of us know the story of how Luther reshaped Christianity by nailing his 95 Theses to a church door in Germany in 1517. Luther wanted to challenge the sale of indulgences, which supposedly guaranteed quicker access to heaven.

    "Luther didn't intend for this to be a revolutionary act, but it turned out to be one," said the MIA's Tom Rassieur. "And he wound up surfing the wave and changing Europe as he did this."

    Rassieur is a collaborating curator on the Luther show, which is in Minnesota because of some very special circumstances. Next year is the 500th anniversary of the posting of Luther's theses. German cultural institutions are getting ready to mark the occasion, Rassieur said.

    "So while they are painting and re-arranging, the art in their care is available while their galleries are closed," he explained. "So for a very short time the art is free to travel."

    Rassieur said the Luther exhibit looks at an extraordinary life, lived in difficult times. It also examines Luther from multiple perspectives.

    "Luther's activity in the Reformation was a complicated story. And there were a lot of people hurt by it, and Luther was not always polite to his opponents," he said.  

  The show is filled with extraordinary things. "In each room there is something pretty spectacular," Rassieur said.

    There are items excavated from around Luther's childhood home, including remnants of clothing burned in an apparent attempt to ward off the plague. In one corner there is an eerie quilted hood worn by doctors treating plague victims.

    "You'd tie it tightly around your neck, and there is a big long nose like an oversized carrot," said Rassieur. "And in this you'd put herbal medicines, things to try to stave off the miasma, to keep you from getting the plague."

    Luther lost two brothers to the sickness. Death was all around, but so was the Catholic Church with its offer of salvation. The church had a powerful impact on ordinary people struggling to survive in a bleak and dangerous world.

    "As you walked into a church, it was like the gates of heaven opened to you and you could see all the beauty of the religious artwork," said Rassieur. Examples of that beauty are on display, including altars, religious objects and sumptuous clothing, such as the pilgrimage robe worn by Emperor Maximillian the First of the Holy Roman Empire.

St. Mary's altar
St. Mary's altar from the eastern apse of Naumburg Cathedral, c Picture archives of the Combined Cathedral Chapters of Merseburg and Naumburgand, the Diocese of Zeitz.
Matthias Rutkowski | Courtesy of MIA

    But the church was riddled with politics and corruption. Luther proposed his 95 Theses as an attempt to begin an academic debate. But the printing press changed the meaning of that gesture, Rassieur said.

    "Other people realized Luther's ideas were incendiary," he said. "So immediately the 95 Theses were reprinted by entrepreneurs."

Luther pulpit
Martin Luther spoke from this pulpit later in his life, and preached his final sermon from it three days before he died. It has now become an object of pilgrimage. It is one of the treasured items in the Luther exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which has restored the wooden structure.
Courtesy of MIA

    Among the wealth of books, letters and other documents in the show is a copy of the Theses printed in Basel, Switzerland, just three months after Luther posted them.  

  There are handwritten letters by Luther and even some of his furniture, including a table where he gathered students for table talks on theological issues.  

  It's a humble piece, but people make pilgrimages to see it in Germany. This is also true of another artifact: a large wooden pulpit.

    "This has long been known as the Luther pulpit, especially because he delivered his last sermons here," said Rassieur. "At the very end he said, 'I think I'll stop here.' He left the pulpit, he went across the street and he died three days later."  

  Conservators from MIA restored the pulpit as part of the exhibition agreement.

    The show continues with the way Luther's ideas spread, and also the response from church traditionalists. The displays include scurrilous cartoons drawn by Luther's followers with crude depictions of priests and the pope.

    "It shows the Catholic side going to hell and the Protestant side going to heaven," Rassieur said. "And of course we have other works of art in the show which argue from the other side. Showing Luther sprouting heretics, or Luther as a seven-headed monster, this kind of thing. Because both sides used art as a weapon."

      The show has real weapons as well, used in the religious wars in the decades that followed.

    The exhibit also includes some of Luther's written denunciations of Jews and Muslims. Rassieur said they make for uncomfortable reading, particularly as the anti-Semitic texts were later used by the Nazis.

    Rassieur said he hopes when the Luther show opens Sunday it will give people a clearer understanding of a complicated character who altered the course of history — how "one person stood up, expressed a viewpoint, defended it, and changed the world," Rassieur said.  

  Or, he said, how someone who wanted to eliminate the idea of saints and angels became a saint himself.