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Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic and Outlaw

Luther the Outlaw

Declared a heretic by the church, the Holy Roman Empire now tried Luther as an outlaw. At the Imperial Diet of Worms, convened in April 1521, Luther held fast to his views. Despite some sympathy for Luther's cause among the assembled nobles, Emperor Charles V had little choice but to condemn him as an outlaw of the empire in the so-called Edict of Worms. Now an enemy of both church and state, Luther could be apprehended or even killed on sight. In a staged kidnapping Luther's supporters spirited him away to Wartburg Castle in disguise and under an assumed name. At the Wartburg Luther later wrote a German translation of the Bible that would profoundly influence the development of the German language. Meanwhile he maintained his busy writing schedule in defiance of the bans against him while his allies in the print industry continued to spread his views.

"Here I Stand"

Luther's appearance at the Imperial Diet of Worms was a media sensation. He had already attracted crowds during his two-week journey there from Wittenberg, preaching to massive congregations in defiance of the papal bull. In Worms, the assembly hall was overflowing, supporters and opponents of Luther clashed in the streets, and reports on the proceedings were quickly rushed to the presses and spread throughout Germany. Standing before the emperor and surrounded by the glittering elite of the Holy Roman Empire, the monk from Wittenberg was confronted with stacks of his writings and ordered to retract them. Instead, Luther renewed the themes of individual liberty and personal faith in his earlier work: "I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is dangerous and a threat to salvation to act against one's conscience." Luther's defiant stand at Worms, with its subtext of popular will raising its voice against authority, accounts perhaps more than any event for the heroic mythology that would later surround him. Generations of Protestants the world over have summarized Luther's declaration of independence at Worms with a vow true to his spirit if not his exact words: "Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen."

Print showing Luther at the Diet of Worms, standing at left amid a large group of nobles and clergy, Emperor Charles V enthroned at right
Wilhem Baron von Löwenstern,Luther auf dem Reichstag zu Worms 1521 (Luther at the Diet of Worms). Stuttgart, 1830. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Primacy of Faith

After his escape to the Wartburg Luther continued to issue a flurry of writings. The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows became a bestseller. Luther draws on the themes of On the Freedom of a Christian to argue that vows conflict with the word of God as spoken through His commandments. In a preface dedicated to his father, Hans, he concedes the elder Luther was correct in opposing his son's taking of vows. Reflecting on his own path toward God, Luther argues that it lies not in vows but in faith alone.

Title page in Fraktur with architectural woodcut border
Martin Luther, Von dem geystlichen und kloster gelubten Martini Luthers urteyll (The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows). Wittenberg: Nickel Schirlentz, 1522. Martin Luther Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Christ and Antichrist

In this magnificent example of woodcut illustration and early printing, Luther has chosen quotations from the Gospels and canon law to contrast the life of Christ with the corruption and luxury of the "Antichrist" pope and his curia. This contrast is graphically depicted in thirteen pairs of woodcuts by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a major artist of the Northern Renaissance and adherent of Luther. The pair displayed here shows Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple, while on the right the pope sells indulgences. Cranach and other prominent artists produced many portraits of Luther that made his likeness among the most famous in Europe.

Image of book opened to reveal a woodcut on facing pages, with title and text in Fraktur
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Passional Christi und Antichristi (Passion of Christ and the Antichrist). Wittenberg: Johann Rhau Grunenberg, 1521. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Wittenberg Nightingale

This poem's title and its woodcut frontispiece depict Luther's growing fame: The Wittenberg Nightingale Now Heard Everywhere. The Nuremberg shoemaker and printer Hans Sachs was one of many artists who contributed to this phenomenon. (Richard Wagner would immortalize him 350 years later as the protagonist of his music drama Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.) Sachs' poem shows Luther's fame in the eyes of his contemporaries and the mass appeal of his reformism in Germany and beyond.

Title page showing large woodcut of bird singing in a tree surrounded by many kinds of animals below
Hans Sachs, Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall Die man yetz höret überall (The Wittenberg Nightingale Now Heard Everywhere). Augsburg: Philipp Ulhart d.Ä., 1523. Martin Luther Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Sachs' poem also foreshadows how future generations would look back on Luther, especially on those early years of the Reformation between the posting of the Ninety-five Theses and the Edict of Worms. The priest and professor from Wittenberg shook the mighty Catholic Church—at first unintentionally, even accidentally, but then with implacable purpose. He not only sparked the Reformation, but also hastened the end of Medieval Europe and the beginning of the Modern Age, in which individual rights, backed by the medium of print, would be heard everywhere as they challenged the ancient powers of church and state.