This richly illustrated pamphlet was produced by Martin Luther (1483–1546), the German religious reformer. It aimed to teach ordinary people about the life of Christ and turn them against the Catholic clergy. With its striking images and simple German text, it reflects the Protestant idea that the common people should have direct access to the word of God in their own spoken language, without relying on priests to translate and explain the Latin Bible.
There are 13 pairs of woodcuts by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), which contrast Jesus’s holy life with the corrupt life of the Pope, as the Lutherans saw it. The provocative images depict the pope as the anti-Christ – a devilish opponent of Jesus – indulging his selfish desires for power, pleasure and wealth. For example, in one pair of images Christ preaches to the common people, while the Pope eats a lavish banquet (sig. B3v–B4r). In another, Christ goes up to Heaven in a host of angels, and the Pope descends to hell (sig. D1v–D2r).
Who was Martin Luther?
In 1517, Martin Luther, a professor of theology at Wittenberg, nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the university church. He was protesting against the Catholic sale of indulgences (licences that were said to grant sinners freedom from God’s punishment, in exchange for money). This marked the start of the Protestant movement for reform of the Catholic Church, known as the Reformation.
As a result, Luther was excommunicated (or excluded) from the Church by Pope Leo X. The English king, Henry VIII, broke with Rome in 1534, when the Pope refused to annul his marriage. Henry VIII then declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
The Pope and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
In Marlowe’s play, Faustus is linked to Luther by the fact that he studies divinity in Wittenberg. Having made his pact with the Devil, the doctor then uses his magic to mock and abuse the Pope, as Cranach does in his woodcuts. Faustus disrupts a sumptuous feast at the papal court in Rome, snatching a ‘dainty dish’ from under the Pope’s nose, before boxing his ears.
Marlowe’s attitude to Faustus here is difficult to pin down. Should the Protestant audience in Elizabethan England relish Faustus’s bold treatment of the corrupt, greedy Pope? Or should they see it as part of the superhuman arrogance that leads to Faustus’s damnation?