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  • Jeffrey Goodman

The Unhappy Poet and the Reformation

Reformation Day 2021 has come and gone. Leading up to the commemoration I wanted to share a new insight into the Reformation I recently learned from reading Steven Ozment’s book entitled, The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the Making of the Reformation.



I learned of this book while preparing for our latest Bible study at Salem (The Beautiful Faith) while reading Mark Mattes’ wonderful book entitled Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty. I recommend both books.


Ozment intertwines Lucas Cranch’s biography, the most well-known artist of the Reformation, with Martin Luther, the slightly younger Augustinian Friar and University professor. Prior to reading this book I had a limited knowledge of Cranach and his work in the Reformation and beyond. Back in 2016 I had even visited Cranch’s home in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany, though I knew little of him beyond the Reformation. Ozment by looking at the Reformation through the lens of Cranach has found as far as I can tell, a unique perspective on the events of the Reformation and Luther. I wanted to share with you a new insight I leaned from Ozment’s book.


The first insight (another one is on the way when I have time to post it!) is Lucas Cranch’s early concerns about the nature of relics and their use in the Roman Church. On 8 April 1510, a full seven years before Luther posted his 95 Theses Pope Julius II endowed Prince Elector Frederick the Wise’s (who would years later protect Luther) collection of relics with an indulgence. As Ozement writes, “Penitent sinners who venerated those relics by invoking St. Mary and St. Anne to save their own and the Saxon Elector’s soul were promised relief from punishment in the afterlife.”[1] Lucas Cranach as Frederick’s court painter was charged with teaming with court poet Sibutus to create a guide to the relics located in the Castle Church (known as All Saints) in Wittenberg (the scene of the famous nailing to the doors by Luther). Cranach’s job was to create woodcut pictures for the guide and Sibutus was charged with providing poetic commentary for each image.


On the last page of the relic guide Cranach adds a portrait of Sibutus.



It shows Sibutus full of melancholy and disappointment, which would have been a strange portrait to conclude the guide for such a supposed joyous occasion. Ozment and others, as he points out, believe that this image of Sibutus was an expression of Cranach’s unhappiness “not only with the mercenary religious practices of the age, but also with the social-moral-spiritual tenor of the times...That such an image concluded the Sampler(relic guide book) cannot be accidental.”[2]


Ozment sees this image as an early protest to the entire relic-indulgence trade. Of course, some seven years later Luther would step into the fray and things were never the same again.


I found this to be a fascinating, though admittedly obscure, early picture into the discontent brewing around the religious practices of the church in that day. Of course, with the commemoration of Reformation Day just a couple of days ago, we know as that old radio announcer used to say, “the rest of the story.”

[1] Steven Ozment, The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the Making of the Reformation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 81. [2] Ozment, 82.

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