Visual Propaganda during The Reformation

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In our latest blog post, Dunia García-Ontiveros, Head of Bibliographic Services at The London Library gives insight into the religious and political statements made by 16th Century Catholics and Protestants who disseminated their ideas and influence through printed manifestos. Examples are seen in some of the significant, rare volumes housed in The London Library. This blog is adapted from an article in a series commissioned by History Today on the treasures of the Library in 2011. (click on thumbnails for larger images. If using Internet Explorer images may not appear larger – we recommend you try an alternative browser to view in detail.)

Assertio septem sacramentorum aduersus Martin. Lutheru[m]

Contra Henricum regem angliae

Wider das Bapstum zu Rom vom Teuffel gestifft

Lupus excoriatus

Lupus excoriatus

Wider das Bapstum zu Rom vom Teuffel gestifft

The use of images in religious and political propaganda is not a 16th century invention but during the Reformation Catholics and Protestants alike made use of their printing presses to disseminate their ideas and these printed manifestos were sometimes accompanied by striking illustrations. The images aimed either to ennoble the author through heroic associations or to insult and ridicule the author’s opponents through irreverent caricatures.

The London Library holds several books with examples of both Catholic and Lutheran visual propaganda.

An example of Catholic Tudor propaganda can be found in Assertio septem sacramentorum aduersus Martin. Lutheru[m], a book written (or perhaps only commissioned) by Henry VIII and printed in London in 1521 in reply to Martin Luther’s On the Babylonian captivity of the Church. The title page of Henry’s book, where he defends the Seven Sacraments, depicts the legend tof Gaius Mutius ‘Scaevola’. According to legend, Mutius was a Roman hero from the 3rd century BC, who entered the camp of the besieging Etruscan king, Lars Porsenna, in order to murder him. The right-hand side of the illustration shows Mutius mistakenly killing the wrong man. The left depicts the moment when the captured Mutius is interrogated by Porsenna and shows the incompetent assasin placing his right hand in the fire to prove his courage, while telling the Etruscan king that 300 other men have sworn to die in defence of Rome. The legend says that Porsenna, impressed by this show of bravery, decided to abandon his campaign and to release Gaius Mutius who was thereafter known as ‘Scaevola’ (left handed).

Henry’s message to the Pope through this iconography was very clear. He was identifying with this legend to portray himself as an heroic defender of Rome in the hope of gaining favour with the Pontiff at a time when England was a lesser European power. He commissioned a special presentation copy to be given to Leo X who, after reading it, conferred the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ upon the English king.

Martin Luther’s reaction to this book was quite different to that of the Pope and the very next year he printed a reply in Wittenberg under the title Contra Henricum regem angliae, where he refers to Henry as a comic jester, a frivolous buffoon, a damnable and offensive worm and a Thomist swine. The look and layout of the title page is similar to that of Henry’s book but instead of having a narrative scene at the bottom it is flanked by two figures: an ugly jester or troubadour on the left blowing on a wind instrument and fat cleric with a pig’s head on the right.

Compared to Henry’s use of imagery, Lutheran propaganda printed in Wittenberg is much more direct, even crude. The chief illustrator of the German Reformation was Lucas Cranach the Elder, court artist in Wittenberg and close personal friend of Luther’s (facts which did not stop him from working for Catholic patrons as well as Protestant ones).

The Library holds a more extreme example of the contempt Luther felt for a figure and an institution which he saw as being thoroughly corrupt. His Wider das Bapstum zu Rom vom Teuffel gestifft, (Against the Papacy founded by the Devil) was printed 1545, only a year before the Reformer’s death. The title page depicts the Pope with ass’s ears sitting on a pyre erected in the mouth of Hell, represented by an enormous monster. The Pope, with hands held together in prayer is surrounded by demons who fly around him and hold the papal tiara above his head.

Another two savage depictions of the Pope are to be found inside the book. In the first we see him riding on a sow while holding out a hand filled with steaming excrement. The accompanying text reads: The Pope grants a council in Germany. Sow you have to let yourself be ridden, and [with] spurs on both sides. You want to have a council: for that, have my merdrum (a typo for merdum, as in the Latin merda). Next to this is another illustration of the Pope, this time shown as an ass playing the bagpipes in a luxurious canopied bed. The accompanying text reads: The Pope, a teacher of theology and master of the faith. The Pope alone can interpret scripture: and sweep out error, as the ass alone can pipe and strike the note correctly.

Henry VIII and the Pope were not the only subjects of Lutheran ‘cartoons’. In the second half of the 16th century theological differences created a growing conflict between Lutherans and Calvinists. Zacharias ‘Rivander’ Bachmann, a Lutheran clergyman, wrote Lupus excoriatus (the wolf stripped of its skin), which was printed in 1591. The title of the book alone leaves us in no doubt as to the opinion orthodox Lutherans had of Zwinglians and Calvinists. Inside the book we find an illustration of the ‘Calvinist wolves of discord’ dressed in monks’ habits and devouring a sheep labelled ‘concordia’. The sheep represents the Concordia Wittenbergensis, a failed attempt at bringing Lutherans and Zwinglians together in 1536. The caption below the illustration reads: Matth. 7.: Beware the false prophets coming in sheepskins to you, but inside they are rapacious wolves etc.

Looking at all these images together we see two very different styles, which is only to be expected considering the two very different purposes of the men who commissioned them. On the one hand we have Henry Tudor, the consummate politician, appropriating ancient legends to gain favour with Rome. To this end he used a subtle message that only an educated elite would have been able to decipher. Luther and his followers on the other hand, do not seek any material gain. Luther was only concerned with the correct interpretation of the Scriptures and with making religion more accessible to ordinary people. The only purpose of his visual propaganda was to expose the corruption he saw in his enemies. For this he used simple images of savage clarity that anyone would have been able to understand instantly.