Thursday, 5 February 2015


How bad were things in European Christendom prior to the Reformation? The question has fuelled academic and revisionist writing for years. Some claim the church was in a mess and urgently needed reform. Others tell us that traditional religion was in a healthy state until those pesky Lutherans came along. These arguments are not to the point. The church has always had its critics and its staunch defenders. What is important is that there were ominous tremors beneath the surface of European society that presaged the coming volcano. In support I offer four remarkable cultural artefacts produced exactly half a millennium ago.

1. A revolutionary Painting 

In 1515 or 1516 Matthias Grünewald completed a complex altarpiece (a polyptych) for the convent of the Order of Saint Anthony at Issenheim. This stand-alone piece of religious art, featuring (among other subjects) the birth, death and resurrection of Christ, is unique for its dramatic and even gruesome portrayal of its subject matter. The crucified Christ is depicted in gut-wrenching detail but this makes the radiant resurrection panel even more triumphant. This work, probably inspired by The Visions of St Bridget (1303-73) which contained some criticisms of the medieval church and had just been translated into German, goes beyond 'Renaissance realism'. Its appeal is clearly and deliberately to the emotions. Grünewald wanted viewers to engage directly with the events of the gospel in a way that conventional religious art did not allow. For example, compare Grünwald's resurrection with that of Ambrogio de Stefano Borgognone, painted only five years earlier.

2. A Revolutionary Translation

No less startling was a work by the Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, which came off the press in Basel in March 1516. The Novum Instrumentum was a fresh Latin translation of the New Testament accompanied by a text of the Greek original. It was a scholarly

improvement on the 4th century Vulgate of St. Jerome and it caused a sensation. As Diarmaid McCullocoh observes, 'To attack Jerome was to attack the structure of understanding of the Bible the western Church took for granted'. Erasmus was sweeping into the dustbin the book on which eleven hundred years of official doctrine had been based. His translation gave scholars permission to redefine Christian belief and undermine ecclesiastical authority.

3. A Book that Refused to be Revolutionary

A matter of weeks after seeing his Novum Instrumentum off the press, Erasmus helped to publish a book by his friend, Thomas More. Utopia was a 

work of imagination. It reflected the surprised realisation Europeans were experiencing in the early 16th century that the world was a different, bigger and more varied place than their forbears had ever known. Sailors returning from the discovery of new lands told strange stories to wide-eyed listeners of the wondrous things they had seen. With hitherto unknown civilisations coming within their ken, scholars inevitably began to ponder what an ideal 'Christian commonwealth' would be like. And that meant that they became more conscious of the defects of their own culture. More's whimsical travelogue introduced readers to the ideal world of 'Utopia' (= 'Good Place'). But his book was not a programme for reform - almost the opposite. 'I must needs confess,' he explained, 'that many things be in the Utopian weal public, which in our cities I may rather wish for, that hope after'. More was no radical. It was almost as though he was, in a witty, good-humoured way, trying to hold off demand for change - a demand he found unsettling; one which would eventually deprive him of his life.

4. A Polite Treatise

It was scarcely more than a year later (on 31 October 1517) that the German monk and theologian, Martin Luther, wrote a respectful monograph to Archbishop Albrecht of Brandenburg asking him to put a stop to the practice of selling 'indulgencies', certificates assuring the buyers, in the name of the pope, of remission from the penalties of sin. His reasons were set out in 95 propositions demonstrating that the indulgence traffic had no biblical support. He did not, in all probability, nail these theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. But he might just as well have made such a public gesture of defiance. Printers got hold of the text of the 95 Theses and sold them all over Europe. Within four months Thomas More was reading them in London. Questions long thought but unspoken were now brazenly asked: Did ultimate authority lie in the Bible or the pope? Could an ideal society be achieved? Was individual salvation imparted via the church's sacraments or through relationship with Grünwald's suffering Christ? These and a host of other issues were thrown up as blisteringly hot lava. The volcano exploded. The Reformation had begun.

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