Bible in German, 1550

Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1550

By the time Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546, the Reformation had triumphed across Northern Europe and his name was blazoned upon the continent. Luther’s German translation of the Bible had been a bestseller for many years. In the early 1580s his official printer, Hans Lufft, boasted he had produced 100,000 copies of the text over the past 50 years or so. The number of unauthorized copies produced by other printers must have been even higher. As a prominent public figure, Luther had his portrait painted several times by the court painters of the Electors of Saxony, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and his son, the younger Lucas Cranach (1515-1586). Prints of his portrait were widely circulated making his features recognizable throughout Protestant Europe.

In 1546, Lufft placed for the first time the standard portrait of Martin Luther on the title page of a German Scripture. The New Testament he issued that year opens with a woodcut representing the crucified Jesus with a kneeling figure at either side of the cross. The woodcut was probably designed by Lucas Cranach the Younger and Martin Luther is clearly recognizable below Jesus’ left arm. The figure kneeling opposite Luther wears the ceremonial costume of an Elector, or ruler, of Saxony, but his identity remains unclear. It may be John Frederick (153-1547), the ruling Elector in 1546, but it may also be his predecessor, John the Steadfast (1525-1532), the Prince who had made Lutheranism the official religion of Saxony in 1527. Or it may be Frederick the Wise, the Elector who had protected Luther in 1521. In more general terms, the woodcut seems to represent State and Church in prayer besides Jesus: the figure of an Elector symbolizes the temporal power while Martin Luther embodies the true faith.

The 1546 woodcut was immensely popular. Hans Lufft reused it twice in the 1550 German Bible described here. Both its general title page and the title page of its second volume include it. Later on the same image was regularly used in most editions of Luther’s collected works.

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