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The Collation

Idols of the Reformation

Thank you to all who weighed in on this month’s Crocodile Mystery! Many people recognize October 31, 1517 as a major milestone in the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—the date that it is said Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg. To mark that occasion, I thought it would be fitting to have a Reformation-themed Crocodile post!

Front and back covers of Folio PA8520 .G59 Cage. Images by Rachel Dankert.
Luther (left) and Melanchthon (right) on the book covers of Folio PA8520 .G59 Cage. Details from image above.

The figures of these men appear on an alum-tawed book cover as blind stamped panel portraits of Protestant Reformation heavy-hitters Martin Luther (upper cover) and Philipp Melanchthon (lower cover). Luther, no longer a friar or disguised as the knight “Junker Jorg,” wears his academic robes1 and a full head of hair while holding open a book above the motto “IN SILENCIO ET SPE ERIT FORTITUDO VESTA” or “In silence and hope will be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). Melanchthon, on the reverse, wears similar academic robes while studiously holding a scroll above the motto “SI DEUS PRO NOBIS QUIS CONTRANOS” or “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).2 Both portraits are surrounded by stamp rolls that contain images of other prominent Reformers on the inner border, and the outer border features portraits of major figures from the Bible—David, Isaiah, and Paul.3

These images are some of the last pictures I took of our collection before our major building renovation work began. I was barcoding the Folio Cage books like a fiend, trying to work my way through some of our longest-held, and heaviest collection items. Unable to take too much time to smell the roses, I could not help but stop to admire this book and snap a photo for “someday,” using my smartphone as my personal external memory.

Once more unto the barcoding! (Note: I am wearing approximately 10 layers, a hat, compression socks, and an apron. Preparation before vault entry is essential.)

It has taken me a few months to gather the courage to write about this book cover, however, because identifying bindings is one of my weaker knowledge areas. Finally, I imagined Martin Luther admonishing me to just look it up, read the material, and teach myself! Thus inspired, I dug in.

First, I identified online sources that could help me find what I was looking for. Whenever I have a research question, I start with what the Folger has to offer. I first checked the Bindings Image Collection in our digital image database (LUNA), taking a shortcut through Folgerpedia’s List of countries in the Bindings Image Collection article. I had a hunch that the book cover was German, so that is where I started and found an example already online.

Front and back covers from BR336 A1 1562 Cage fo. vol. 1, suggesting, along with evidence from other covers, that Melanchthon tends to appear only on the front cover if he is the author of the text. (Click image for zoomable versions on LUNA.)

While there also are a couple of examples of these portraits in the British Library Database of Bookbindings, I thought I should try to find a German source, which would likely have more examples. I had a half-inkling that it was a Wittenberg binding since it was an influential book production center after the Reformation kicked off in earnest. A blog post I read from The Schiede Library at Princeton University kept referencing a “Zitiernummer” when discussing their ornate Reformer portrait binding (text annotated by Gabriel Harvey). Thankfully, I know enough German to know “nummer” is “number.” Where there’s a number, there’s a bibliography or database!

Einbanddatenbank record for Martin Luther portrait.

The Einbanddatenbank (or Cover Database, home of the Zitiernummer) from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin contains pencil rubbings of German bookbindings. I first searched “Martin Luther” and after scrolling through results, I realized I could further refine my search based on whether I wanted his kopf or halbfigur (head or half figure) positioned nach rechts or nach links (looking to the right or to the left). Our Luther is halbfigur | nach rechts, which allowed me to find an almost identical portrait. It seems, after eye-crossing amounts of scrolling through the database, that our exact portraits of Luther and Melanchthon are not represented, but that many of these cover portraits come from Wittenberg. Even though the search was not a perfect success, I am always happy to find new resources to use and share with our researchers. I am excited to try to find our other cover portraits in the database, once I have the books in hand again.

Once I felt sufficiently satisfied that I could further research this kind of binding, I had another question. Why, in the age of iconoclasm, born out of their own movement, are Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon on the covers of so many books?

It turns out that Luther and Melanchthon were not anti-image extremists. As the Reformation rippled through Germany and across the continent, anti-image sentiment became much more radical and difficult to contain. In 1522, after appearing before Emperor Charles V at Worms, Luther was in hiding, working on his translation of the New Testament into German at Wartburg Castle. Back in Wittenberg, the citizens were being worked into an iconoclastic fervor by Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt.

Upon his return to Wittenberg in Spring 1522, out of concern about the recent Bildersturm, Luther preached his Invocavit Sermons (first Sunday in Lent and subsequent seven days). The third sermon (Tuesday after Invocavit) directly refutes the violent destruction of images, and instead reminds the listeners that image worship is the problem, not the images themselves. Luther reminds his listeners that Moses created a bronze snake to heal the Israelites from illness (Numbers 21:9). Seemingly, if the believer refuses to worship idols of the heart or in image, there is no harm in a visual reminder or trespass of the Commandments. This stance accords with Luther’s print and painting partnership with Lucas Cranach the Elder, who designed many of the printed woodcut decorations that adorn Luther’s pamphlets and portraits of Luther, his family, and Melanchthon, and other Christian subjects. Melanchthon’s views are harder to pin down on the subject, but it seems that he was slightly more in favor of removing images as a temptation to worship.

Title page of Folio PA8520 .G59 Cage. Image by Rachel Dankert.

Finding this book challenged my assumption that everyone involved in the Protestant Reformation was an ardent iconoclast. It also challenged me to think about the role of a book cover.

I assumed, because of my own interest in the Reformation, that the text contained in this volume would be about religion, and by a Reformer, even if not by Melanchthon or Luther. Instead, the book is a two-volume history printed in Basel, authored by a Catholic doctor, professor, and bishop Paulus Jovius (Paolo Giovio, 1483-1552). An active correspondent with other humanist thinkers, collector of art,4 and longtime favorite of the pope, Jovius’s work seems like it has a mismatched container. Here I stand, full of more questions that I am not sure how to answer.

Does the cover act as a seal of approval? Misdirection? Act of spite? A reminder? Is it part of a matched set?

What is the purpose of this book cover? Does it have one? With these questions to investigate, it is unlikely I’ll put this book down any time soon.

  1. Luther and Melanchthon both taught at Wittenburg University, where these professors would have worn academic robes. The academic robe as the main vestment of clergy continues in many Protestant churches today.
  2. An oft-repeated (and unconfirmed) anecdote relates that Melanchthon so frequently meditated on this verse that he would recite it in his sleep.
  3. The diptych-style arrangement of these blind-stamped portraits reminds me of this humanist friendship painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, now held in Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi and the Luther/Bugenhagen diptych in the Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608.
  4. Also held at Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi.

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