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In the Beginning was the Image: Art and the Reformation Bible by David H. Price

11 February 2022

Biblical illustration was an important survival, says Nicholas Cranfield

PROFESSOR David Price analyses the links between word (specifically German texts) and images (woodcuts and engravings) which expanded with the course of the 16th-century European Reformation.

He concentrates on three artists; Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), who began collecting the works of Martin Luther in 1517; Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), who was court painter to the Elector of Saxony at Wittenberg; and Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who was buried in the London church of St Katharine Cree. In 1630, Matthäus Merian, in his Icones Biblicae, claimed that art recovered its greatness in the golden age of these three.

Of the 18 German-language Bibles printed before Luther’s own translation of the New Testament appeared (1522), 16 had illustrations, including the Lübeck Bible (1494), with 152 woodcuts by at least two artists.

This background significantly shows that it was not ideas of Reform that led to an iconographic explosion in the print world, but that the flexibility of movable type brought a wider diffusion of images; some six dozen Bibles, published in seven languages, used Holbein’s artwork, including the 1535 Coverdale Bible in English.

Price scrupulously documents the course of the Reformation across the German lands, and, in particular, highlights Cranach’s part in the publishing and propaganda trade at Wittenberg. The Augustinian monk Luther stood as godfather to Cranach’s daughter in 1520, and, five years later, Cranach witnessed the excommunicated Luther’s marriage.

Each chapter is extensively illustrated (unthinkable for OUP even 30 years ago), allowing the reader to pursue the author’s argument closely in the format that the artists first intended.

AlamyThe Last Supper (1523), woodcut, by Albrecht Dürer, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

For instance, in the 1523 woodcut of the Last Supper, Dürer depicts the moment after Judas has left the table that is wide enough for three apostles to sit at each end. Price suggests that the subject-matter is the giving of the New Commandment (John 13.34), with the basin from the foot-washing centrally placed on the floor.

Does the prominence of the basket of bread and flagon in the foreground reflect the new practice of offering communion in both kinds, as the Augustinian prior at Nuremberg had for the first time at Easter that year? On the table, there is no bread and only a single chalice, which would reflect Luke 22.17 pace Judas’s absence.

Other illustrations were used to support the new creed of solafideism and to counteract the iconoclasm that spread in some regions where Exodus 20.4 was taken to forbid visual representation, not just idolatry. Merian was right to celebrate their survival.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


In the Beginning was the Image: Art and the Reformation Bible
David H. Price
OUP £64
Church Times Bookshop £57.60

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