A Changing World

From 1500 onwards, two powerful developments began to change the way Europeans saw God and the world. More and more Christians began to doubt the Church’s teachings about the true faith and to look for alternatives. And from what was supposed to be a better sea route to East Asia grew a growing realisation that an entire continent had hitherto been overlooked.

How did contemporaries react to these enormous upheavals? In five different sections, the exhibition „Luther, Columbus and the Consequences“ sheds light on a world in flux.

How do we react to change?
Three heroes ?

Luther, Columbus and Copernicus: three heroes who could hardly be more different. Their names are synonymous with the transformation which took place at the beginning of the modern period. But their contemporaries saw them entirely differently.

Luther’s name became widely known within a few short years. His calls for a new understanding of faith were too courageous, provocative and potentially popular to be missed. Copernicus, on the other hand, spent years working away in obscurity on his theory of a sun which was circled by the earth. Though he longed for fame, Columbus was also overshadowed by more celebrated names. He never wrote a book and saw himself as a man of action.

So our three "heroes" show that innovations unfold in quite different ways: through loud scandalizing, quiet study or inadvertent action. And that although change doesn’t really need them, heroes make its story easier to tell.

„But it was neither my intention nor my wish that the theses should be widely circulated.“
Martin Luther, Wittenberg, 1518, modern translation
Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk, Lucas Cranach the Elder, dated 1520, GNM, K 868, capsule 114.
Luther’s publications made him into a media star. Cranach was the first to satisfy the huge demand for the reformer’s portrait.
Johannes Schöner: terrestrial globe, 1520, GNM, WI 1.
North America is inscribed with the words, ‘Beyond here no one has yet travelled’ – evidence of awareness of the undiscovered.
Illustration of the geocentric world view, from Schedelsche Weltchronik (Schedel’s Chronicle of the World), Hartmann Schedel, 1493, GNM, inc. 2° 266.
Despite Copernicus’s ideas, the concept of the world as the centre of the cosmos remained dominant for much of the 16th century.
How do we recognise someone who will change the world?
The new: a joy and a burden

Luther‘s contemporaries were unanimous in believing that they lived, above all, in a ‘golden age of knowledge’ (Ulrich Hutten 1518). There was great emphasis on universal education. It was said that every peasant’s house now had a library (Ulrich Zwingli 1524).

Admittedly, curiosity was still officially taboo. Nevertheless, the outermost and innermost aspects of nature were being inquisitively examined, whether by gazing into the universe with the newly invented telescope, or peering into the human body during medical autopsies on corpses.

Former certainties were now being questioned. Why was there nothing about America in the Bible? Weren’t we now living in a world which ‘knew too much’? A dangerous and simple solution presented itself: to label everything which was too foreign or strange as evil. For example, it was not the Indian but the cannibal who became the favourite motif for illustrating maps of the New World.

„The world is creaking and cracking all over“
Martin Luther, Wittenberg, 1530, modern translation
Fragment of a statue of a saint, Utrecht, circa 1460–80, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 2622.
Acts of iconoclasm ‘cleansed’ church buildings of religious images and donor portraits. Deliberate blows to the face desecrated once-holy sculptures.
Illustration of the ‘shelled hedgehog’ from the Thierbuch (Book of Animals) by Conrad Gessner, Zurich, 1563, GNM, N 900, p. 95 recto.
In his Thierbuch the naturalist, Conrad Gessner, called the unknown armadillo a ‘shelled hedgehog’, likening it to a familiar animal from home.
Pamphlet with an illustration of the Brazilian Tupinambá people, Augsburg, 1505, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, single leaf print V,2.
Making its cue from Amerigo Vespucci’s account of his travels, an illustrated pamphlet (broadside) depicts the inhabitants of the ‘New World’ as sexually permissive cannibals.
How much change can we take?
Apocalypse and salvation

From 1530 onwards, the conviction grew that doomsday was approaching. Martin Luther looked forward to an imminent end of the world, calling it the ‘dear Last Judgement’. The Türkenangst (fear of the Turks) engendered by advance of the Ottomans in the east reinforced the feeling among western Europeans that the end was nigh.

Strangely enough, the Last Judgement was not thought of only as a threat, but also as a longed-for deliverance and liberation. Serious academics engaged in ‘apocalyptic research’. Some wrote long analyses, in which they believed they were exposing the Pope in Rome as the Antichrist. Others developed complicated procedures for calculating the exact day on which the world would end.

The news market, too, promised a way of orienting oneself in a chaotically threatening world. Countless ‘shock-and-horror’ publications, early newspapers, flew around the country, attempting to discern the will of God in catastrophic events.

„Come, dear Judgement Day“
Martin Luther, Eisenach, 1540, modern translation
Last Judgement, Pieter Huys or Jan Manijn (school of?), circa 1550 or later, Stadtmuseum Simeonstift, Trier, III 0909.
Depictions of the torments of Hell were very popular. With the prospect of the world coming to an end at any moment, they were intended to encourage a moral lifestyle.
Picture Pope Leo X., 1567/1600, GNM, MP 13729, Kapsel 312b
In his struggle with Pope Leo X, Luther gradually became convinced that the Antichrist was concealed in the office of the Papacy.
The heavens raining fire on Forchheim, Georg Merckel (printer), Nuremberg, 1561, GNM, HB2790, capsule 1204.
Pamphlets were both a symptom and a cause of eschatological expectations, spreading reports of sightings of celestial phenomena, accompanied by apocalyptic interpretations.
Why do we ascribe meaning to change?
Paradise 2.0

As an alternative to this apocalyptic mood, contemporaries developed another coping strategy – one to which we owe our museums today. From around 1550, more and more cabinets of curiosity sprang up at the courts of German princes. They literally brought the strange and foreign indoors, into a ‘cabinet’ or chamber, where collections of every type of wondrous object which the wide world had to offer were assembled.

Perhaps the cabinet of curiosity made up for another loss: the slow disappearance of Paradise from earthly topography. The generations before Luther had still been exiles from the Garden of Eden at the edge of the world. The Early Modern period finally banished Paradise from earth. Yet a new heavenly ideal was being developed: tolerance. It had a hard time of it at first, politically and socially, for as the century progressed, the climate changed in more ways than one …

„One should arrange a back room, just for oneself and modestly decorated, where one is able to withdraw in one’s own instinctive desire for liberty, seclusion and solitude.“
Michel de Montaigne, Bordeaux, 1580, modern translation
Ivory cup, turned by Maximilian I, Duke of Bavaria, 1609, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, R 4823.
Many princes sought refuge from the affairs of state in their cabinets of curiosity. In his, Duke Maximilian I liked to turn ivory cups.
Luther, Calvin and the Pope come to blows, 1619/20, Stadtbibliothek Ulm, single-leaf print 16.
The pamphlet criticises the constant confessional quarrelling and pleads for tolerance in dealing with different religious views.
Frontispiece from the Historia naturale by Ferrante Imperato, Naples, 1599, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, 22/H.n.f.17.
Frontispiece from the Historia naturale by Ferrante Imperato, Naples, 1599, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, 22/H.n.f.17.
Where can we embrace change?
It’s getting colder

The years before 1600 witnessed the remarkably synchronous intertwining of a natural phenomenon and a juridical practice: the ‘Little Ice Age’ and the witch hunt. A chill came over both society and the climate. Historical climate research reveals an ever-worsening sequence of cold winters followed by wet summers during this period. Many people faced the threat of starvation.

People looked for causes and found scape-goats. Throughout the whole of Central Europe, thousands of trials of alleged witches took place and thousands of executions were carried out. The accused were charged with having deliberately caused the bad weather. Fantasies about the work of the devil were more prevalent than ever.

But as well as witchcraft hysteria, the Little Ice Age may also have given a new impulse to art. It is probably no coincidence that more and more winter landscapes were painted from around 1560 onwards and found their way into early picture galleries.

„In some streets the snow was piled up so high in the middle, like a dyke, that you couldn’t see the other side…. And the wolves caused great harm.“
Hermann Weinsberg, Cologne, 1571, modern translation
Iceberg at the Pier in Delfshaven, Cornelis Jacobsz van Culemborch, 1565, Museum Rotterdam, 11113.
In January 1565 a large iceberg pushed its way into the harbour at Rotterdam engulfing a brothel in the process.
Antwerp with the Frozen Scheldt, Lucas van Valckenborch, 1593 (?), Städelmuseum, Frankfurt, 668.
The joys and hardships of winter: people enjoying themselves on the snow and ice, while others carry firewood and huddle round a fire for warmth.
The Witches’ Procession, known as Lo Stregozzo, probably Agostino Veneziano, circa 1520/40, Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg, XII, 4,32.
A terrifying band of travellers crosses a marshy landscape. The witch riding on a skeleton is preparing a brew made of little children.
Can we direct change?
But don’t worry. The exhibition Luther, Columbus and the Consequences doesn’t end as a 16th century tragedy. At the end of the exhibition tour comes a consoling idea – one coined at the time and often quoted.
This copperplate engraving formulates a timeless predicament: the act of constantly chasing after the latest news makes man a fool, who loses sight of who he really is.
„Homo bulla est.“
Erasmus von Rotterdam, Venedig, 1508
Human life is a bubble (that can burst at any moment).
Nowadays we would say, ‘Don’t take life too seriously. It’s too short to be frightened of.’ Perhaps this was even the secret survival motto of the epoch. Amidst all the reformations and their respective "heroes", it shouldn’t be lost sight of.