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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.