Designing an exhibition to commemorate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary is a fairly heroic task for any gallery. Far more art was destroyed than created in the sixteenth century in those European lands that embraced the teachings of Luther, Calvin and Cranmer. But the Walters Art Gallery has made a humble but probing attempt in its single-room exhibition, “Uncertain Times: Martin Luther’s Remedies for the Soul,” on display until October 29 at the museum in downtown Baltimore.
Fittingly, many of the most significant pieces on display are not paintings, but books. The personal prayer book of Luther’s close associate Philip Melanchthon is there, worn from heavy use, annotated in the margins. There’s a handsome early edition of Luther’s Tabletalk, the collection of theological rejoinders and moral advice dispensed by the aged master in his later years over the daily bread and beer, carefully recorded by his students.
Words are also the medium of a mesmerizing eighteenth century German folk art piece featured centrally in the exhibition. The anonymous artist has scripted the many lines of Luther’s Small Catechism as a globe around the rose and cross of Luther’s coat of arms, a loyal tribute to the way in which the theologian has most often been encountered across the centuries—in this careful summary of Reformation teaching, written to be memorized by children as they prepared for their confirmations.