Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Review: "Uncertain Times: Martin Luther's Remedies for the Soul"

From the October 20 Sounds of St. Francis

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.

The exhibition focuses closely on Luther’s teaching as “comfortable words,” the way in which has assurance of God’s mercy towards sinful humanity gave peace to those broken by sorrow or troubled by doubt.  One of the curators, Yu Na Han, stumbled across some advice given by Luther to a pastor about consoling women who had suffered miscarriage shortly after she had lost a child.  She was deeply moved by the reformer’s assurance that God was not angry with those who suffer such tragedies, and created the exhibit in part, to pass on some of what she had discovered and found so helpful.

Finding images and artifacts to illustrate this kind of concept was no easy task, and the Luther quotations in the gallery notes are often more effective than the pieces they are meant to illustrate.  A book of spiritual advice by Luther’s confidant Justas Jonas, for example, fits its purpose well, even if it is not especially notable as a work of art.  The striking fifteenth century beer stein nearby is charming, though its presence in such a small exhibition may overstate the reformer’s reliance on alcohol as a means of spiritual consolation.

More of the actual paintings and engravings on display are by Catholic artists than Protestant ones.  A striking painting of the common medieval scene of the mystical marriage of Catherine of Alexandria’s and the infant Christ would have been dismissed by most sixteenth century Protestants as superstitious, but the curators are right to note the uncanny similarity between the scene’s spiritual meaning and the “happy exchange” between Christ and the sinner celebrated in Reformation piety.  A Durer woodcut of Christ with Saint John at his bosom, the only work by a well-known master in the exhibit, treats a scene that was dear to Luther, though it dates to 1511, when the artist and Luther were both still snug within the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church. 

The curator’s choices suggest that Luther’s fruitful consolation, like anything else that is true and of enduring value in the Christian life, was not really novel or iconoclastic.  He was formed by strains of faithful teaching that preceded him, and themes that proved helpful in his own advice to others came to shape Christian teaching in other parts of the church, even as Western Christendom was severed by political and ecclesiological schism.  The most enduring work done by Luther and his followers, as they would have been quick to claim, was the hidden labor of drawing souls closer to Christ.  It is difficult to bring such hidden work to light, but the curators at the Walters are to be commended for attempting it in such an earnest and thoughtful way. 

This exhibition aims at a salutary humility, like many of the other Reformation commemorations at this 500th anniversary (including, I hope, our October 29 program, The Spiritual Fruits of the Reformation).  The 350th,  375th  and 400th anniversary celebrations, falling at a time when Western Protestantism confidently ruled the world tended toward the bombastic and triumphalist—the Kaiser had the doors of Luther’s old church engraved with the 95 Theses in bronze in 1892. 

We live in different times, and seek a word from the reformers that can build up the shattered church’s unity and assist in the urgent task of announcing the Gospel to a world where it is a word rarely spoken.   Exhibits like this show how such work can be done with faithfulness and care.  

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