Extract from the poster, based on: Daniel Hopfer, portrait of Martin Luther, 1523. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

“Luther, Columbus and the Consequences – A changing world 1500–1600”

The exhibition at the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg can certainly be seen as a contribution to the anniversary of the Reformation. But it also addresses issues that go far beyond the portrait of an era.

We live in turbulent times; our world is changing. But who is responsible for this change? A few names spring to mind, primarily those of politicians, scientists or entrepreneurs. But we also know that change tends to be a consequence of all kinds of interactions. Just think of the hot topics of today, such as global warming and terrorism.

As the historical distance grows, name-dropping becomes even easier. We all speak of “Napoleon’s era” or of “Luther’s time”. But are such phrases little more than tired clichés?

This is precisely the point of the exhibition “Luther, Columbus and the Consequences” at the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg. The subtitle “A changing world 1500–1600” is important because it emphasises its world-view concept. Credit must go to the curators for cleverly subverting the historical hero cult, which has been on the rise again for quite some time.

Admittedly, we are welcomed by the contemporary paintings of three serious and determined-looking men – Luther, Columbus and Copernicus, with Luther in the middle.

View of the exhibition. Photo: Germanisches Nationalmuseum

But that is only the opening chord, and it is soon modulated. First of all, Luther is demystified as a Reformer. Naturally, we are presented with his writings, among other things, with which he set the ball rolling for the Reformation. But the twist is in the details. The Augustinian monk Luther initially regarded his famous Theses against the Church’s sale of indulgences as a contribution to a debate within the Church. Because the paper, which was meant to be internal, was copied without authorisation and leaked to the public, it went viral, as we say today. Only through this action could the Theses become the charter for Protestantism – and only really because society was ready for this.

Columbus’ image as the most important explorer of modern times also receives a few dents. We see the first German translation, published in 1497, of his famous letter of 1494, in which he reports to the King and Queen of Spain, his financiers, about the discovery of “new islands”. But, important though this journey was, it is just one of a long history of discoveries. In Nuremberg, the gradual conquest and tentative description of new shores, the shifting of actual and mental horizons, can be traced through an excellent selection of old world maps and globes.

Lucas Cranach: Portrait of Martin Luther at the age of 50, 1533. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Permanent loan of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung

Portrait of Christopher Kolumbus, Italy, around 1520/40. Pinacoteca Civica Como

Leonard Torwirt: Nicolaus Copernicus, around 1946/52. Copy of Thorner's «Gymnasial-Porträt» from the 16th Century. Muzeum Okręgowe w Toruniu, Toruń

Anything new sparked wonder, but was also perceived as a threat. People were exposed to different people, different flora and fauna – and different diseases. This was commented on by Luther himself, with a note of caution. Aside from that, though, he showed precious little interest in Columbus’ journeys. In retrospect, that is rather strange given that globalisation, which began at that time according to the latest findings, was soon to become associated with intensive Christian missionary activity.

In the end, the exhibition singles Copernicus out as the most important pacesetter for change back then. This is because with the realisation that the Earth orbits the sun, not the other way round, he initiated the end of the dominant Christian world view. More significantly, Copernicus laid the foundations for a scientific appropriation of the world geared towards facts and empiricism, which looked not only at the cosmos but also at the human body: We see magnificent folios from the early days of the study of anatomy. Even the ‘Copernican Revolution’ did not happen suddenly. The emerging science had to overcome all sorts of resistance.

Not surprisingly. A “changing world” is exhausting for those living through it. The attitude of people back then towards the impositions of the new world view is very clear to see from reports, for example, that show how people tried to process the encounter with the “wild”.

Sebastian Münster: New islands as a new world, 1549. Stiftung Eutiner Landesbibliothek, Eutin

It also takes time to adapt to a scientific attitude. A mythical creature does not become a precisely described animal overnight. People still continued to interpret natural disasters as a sign from Heaven for a long time. But at the same time, divine faith began to fade. The hour of advisers was upon us. For Luther’s contemporaries, the offering included a pamphlet that pointed the way out of the “spiritual labyrinth”. But did the paradise promised actually lie in store for people in the hereafter? Just in case it didn’t, they decided to focus on the here and now. Here lie the roots of modern-day desire for worldly pleasure, luxury and consumerism. It’s sad that the exhibition only touches on that.

Instead, it remains true to its focus – adding shade to the heroic tales of the Early Modern period. What could be better suited to this than the “Little Ice Age”, as it became called? This extreme cold spell between 1560 and 1715 was a real test for the “changing world”. On the one hand, crop failures and famines were still interpreted initially as the Devil’s work, in line with the old familiar medieval pattern, while at the same time precise weather records were drawn up, laying foundations for climate research.

As this period of transition ended, people emerged as individuals becoming emancipated but also as bursting soap bubbles. Baroque “vanitas” ideas were born: everything is in vain, everything is vanity. Change is a tough process: fear alternates with confidence, progress alternates with reaction. That has continued through to the present day, as is made perfectly clear on the computer terminals at the exit, where visitors can compare the responses of other visitors to changes today with their own reactions.

You might make fun of such educational games in museums. But, like this well-designed exhibition with its exquisite and carefully prepared exhibits, the well-conceived free app and the very informative homepage, these games invite you to consume history not simply as a ready meal. History is a construct, and as such it usually reveals more about our present than about our past. And that is what makes it so interesting.

Luther, Columbus and the Consequences – A changing world 1500–1600

13 July – 12 November 17 | Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nuremberg

Website, app and catalogue at weltimwandel.gnm.de/en 

Hibou Pèlerin
For many years, Hibou Pèlerin has been flying to historical and cultural exhibitions. For the blog of the Swiss National Museum, Pèlerin picks one or the other goody and presents them here.

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