One of the treasures in the American Numismatic Society’s collection is a unique gold medal depicting the German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546). It came to the ANS by way of Alastair Martin, an art collector, ace tennis player, and longtime benefactor of many metropolitan cultural institutions.
The medal was formerly part of the collection at the Klosterneuburg Monastery, an Augustinian abbey in Austria that has a museum of Gothic and Baroque sculpture and paintings. Its provenance beyond that is uncertain, as is much about the circumstances of its production. The medal dates to 1521, a momentous year in the nascent Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther being excommunicated for refusing to recant his writings. Luther’s 1517 publication of Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences) had provided the initial catalyst for the Reformation by attacking clerical abuses and the practice of selling of indulgences in particular.
In April 1521, Luther was ordered to appear at the Diet of Worms, a formal deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire convened to address the ongoing religious upheaval. Luther refused to disavow his writings and beliefs, which led to the Edict of Worms condemning him as a heretic and forbidding “anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour the said Martin Luther.” Despite this declaration, Luther had wide support in Germany and this wonderful medal captures something of the esteem with which he was regarded.
This obverse is supposed to have been the work of Hans Glimm, a goldsmith from Nuremberg. This attribution derives from the fact that a few known lead casts have the monogram HR under the bust, although it obviously does not appear on this gold specimen. Whomever designed the obverse, it is clear that the depiction of Luther in profile was based upon an engraving by the painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach.
The spread of Luther’s ideas and the general success of the Reformation was closely tied to the evolution of the printing press, which enabled both images of Luther and his writings to circulate widely. Cranach worked in the state of Saxony, a center of the tumult, and painted or engraved portraits of many of the Reformation’s leaders. He was also an enthusiastic supporter and close friend of Martin Luther, who as the engraving and medal suggest, cut a rather stout figure. Cranach’s early print was suggestive of the portrait medallions that were popular in Renaissance art, so it hardly seems surprising that it served as a model for the production of an actual medal. Incidentally, Cranach often signed his works with a black winged serpent holding a ruby ring in its jaws, which you can see at bottom right if you click to enlarge the image. The legend that wreathes Luther’s bust reads:
HERESIbVS. SI. DIGNVS. ERIT. LVTHERVS. IN. VLLIS – ET. CRISTVS. DIGNVS. CRIMINIS. HVIVS. ERIT
This can be roughly translated as : “If Luther will be deserving of any heresies, Christ also will be deserving of this crime.”
The reverse makes the connection between Luther and Jesus Christ explicit. It is thought to be the work of Peter Flötner, a sculptor, metalsmith, and printmaker who was a prominent figure in Nuremberg’s flourishing in the arts.
The bust of Christ is surmounted by a holy dove and flanked by verses in German from the Gospels of John. On the left is John 1:29 : “Christ, I am the lamb that taketh away the sin of the world.” On the right is John 4:16 : “No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” The verses underscores Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. Contra established Catholic teaching, Luther believed that salvation was a gift received from God, not something that could be achieved by good works and holiness or, in the case of indulgences, bought.
This wonderful gold medal is both an exemplary work of Renaissance medallic art and a powerful piece of pro-Reformation propaganda that explicitly suggests that if Luther was guilty of heresy, Christ would be as well.
Sources: Henry Grunthal, “A Contemporary Gold Medal of Martin Luther,” ANS Museum Notes (1956): 201-203.