Reformation at a Glance

As previously discussed in the November 20, 2015 post “Devotionalism” ushers in the Reformation, throughout the 14th and 15th centuries of Europe a “new religious movement, known as the ‘modern devotion’” was seen (Sayre, 2010, p.239).  The movement was one where “lay citizens gathered in houses organized to promote a lifestyle similar to that of monks and nuns” but this is where they stopped, since no monastic vows were taken (Sayre, 2010, p.239).  The ‘modern devotion’ movement would see a tragic end with the coming of the Protestants Reformation, which is a pivotal point in religious and secular historical division.


Map 1. Europe during the Reformation, 1560 (Sayre, 2008)

Three individuals are considered central reformer figures in the Protestant Reformation movement. These figures are Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. A number of issues lead to the formal break from the Roman Catholic Church by faithful individuals, which began around 1050 of the medieval period. Among those issues were sale of “indulgences, biblically based rituals and practices, the relationship of the body and spirit, grace, predestination and transubstantiation.” (Sporre, 2008, p. 343). Each reformer used these basic criticisms of the Church and ended up with three different outcomes based on the society in which they lived.


Fig. 1 Johannes Tetzel, Dominican Monk, ca. 1517. Monk notorious for the sale of indulgences (Sayre, 2013)

The most successful and, therefore, prominent reformer of the Protestant movement was Martin Luther, a German monk. His most significant protest was against the sale of indulgences by the Church. This was a very lucrative business where Church officials believed they had amassed a ‘surplus of merits’ or good deeds and these merits could be sold to a truly penitent person, in order to liberate them from their obligatory penance for their sins in purgatory. For Luther, there was no need to purchase good deeds in order to obtain favor with God.


Fig. 2 Image of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach, ca. 1526 (Sayre, 2013)

In many ways, Luther’s had started to formulate an opposition to the sale indulgences based on biblical facts and not on clerical teaching. “From Luther’s point of view, Christ had already atoned for humankind’s sins – or what was the point of his sacrifice? – and he provided the faithful with the certainty of their salvation.” (Sporre, 2008, p.262). Of course, Luther’s major complaint against the sale of indulgences was directed at the church in taking money away from the poor in return for atonement for sins, which Luther believed was given through the free gift of salvation. Thus, he began preaching “the doctrine of salvation by faith rather than by works.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 262)

According to Sayer,

“Luther led the Reformation in Germany” while “other reformists initiated similar movements in France and Switzerland….The appeal of Luther’s Reformation was as much due to its political as its religious implications. His defense of the individual conscience against the authority of the pope was understood to free the German princes – and King Henry VII of England – of the same papal tyranny that plagued the Church. And to many townspeople and peasants, freedom from the pope’s authority seemed to justify their own independence from authoritarian rule, whether of a peasant from his feudal lord, a guild from his local government, or a city from its prince.” (Sayre, 2013, p.263)

The ideas of the Reformation would eventually find their way into the art world, especially in works by the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dűrer.


Fig. 3 Self-portrait, Albrecht Dűrer, ca. 1500 (Sayre, 2013, p.259)

In many ways, Albrecht Dűrer art attests to the social changes being witnessed throughout Northern Europe. In his print, The Knight, Death and the Devil, one can observe the reversal of years of Church domination. No long were the faithful being extorted by the Church for their favor with God. Also, he does not include the normal biblical cast of characters, such as Christ, Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist, to emphasize how one obtains salivation. Instead it is through diligent belief and faithfulness one will be taken into the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.

the knight_death_and the devil

Fig. 4 The Knight, Death and the Devil, by Albrecht Dűrer, ca. 1513. (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2006)

In the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at The Metropolitan Museum of Art the following best describes Dűrer’s work titled The Knight, Death and the Devil:

“Riding steadfastly through a dark Nordic gorge, Dürer’s knight rides past Death on a Pale Horse, who holds out an hourglass as a reminder of life’s brevity, and is followed closely behind by a pig-snouted Devil. As the embodiment of moral virtue, the rider…is undistracted and true to his mission. A haunting expression of the vita activa, or active life, the print is a testament to the way in which Dürer’s thought and technique coalesced brilliantly in the ‘master engravings.’”


One must remember the Middle Ages were not too long ago and the feelings left in the wake of the Black Death still lingered, where life was short and the faithful must prepare for the end. The Reformation signaled a new beginning for humankind and the emergence of more social diversity because reformers, such as Luther, lead the charge for change. There was also had very wealth merchants class developing who wanted to actively support artists but did not necessarily want religious scenes. In fact,

“A spirit of innovation dominated the art, spurred on largely by competition in the marketplace. Civic and mercantile patronage would rival that of the nobility and the Church, and artistic workshops increasingly functioned as businesses.”


Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (2006, October). Albrecht dürer: Knight, death, and the devil (43.106.2). Retrieved from

Sayre, H. M. (2010). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Sayer, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities.(2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Sayer, H. M. (2008). The humanities: Culture, continuity & change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Sporre, D.J. (2005) The Creative Impulse, An Introduction to the Arts (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Stokstad, M. (2008). Art history. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson


About kmjantz

My primary goal is to explore humanities existence to date as we know it. I also create works of art that search to understand and explain why humans die because of diseases has plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Until recently, artistic expression of said search was constrained by religious ideology and scientific understanding. Today modern artists have access to a multitude of scientific technological advancements and enjoy greater creative freedom. For these reasons, my projects combination of artist styles/movements, scientific discovery, folklore, and my own imagination. My overall goal is to introduce viewers to a world so small that most do not think about it until they must due to illness. This goal is accomplished by taking selected microorganisms (thought of as ugly, disgusting, and devastating annoyances) and illustrating them as beautiful symbols of humanity’s co-evolution with nature. Making art can be a way of simplifying complex thoughts and scientific findings imbedded in humanity’s narrative.
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