Huntington Exhibition to Mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

durer_st-jerome_400.jpgSAN MARINO, Calif.—The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with an exhibition that explores the power of the written word as a mechanism for radical change. The exhibition will include about 50 rare manuscripts, books, and prints made between the 1400s and 1648 (the end of the Thirty Years' War). “The Reformation: From the Word to the World” will be on view in the West Hall of the Library from Oct. 28, 2017-Feb. 26, 2018.

On Oct. 31, 1517, German priest Martin Luther, who believed church doctrines created an ever-growing gap between believers and God, is said to have posted a document of what today are called the “95 theses”—his specific disputes—to the door of a church in Wittenberg to contest recent practices of the Catholic Church. Luther was looking to stimulate thoughtful debate that would clear away corruption and pomp, and reform the Church. What followed was a flurry of written arguments and ideas put forward by scholars, clerics, statesmen, and lay believers to fuel a movement called the Reformation.

“This was an act of protest, yet it was also an act of faith,” said Vanessa Wilkie, the William A. Moffett Curator of Medieval Manuscripts and British History at The Huntington, and the curator of the exhibition. “Luther was closely tied into larger debates taking place across Europe. It’s important to note that he was not the only cleric in the early 16th century to publish theological justifications for his beliefs and actions. Luther’s reformation was just one part of the Reformation. And none of it would have been possible without manuscripts and printed books.”

The spark of the Reformation spread through reading, writing, and printing practices of the period. Reformers and counter-reformers would often reinterpret older images and ideas to fit the current moment. Differing ideas and theological beliefs, however, soon gave way to popular violence, warfare, and ultimately colonial conquest. While The Huntington’s exhibition will focus on Europe and address important historical figures, religious wars of the period, the Catholic Church’s response to the emergence of Protestant groups, and the political ideologies of countries with state religions, the main focus will be on the power of the written word to effect radical change. Scholars, clerics, statesmen, and lay believers disseminated texts to articulate their faiths, ignite reforms, and attack adversaries. European governments and religious councils banned books to minimize the spread of works they deemed to be dangerous, regain control, and combat people and ideas they believed to be radical. Words, texts, images, and prints blurred the divisions between thinkers, heroes, and martyrs, said Wilkie. “The Reformation did not just play out in pulpits and on battlefields—it lived on the page.”

The exhibition draws almost exclusively from The Huntington’s celebrated collections of manuscripts, rare books, and prints. Items on display will include a 1514 papal indulgence (a remission of the punishment of sin), an incunable (a book printed before 1501) annotated by Martin Luther, early 16th-century prints by Albrecht Dürer, the 1573 original manuscript proclamation issued and signed by Queen Elizabeth I requiring the use of the Book of Common Prayer, and a 15th-century manuscript of the Brut Chronicles in which a later reformer “erased” the word “Pope” from the text.

While the exhibition will address the power of the written word and the relationship between it and radical change within a specific historical moment and geographical region, the themes and larger questions posed in the exhibition will resonate across time in different ways.

The exhibition does not directly address contemporary debates about religion, war, and radical movements, Wilkie said, but “it will undoubtedly stimulate conversations about how we encounter these themes in our own lives by asking the question: What is so important to you that you’d nail a statement about it in a public place for all to see? It’s an opportunity to think deeply about how we select and reinterpret the words and images of the past to engage in contemporary debates.”

This exhibition is made possible by the generous support of the Robert F. Erburu Exhibition Endowment.

Image: Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), St. Jerome in His Study, 1514, engraving. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Edward W. and Julia B. Bodman Collection.

 

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