The Creation of the World, Endpaper from Wittenberg Luther Bible of 1534 by Lucas Cranach the Younger and Monogrammist MS

Lucas Cranach the Younger and Monogrammist MS

The Creation of the World, Endpaper from Wittenberg Luther Bible of 1534, 1534 (coloured later), Woodcut , Der Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek, Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Bd. 1, fol. 8v, akg-images

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An Overture to the Bible

Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

This woodcut, with later additions in watercolour, appeared in the first complete edition of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. Its concentric spheres recall classical cosmologies such as the Ptolemaic system, as well as more recent iconography (like that in The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493).

But direct simplicity was Luther’s wish. In the words of Christopher Walther (c.1515–74), one of the editors of the Wittenberg Bible, Luther ‘would not tolerate that a superfluous and unnecessary thing be added, that would not serve the text’ (Füssel 2009: 31). This was partly for pedagogical reasons, and matched Luther’s robust vernacular translation from Hebrew and Greek (not Latin), which contributed to a standardised High German and a national cultural identity. The 117 illustrations in the full edition, commissioned by Christian Döring and printed by Hans Lufft, gained quasi-canonical status—especially in Protestant homes.

Luther began to deliver his Lectures on Genesis the year after this Bible was published. Discussing the poetic prose of Genesis 1:26–28, Luther described ‘the Creator’s rejoicing and exulting over the most beautiful work He had made’—humankind (Pelikan 1958: 68). This benevolent delight is signalled by the priestly benediction of an enrobed God, who is not inside the cosmic spheres but transcends them in heavenly glory. No merely geocentric convention, the illustration celebrates the outstanding primordial miracle: a paradise of vibrant and harmonious life poised in remarkable suspension at the divine command. Its resplendent grandeur—on a full-page folio before the text of Genesis begins—is an apt overture to the Bible.

The printed text features an inset vignette of the expulsion from Eden. Indeed, close inspection shows that the unidentified artist (known as the Monogrammist MS due to the ornamental initials on the woodcuts) hints at the Fall of humanity here as well. Adam and Eve, menlin … frewlin (‘little man… little woman’, not ‘male… female’) in Luther’s translation of Genesis 1:27, converse in holy innocence and wisdom—but a serpent rises menacingly nearby. Luther’s Lectures reiterate what was tragically lost in their Fall, but also that salvation restores the divine image and likeness.

This initial scene nevertheless gladdens the heart. Its strong colours and pleasing design convey enchantment at providential ordering for animal and human life—with food for all. ‘God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31).

 

References

Füssel, Stephan. 2009. The Bible in Pictures: Illustrations from the Workshop of Lucas Cranach: A Cultural-Historical Introduction (1534) (Hong Kong: Taschen)

———. (ed.). 2016. Biblia: The Luther Bible of 1534: Complete Facsimile Edition from the Workshop of Lucas Cranach, 2 vols, plus supplement (Cologne: Taschen)

Pelikan, Jaroslav (ed.) 1958. Martin Luther Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1–5, Luther’s Works, vol. 1 (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House)


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