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).
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)
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.