The Reformers' Image of Mary: Early German Evangelical Thought & Theology in Visual Art, 1500-1525

Kowalski, Micaela, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lambert, Erin, History, UVA

The Virgin Mary held a central place in medieval Christian theology, but her role in the church became a topic of reconsideration in the circles of reformers in the early sixteenth century. Traditional roles ascribed to Mary in the medieval church included extra-scriptural powers such as intercessor, queen of heaven, and even co-redemptrix, as well as scripturally founded roles of mother of God and pure virgin. With the turn to sola scriptura led by Martin Luther in the 1500s, non-canonical roles of Mary were largely rejected by reformers. However, I argue that these reformers had no desire to remove Mary’s position in the church, mostly on account of her vital role as Gottesbarerin, bearer of the incarnate God. Therefore, reformers’ theology included keeping various praises of Mary while rejecting outright “worship of the Virgin.” This subtle shift, disregarding some traditional aspects of Marian theology while keeping others, is strongly apparent in sixteenth-century images of the Virgin. This paper focuses on the motif of fruit within artistic depictions; in traditional iconographical representations of the Virgin, often an array of fruits and plants helped to visually emphasize Mary’s quasi-divine and vital role in salvation history. With the work of Albrecht Durer and Lucas Cranach the Elder in particular during the early years of the Reformation, the subtle theological shift is paralleled in the persistent, yet toned down, use of the fruit motif. The inclusion of traditional iconographical symbols in these later works signify the continuity of Marian theology into the early Reformation, indicating the absence of a severe break in Marian theology, and also, arguably in reformed theology in general. This study on the complexity of reformed Marian theology, which is so potently obvious in art, prods at the idea that the early Reformation was a radical break from medieval and traditional religion and understanding.

MA (Master of Arts)
Reformation theology, Early Modern Germany, Mariology, Albrecht Durer, iconography, visual studies , Martin Luther
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: