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Research on Luther portraits

Which Luther Portrait can we trust?

A high-profile research project, a cooperation between the Germanische Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg and the TH Cologne is examining the authenticity of the Luther portraits.

Which portrait can we trust? The question appears surprising considering the fact that Luther is widely acclaimed as the first media star. None of his contemporaries, neither pope nor emperor, were portrayed as frequently as him. Lucas Cranach played a central role in the dissemination of his portraits. He conceived various images of the reformer: Luther as pious monk, disguised as the aristocratic Junker Jörg, as reformer or as husband together with his wife Katharina von Bora. An increasing number of images were created as the legend of this extraordinary churchman evolved and a cult grew up around him. They sold well. Many people wanted to know what the famous, controversial, admired and despised man looked like, the man whom the pope had declared a heretic and whom the emperor had placed under the imperial ban in 1521.

But are the portraits really an accurate representation of Luther’s appearance?  It is known that Cranach prepared studies from life on paper and then the paintings were manufactured by the workshop members in serial production. However such a study portrait of Luther has not survived. So when and how were the portraits of Luther created? Do they capture him at a particular moment in his life? Or do they attest to the subsequent heroisation and cult worship of the reformer?

A research project supported by the Leibniz-Association with almost a million Euros which is to be carried out by the Germanisches Nationalmuseum (GNM) in Nuremberg, the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) and the TH Cologne will investigate this question over the next three years. In cooperation the art historian Dr. Daniel Hess (GNM), the church historian Prof. Dr. Anselm Schubert, the computer scientist Prof. Dr. Andreas Maier (both FAU), the restorer and art historian Prof. Dr. Gunnar Heydenreich (TH Cologne) as well as the Head of the Institute for Art Conservation and Techniques (IKK) at the GNM, Oliver Mack M.A. will compile a critical catalogue of the early Luther portraits between 1519 and 1530.

Worldwide all the portraits of Luther that fall into the evaluation period will be examined, digitally recorded and their relative similarities will be represented with special analytical methods. The project partners will be able to draw on the experience of Prof. Heydenreich with the Cranach Digital Archive (lucascranach.org) and the specialization of Prof. Maier in digital pattern recognition. Physical analytical procedures and scientific methods will assist in dating to achieve reliable art historical attributions. By combining art history, art technology, reformation history and digital pattern recognition the interdisciplinary project creates the requirements in terms of content and method to make a more accurate assessment of the authenticity of the images and therefore their value as a source for Reformation study.

Just as in the present era of mass-media in this case also we must question what is authentic and what was used for representative or even manipulative purposes. Which picture of a person is real and which is fake?  More recent experience of handling images and portraits poses new questions of the past: How true to life are the portraits of Luther that are so familiar to us?