Reformation centenary broadsheet

Contributed by British Museum

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This broadsheet commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation of the Christian Church. It depicts Martin Luther nailing his thesis to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. Protestants regarded this moment as the start of the Reformation, when the new Protestant Church, opposed to the power of the pope, split from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther is shown writing on the door with a huge feather pen that knocks off the pope's hat. The lion is a reference to the pope's name - Leo X.

What is a broadsheet?

Broadsheets were sheets of paper used to spread news and political messages. They played an important role in the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation. Depictions of Luther at Wittenberg helped to popularise this event in the Protestant imagination. In reality, Luther probably didn't actually physically nail his thesis to the Cathedral door. This broadsheet was made in 1617 on the eve of the Thirty Years War between the Catholic and Protestant countries of Europe. During this unstable period this broadsheet would have reminded Protestants of past victories.

Originally, this broadsheet would have cost the price of a few sausages or a couple of pints of ale.

The first author of international fame

This print of 1617 shows a dense composition of closely-packed figures entwined with beautifully designed lettering, which to a contemporary audience, used to stark headlines and the immediacy of photography and film, looks confused and complicated.

Broadsheets such as this, however, represent an early form of mass communication.
Since the fifteenth century, the traditional method of narrating stories to a semi-literate audience was to show important events in sequence in the manner of a strip cartoon.

Luther, the main subject here, appears several times to show the part that he played at different points of the story: in the background he literally receives the word of God in a torrent of letters seen pouring into his book, and to the right of the print he appears to Friedrich the Wise in the dream. On the left he is seen inscribing his theses against the sale of indulgences on the church door; an event of 1517 when Luther publicly challenged a much-hated practice of the Catholic Church.

One hundred years later, Protestants chose to commemorate this episode as the beginning of the Reformation.

The most striking aspect of this print is the enormous size of Luther’s quill pen which strikes through the lion, a visual metaphor for Pope Leo, and then knocks the pope’s tiara off his head. Luther’s supporters are shown pulling feathers from his quill pen, as if to be inspired by his words. Together with the elaborately engraved title, Luther’s large pen emphasises the significance of the written word to the circulation of his ideas.

His works were published in German to appeal to as wide a public as possible, as opposed to Latin, the language of the Catholic Church and of scholars and academics. Hundreds of thousands of his sermons were published. Martin Luther was, in effect, the first author of international fame.

Giulia Bartram, curator, British Museum

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 08:47 on 24 May 2010, Melda Cinman wrote:

    These objects are very important to understand the history of the world.

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  • 2. At 10:55 on 25 May 2010, nailitdown wrote:

    Brilliant programme. If only the BBC would do more programmes like this, especially for television. Considerably better than the TV equivalent done by Yentob and Dimbleby who impose their personalities too much on whatever they are presenting.

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  • 3. At 11:26 on 1 October 2010, John ROYCROFT wrote:

    No.85. I'd like to have legible text+translation+context of each set of words on the Reformation centenary broadsheet. Possible? Oh, I read German -- when I can decipher it.

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  • 4. At 16:22 on 1 October 2010, williams1945 wrote:

    Sadly your invitation to contribute a personal object to your history of objects has cost me a great deal of time without success. After several time, paistakingly completing the form a receive this message
    The proxy server received an invalid response from an upstream server.

    Additionally, a 400 Bad Request error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.

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  • 5. At 01:39 on 2 October 2010, Peter Tasko wrote:

    Such wonderful broadcasting, an absolutely joy! Brilliant in every sense. Only great radio could bring objects and history to life in such wonderful context. It is truly a joy. I would love to see see the BBC and the British Museum build on this. Must also say very well done to Neil Macgregor, certainly a man for out time.

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  • 6. At 20:15 on 11 October 2010, Stephen Evans wrote:

    The word Religion is a Ghastly word in all its forms, ghastly, hypocritical and the root to all misery and evil, that is today's world.

    Complain about this comment

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Made in Germany


AD 1617


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