500 years after Protestant Reformation, Walters museum looks at human side of Martin Luther

After Yu Na Han went through two miscarriages, and then her new baby spent the first six months of her life in the hospital, the mother found comfort when she needed it the most from the place she least expected to find it — in the writings of the 16th-century theologian Martin Luther.

Though he'd been dead for nearly five centuries, Luther displayed a deeper understanding of Han's guilt and grief than even her husband and friends did.


Han is studying to become a curator, and that experience inspired her to put together "Uncertain Times: Martin Luther's Remedies for the Soul." This small exhibit running through October at the Walters Art Museum explores the human side of the religious reformer, the Luther who was a husband, father and friend, the skilled pastor with a gift for healing.

The roughly two dozen artifacts on view range from a collection of Luther's dinnertime conversations called "Table Talk" to a heavily annotated prayer book carried constantly by his best friend.


"After my miscarriages, my friends said, 'Oh, you must have been working too hard or been stressed out,' " Han said. "My husband tried to comfort me by saying, 'It was just tissue, not a human being.' They weren't trying to be cruel; they were just trying to find the reason something bad had happened."

That's when she stumbled across words of solace that Luther had penned to other struggling young mothers of infants who had miscarried or been born dead.

"Luther wrote, 'One ought not to frighten or sadden such mothers by harsh words because it was not due to their carelessness or neglect that the birth went off badly,' " Han said. "They should be confident that God is not angry with them. … We well know that these cases have never been rare since the beginning."

It's possible that visitors to "Uncertain Times" will walk away not just with a new perspective on the great German religious reformer, but with insights into their own lives, just as in Han's case. This little show is an example of the rewards that can be offered by museum exhibits of limited scope and modest ambitions. Even museumgoers who linger over each manuscript and woodcut are unlikely to spend more than 30 minutes in the small gallery.

"It felt like I had found a friend who had a warm heart and was willing to help me in my crisis," Han said. "Reading what Luther had written was a critical moment that changed my perspective."

Because 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, large Luther exhibitions are proliferating at museums worldwide, especially in Germany. But unlike the Walters' intimate display, most other museums concentrate on Luther the theologian, whose "95 Theses" changed the world.

"The Reformation really was an earthshaking event," said James Buckley, professor of theology at Loyola University Maryland, likening its impact to the Allied victory in World War II.

"Before Luther, there had been schisms and corrections. But he broke up Western Christendom in a way that had never happened before."


Luther's insistence that the Bible — not the church — was the ultimate religious authority put the emphasis on worshippers' individual relationship with God and had reverberations that spread down through the centuries. What's more, he translated the Bible from Greek, a language that only the elite could read, into the German used by ordinary people. He also identified a nascent technology (the printing press) and transformed it from a tool used mostly by academics into a means of inexpensive mass distribution that was the social media of its day.

"Luther was a main figure in the turn towards modern individualism," Buckley said.

The Walters' exhibit doesn't pretend explore every aspect of Luther's personality. Han intentionally highlights just one aspect of an immensely complicated man.

For example, "Uncertain Times" makes no mention of Luther's at-times virulently anti-Jewish writings, which were used by Adolf Hitler to justify the Holocaust. (According to scholars, Hitler's interpretation of Luther's writings glosses over a crucial distinction: Luther's objection to Judaism was based on a theological dispute, not a hypothesis of inherent genetic inferiority.)

But for Han, the side of Luther that mattered so much to her was too often in danger of being lost by treatments that emphasized either the dead scholar's historic and religious importance or his moral failings.

This was a man with a huge capacity for devotion to his six children and to his wife, the former nun Katharina von Bora. (He helped her escape from a convent by hiding her in a wagon among barrels of fish.) The couple had six children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Luther's admiration of this hard-working and efficient woman shines through his writings, whom he affectionately refers to as "The Boss."


This was a man who inspired immense loyalty from his comrades; he is buried next to his best friend, Philip Melancthon, his intellectual sparring partner and the co-founder of Lutheranism.

The rarest item on display in the Walters exhibit is probably Melancthon's creased, pocket-sized prayer book that he carried throughout Germany.

"Look at all the annotations," Han said. "He carried it with him constantly. It might have been in his pocket at Wittenberg when he and Luther were talking about how to reform the Church."

This is a man whose flock adored him — probably because this spiritual leader preached that virtue was most effective when practiced in moderation.

"Whenever the devil harasses you," Luther wrote in a letter dated 1530 quoted in the exhibit, "seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or even sin a little to spite him. We are lost if we try too hard not to sin at all."

The most curiously lovely artifact in the show may be the drawing of a cross and orb created in 1752 entirely from near-microscopic hand-written prayers. The bottom of the orb is a rose, and the center of the rose is written "The Lord's Prayer" in letters so diminutive, so minuscule they're barely visible. It's difficult to imagine the time and concentration it must have taken to compose this drawing, which was used as an object for meditation and devotion.


There's even a work in the show by a bona fide Old Master artist — a 1511 woodcut by Albrecht Durer showing an image that Luther was drawn to of Jesus Christ cradling a heartbroken St. John in his arms.

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But the object on view most likely to make visitors smile is considerably less elevated.

Han has included a stone tankard crafted around 1600 similar to those Luther would have encountered in the homes of friends and during his not-infrequent visits to taverns.

This mug is engraved with the busts of men and women, emphasizing conviviality, and has a pewter lip to keep the brew frothy between sips.

"I keep thinking what good beer I have at home," Luther wrote to his wife during one of his trips. 'You would do well to send me over ... a bottle of your beer."

If you go

"Uncertain Times: Martin Luther's Remedies for the Soul," runs through Oct. 29 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to