While today many people see old books and documents as valuable or sacred objects needing to be revered and preserved, for European people who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was fire on every page. Reformers and counter-reformers often reinterpreted the images and ideas they found in old books and manuscripts to make arguments in their present. People continue to do this today; we use what is familiar or powerful about the past to lend strength to our points of view in the present. Considering how words, written or spoken, can be sites for engagement and debate, we can better understand how even the most highly publicized ideas and images of our day will become relics for reinterpretation in the future. Moreover, understanding this can help us to better empathize with the people who lived 500 years ago.
Text in this instructional tool is drawn from The Reformation exhibition labels.
Many medieval devotional books, such as this Book of Hours, include miniature paintings of St. Jerome (347–420) diligently translating the Bible into Latin, always with a lion by his side. The style of this miniature is simplistic, as the scale and proportion of the figures are not accurate.
Dürer was known for his self-expression using the new methods of engraving and printing. In this engraving, Dürer examines the artist’s internal struggle by tackling a familiar subject in a new way. By re-creating this iconic scene, he sought to express the idealized environment and mood for pensive work, something he saw as critical to the artist’s private creative endeavor. Basing his Renaissance masterpiece on the iconic medieval image maintained a visual continuity: he re-created and reinterpreted the same scene to reflect a shifting sense of the self.
Sometimes censors marked up the portions of books that they wanted removed from future editions. In this astronomical work, a censor inked out Schreckenfuchs’s name on the title page and throughout the first part of the book. The censor also inked out the authors of poems praising the work and some names in the preface. The ink used was so acidic that it burned the paper, permanently scarring the pages. The Huntington’s Dibner Book Conservator has been able to stabilize the book to prevent further loss, but much of the damage is irreparable.
Protestant states actively practiced censorship, just as the Catholic Church did. In 1624, King James I issued a proclamation requiring that all forthcoming books on religion or politics be authorized by particular archbishops, bishops, or heads of Oxford and Cambridge universities (who held state and religious appointments). It was illegal to print, sell, or import any “seditious” works. The proclamation also required that any existing seditious work be destroyed. The ban on imports was one way to quarantine the English from radical ideas circulating on the Continent.
Shepard Fairey is a Los Angeles–based street artist and activist. In this image, he draws upon the aesthetics of midcentury graphic design to make a contemporary comment about the injustice of the prison industrial complex in America. Blending an older design style with a potent sociopolitical message helps to visually cue an awareness that a current debate has a history. This image is one of several the artist makes available as free downloads on his website, along with instructions on how to make stickers, posters, and t shirts. Quickly and inexpensively putting propaganda into the hands of activists remains a goal of reformers, just as it was in the 16th century.
Martin Luther’s undated annotations to this edition of works by Horace show just how closely he studied the Latin text. While reading the lyric poet’s epistle VII, part of a discussion about resolving to study philosophy, Luther responded by writing subject headings in the margins, aggressively underlining certain passages, and adding glosses between printed lines. These were typical reading practices for scholars and clerics at the time. Seeing how Luther engaged with pre-Christian texts provides a better understanding of his own writings and teachings.