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Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi

This article was originally posted on the Taylor Reformation blog which has now become part of the Taylor Editions website with a dedicated Reformation Pamphlets series.

image from passional christi

Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi. Lucas Cranach; Martin Luther; Philip Melanchthon; Johann Schwertfeger. Erfurt: Mattheus Maler, 1521 [ARCH.80.G.1521 (19)]

The Antithesis figurata vitae Christi et Antichristi, commonly known as the Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi, was first published in May 1521 shortly after the Diet of Worms. Overseen by Luther, the work features 26 woodcuts designed by Lucas Cranach in which scenes from the life of Christ are contrasted with those of the Antichrist, identified as the Pope. Underneath each image, the theologian Philip Melanchthon and lawyer Johann Schwertfeger provided moralising commentaries.

The pamphlet reads like a book from left to right and uses symmetry and antithesis to portray the Papacy as a travesty of Christ’s actions. The pope was the Antichrist in a clever disguise, as he continually transgressed what Christ had always observed: the godly and the ungodly stand side by side. The work is built upon thirteen contrasts, including Christ driving the moneylenders out of the temple whilst the Pope counts indulgence money and letters, Christ carrying his crucifix with the Pope being carried on an opulent chair and Christ ascending to heaven whilst the Pope descends to hell. The example on display here shows Christ washing his disciples’ feet whilst the Pope has his own feet washed. The commentary on the left hand side is taken from John 13 in which Christ notes that ‘no servant is greater than his master’.

The use of comparative texts of the life of Christ and the Antichrist were not new and was used, for example, by the English reformer John Wycliffe in his 1383/4 On Christ and his Adversary the Antichrist. Nevertheless, it became a particularly influential piece of visual and textual propaganda, thanks to its rapid and wide circulation through the printing press, driven not least by the increasing interest in anything associated with Luther. The particular combination of text and image broadened its appeal further. Devotion and shock were both aroused in the viewer in a highly emotional appeal.

Over the past two years, third year history undergraduates taking the Special Subject on ‘Luther and the German Reformation’ have come to the Taylorian to see this and other pamphlets by Luther. This was for many their first visit to the library. Handling early printed books for the first time, they were struck by the clarity of the woodcuts and the size of the pamphlet. The Passional helped to bring alive the striking combination of printing, prayer and propaganda in the world of Reformation Germany.

Edmund Wareham
Jesus College, Oxford

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