26 November 2016

Martin Luther Description

When we think of Martin Luther, we often picture a fat man with a grumpy, pugnacious disposition. The second part of that picture probably comes from being familiar with Luther's polemic writings without putting them in the context of similar writings by other authors of that time period, and also from not being familiar with Luther's more pastoral writings and sermons. The first part of the picture, that Luther was a very fat man, comes from the fact that most of the portraits we have of him come from when he was an older man and had become portly through the good cooking and good beer of his wife, Katie.

But a witness of Luther's disputation with Eck at Leipzig paints a very different picture of Luther. Luther was 35 years old at the time, and this is how he is described:

"Martin is of middle height, emaciated from care and study, so that you can almost count his bones through his skin. he is in the vigor of manhood and has a clear, penetrating voice. He is learned and has the Scripture at his fingers' ends. He knows Greek and Hebrew sufficiently to judge of the interpretations. A perfect forest of words and ideas stands at his command. He is affable and friendly, in no sense dour or arrogant. He is equal to anything. In company he is vivacious, jocose, always cheerful and gay no matter how hard his adversaries press him."[1]
This is actually a downside in the two best known film versions of Luther's story, the 2003 movie with Joseph Fiennes, and the 1953 movie with Niall McGinnis. McGinnis's Luther is prophetic and Fiennes's Luther is angsty, but neither of them seem to be the vivacious, jocose, cheerful fellow of the description above.


[1] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1977), 87.

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