May 032010


Lyndal Roper says this pair of statues in the city market at Wittenberg is “disconcerting.” The wide-bodied man in the foreground is Martin Luther. The narrower one further away is Philipp Melanchthon. She refers to the statues in her essay in the April issue of American Historical Review, Martin Luther’s Body: The “Stout Doctor” and His Biographers:

The two Reformation heroes tower over the meat stands and vegetable stalls like two caged giants. But the effect of their being seen side by side like this, even with the nineteenth-century attempts to minimize the difference, is disastrous: the stout Luther confronts the cadaverous Melanchthon.

But her article, although it includes many portraits of the “stout” Dr. Luther, doesn’t feature a photo of the statues. It was harder to find one on Google than I would have expected, but I came up with the above from someone who seems to have vacationed in Wittenberg. (Click on it to go to his gallery at WebShots.)

The essay really is about Luther’s large physical body.

Luther was stoutly built. Saints and pious clerics tend, on the whole, to come in Melanchthonian shape, their thinness underlining their indifference to the temptations of the flesh.

Luther was not only different, especially as he grew older, but his iconographers found it important to picture him that way. It’s a good fit with Lutheran theology, too, and its treatment of the relationship between body and spirit.

You could say that Luther was a “get in touch with you body/listen to your body” kind of guy. He especially was in touch with its digestive and excretory functions. When it came to the latter, he recommended that the devil listen to his body, too. Roper calls it “integrating his anality into his theology”:

…Luther is able to joke about both the devil and excrement, and he integrates his anality into his theology rather than just projecting it onto others.

But he was more than anal. Even in something like the Eucharist, he saw no reason to give up the physicality of it, no matter how ae-reasonable it might seem.

Luther’s physicality was integrally connected to some of his deepest theological insights. It was central to his rejection of monasticism and its abhorrence of sexuality, eating, and drinking. It was also, one might suggest, profoundly linked to his intransigence on the issue of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, making it impossible for him to compromise with Ulrich Zwingli at Marburg and to find common cause against the Catholics, however advantageous to the movement that might have been. His insistence on the physical materiality of the Eucharist divided him from both Catholics and Zwinglians: for Catholics, the bread appears to be bread, but its essence is transformed into the body of Christ; for Zwinglians, the bread remains bread, but it symbolizes the body of Christ; for Luther, the bread was at once a material thing and the body of Christ. Tellingly, when Zwingli and Luther debated the issue, Zwingli adduced John 6:63: “The flesh profiteth nothing.” Luther’s position is well conveyed in the words attributed to him at Marburg: “The word says that Christ has a body. This I believe. The word says that the body of Christ ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God. This I also believe. The word says that this same body is in the Supper, and I believe this. Why should I discuss whether it is outside of a place or in a place? This is a mathematical argument. The word of God is above it, for God created mathematics and everything. He commands us to have faith in this matter.” Even if human rationality cannot comprehend how it is that Christ can be present in the bread and the wine, it remained true, Luther argued; it was a theological truth surpassing reason. It is surely not too farfetched to connect this insistence on the materiality of the Eucharist and the reality of Christ’s presence to Luther’s generally positive attitude toward the physical.

Roper is said to be working on a biography of Luther. I look forward to reading it when it comes out.

URL here even though it doesn’t do much good unless you have a subscription to AHR.