Images, Preaching, and the Reformation

Walking into the cathedral of Strasbourg is walking amongst the roots of the Reformation. Lots has changed, of course–for example, there are benches, which no churches had until the later part of the sixteenth century. Same thing for confessional booths. But Strasbourg cathedral is special, because of its pulpit. It was built specially for Geiler von Kaysersberg in 1481, three years after he was hired, twenty-nine years before his death, and thirty-two years before a young Luther began to lecture on the Psalms and Romans at the university of Wittenberg.

People didn’t go to the movies in the fifteenth century. They went to town fairs, or saw new, exciting holy men, some of whom preached. Bernardino of Siena, Savonarola of Florence are famous preachers–and they’d often come to town fairs and events, a fact which sometimes scared the town councils–after all, like the Whitefields of American history, they could transform a crowd from a collection of wide eyes and straining ears into a fainting, yelling mob on a crusade. Heretics often started up as stump preachers, sometimes interested in criticizing their local drunken clergy, sometimes just in hearing their own voice. In part to answer that problem, some star preachers became institutionalized in the Franciscans and Dominicans–as organized institutions, it’s not far wrong to describe these brothers, “friars,” as a preaching elite, designed to combat heresy and lax spiritual lives with learned, pious preaching. (The nerdy Dominicans called themselves the ordo praedicatorum, “order of preachers”; the more hippie Franciscans were based on Francis Assissi–famed for preaching even to the animals, and for walking from village to village in bare feet, in order to preach.)

In the later middle ages, German towns managed to privatize this sort of pious entertainment. Town authorities worried less about charismatic preachers when these same celebrities were on the payroll. And these guys could really pull a salary! For that reason, they were not usually connected to the friar orders, which in theory didn’ t allow their members to hold property (vow of poverty). Some of them weren’t even really concerned about chastity–like one of the highest paid of these figures, Hüldrich Zwingli of Zürich. The German Reformation is impossible to understand without seeing these astounding preachers–who at the same time were often, like Zwingli, Bucer and Bullinger, highly accomplished humanists–as the public relations department which found a common cause in Luther.

Jean Geiler von Kaysersberg was one of the best of these scholar-preachers. One of the first doctors of theology to graduate from the university of Basel (founded 1460), he called out for a purification of lives–particularly the lives of clergy. When Pope Adrian VI (d. 1523) asked the town council of Strasbourg to pass judgment on Lutheranism in the sixteenth century, they shrugged their shoulders, saying this new Lutheranism didn’t sound much different than what Geiler used to preach in the days of their youth–with the support of the bishop of Strasbourg. Pope Adrian might well have wondered about the standards of these new universities–Wittenberg was even newer, only founded in 1502. (For those of you who care, the history of universities is inseparable from the history of the Reformation.)

Some things had changed since Geiler’s days, of course. Especially after 1525, Lutheranism and later the Reformed branches of the Reformation became associated with a dislike of images in church. After all, the commandment against graven images of God seemed pretty clear, and lots of people thought that even pictures not of God–saints, for example–as ” books for the laity”  was just a slippery road to worship of those images. Best to destroy them all. But evidently that was not at all what the people of Strasbourg took from Geiler’s preaching. The pulpit built for him, and which he climbed every time his turn came up in the preaching roster, is one big mass of graven images! It’s impossible to describe them all without much more time and space; but here are some photos, to give you a sense.


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