More than a Mural of Martin Luther

By Ellie Borcherding

Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the Castle church door was a key moment in initiating the Protestant Reformation. Luther hoped that his Theses’ would cause a purification and a reassessment of the corrupt acts occurring in the Church. He urged believers to cling to the truth of the Bible and not the variations of truth that had been taken on by the Catholic Church. Throughout his theses, Martin Luther continually referred back to scripture and fearlessly sparked the Protestant Reformation. Such a reformation is an integral part of the story of Christianity. Therefore, Martin Luther’s scene is depicted in many protestant places of worship, such as Hodges Chapel at Samford University.

Reformation Day Panel in Christian Year sequence by Petru Botezatu (c. 1996) north transept of Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. Photo: David R. Bains.

A major contributing factor that sparked the Protestant Reformation was corruption within the Catholic Church. Some regarded the Catholic pope as more of a public figure than a true leader. Because of many tensions within the life of the church, “the beginning of the 16th century Europe” was a like “a powder keg in which a seemingly small incident could ignite an explosion that would forever destroy the unity of Western Christendom—even such a small incident as an obscure German theologian protesting the Church’s sale of indulgences” (Lattier, 2017).

Martin Luther was not the first reformer, but what set him apart from those before him was “that while they attacked corruption in the life of the church, he went to the theological root of the problem—the perversion of the church’s doctrine of redemption and grace” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). A common thread throughout his Ninety-Five Theses, ws humans’ need for grace and God’s teachings. He began his Theses with a wake-up call. He urged believers “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Luther). He emphasized that the preaching of the Word of God was superior to the preaching of indulgencies (Theses 53 & 54). In time this would lead Luther break with Catholic emphasis on scripture and tradition and argue that the only source of divine revelation is the Bible (Collett, 2017).

The image entitled Reformation Day, was painted by the Christian Romanian artist, Petru Botezatu. Botezatu worked alongside Timothy George, the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School, to draft plans for the decoration of Hodges Chapel. George says throughout the process “I felt I was a collaborator with a very great mind and heart and artist” (Theologie in Culori). Reformation Day is part of a series of ten paintings commemorating days and seasons of the Christian Year. Since the year starts with Advent four weeks before Christmas and Luther nailed his theses to the door on October 31, the painting is the culminating scene in the series. The painting Botezatu created features Martin Luther standing outside the Castle Church preaching to a crowd. Luther is seen holding a hammer and nails as he affixes the document to the wall. In the image is Martin Luther’s first of Ninety-Five theses is written in Latin. Translated into English it states, When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent . . .,’ He meant for our entire life to be one of repentance(Luther).The onlookers in the picture have similar face structure and facial expressions of confusion and slight annoyance. I was drawn to ask why the crowd of dozens of people almost all have the same facial expression? I came to the conclusion that Martin Luther’s declaration of Ninety-Five Theses were so controversial it had townspeople upset as their previously quiet town and way of life had been interrupted. This also represents the response the Catholic Church had to Martin Luther’s Theses. Luther was labeled a heretic and condemned by the Catholic Church. (Morris, 2017). However, it has now been over 500 years since the reformation Martin Luther sparked and a majority of Protestants and Catholics have been able to overlook their differences and even study the Bible together (Meyer, 2017).

Although Luther did face much pushback, there were many who became his loyal followers. This idea is represented by the few people looking up towards Luther, seemingly pleasantly interested and willing to learn more. As Luther caused an uproar within the church, it forced many believers to evaluate what they truly affirm as truth. This led to the formation of Protestantism as many split from the Catholic church. In Botezatu’s painting, there are two children in the image are seen playing with an apple and a flower representing the lack of understanding they have of such a monumental moment. The colors are muted and fairly neutral painting a calm scene. There is no extravagant clothing or jewelry representing the ordinary town pictured. This proved to me what God can make out of the ordinary. He can work through us and others for His glory. He can use ordinary men to start a reformation.

Samford University has proven their dedication to remembering Reformation Day with various ceremonies throughout the years. On the five hundred anniversary of the Reformation, in 2017, Samford University’s  Beeson Divinity School celebrated the “symbolic beginning of the Protestant faith, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany” (Padilla, 2017). Luther is on display both on the wall of the chapel, in the image Reformation Day, and on the dome in the Cloud of Witnesses.  His appearances throughout the chapel and the events held to commemorate his honor prove Samford’s admiration and appreciate for the theologian. Martin Luther’s legacy lives on over five hundred years later and is still credited as the cause for the split of Catholicism into Protestant.

The power of Botezatu’s work of art combined with the power of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses created a far reaching and meaningful image for Protestants and Samford University students to enjoy. One Birmingham journalist, Greg Garrison, stated that Botezatu’s image forever changed his perception of Martin Luther: “When I think of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Castle, I filter that through the image that is on the wall here. These are memorable and influential images” (Theologie in Culori, 2005). Due to Petru Botezatu’s God-given talents and the Lord working through Martin Luther, a beautiful work of art has been created gifted to Samford University that portrays a meaningful moment for Protestants to enjoy.

Reformation Day
Artist: Petru Botezatu
Created and Installed: c. 1996
Medium: Painting
Location: Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, AL 35229.

Works Cited

Collett, Michael. “Here’s What Martin Luther Thought the Catholic Church Was Wrong About.” ABC News, ABC News, 1 Nov. 2017, www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-31/what-martin-luther-thought-the-catholic-church-was-wrong-about/9031732

History.com Editors. “Martin Luther and the 95 Theses.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/reformation/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses. 

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Reformation.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 5 Nov. 2019, http://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation. 

Lattier, Daniel. “5 Causes of the Protestant Reformation (Besides Indulgences).” Intellectual Takeout, 31 Oct. 2017, www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/5-causes-protestant-reformation-besides-indulgences/

Luther, Martin. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html

Meyer, Holly. “It Was the Breakup of the Millennia. Now, 500 Years Later, Catholics and Protestants Find Common Ground.” The Tennessean, The Tennessean, 30 Oct. 2017, http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/religion/2017/10/30/protestants-and-catholics-focus-similarities-500-years-after-reformation/780322001/. 

Morris, David. “Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic, and Outlaw:The Reformation at 500.” Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic, and Outlaw: The Reformation at 500 (European Reading Room, Library of Congress), 3 Oct. 2017, http://www.loc.gov/rr/european/luther.html. 

Padilla, Kristen. “Beeson Divinity School’s Reformation 500th Anniversary Celebration Includes Worship, Service, Lectures.” Samford University, 8 Nov. 2017, http://www.samford.edu/news/2017/11/Samford-Reformation-500th-Anniversary-Celebration-Includes-Worship-Service-Lectures. 

Theologie in Culori. 2005. Episodul 1. Televiziunea Romana. https://youtu.be/B7u9W5k9PEM

Ellie Borcherding ‘24 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.

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