Young Luther was enveloped in a religious climate consisting of a host of saints and superstitions. All worked together in a grand scheme of relief from the ravages of medieval life, as well as appeasing the always-watching wrathful God. Perhaps a few thought they were fortunate enough to one day attain ultimate salvation. Most expected the dismal grind of medieval life to continue beyond into the bowels of Purgatory, or worse. It was a religious “survival of the fittest,” with saints beseeched for aid in enduring the grueling journey. Participating in the cults of sainthood with all the fervent zeal of the time, young Martin called on three saints at every Mass. He recalled selecting twenty-one saints, “Thus I came the round in a week.”[i]
In popular Luther biographies attention is drawn to his youthful devotion to Saint Anne, patron saint of miners. It was she to whom young Luther would cry when terror stricken by a severe thunderstorm, the experience propelling him to join the local Augustinian monastery. Luther recalls, “Saint Anne was my idol.”[ii] She invoked a fanatical devotion. The world of young Luther was filled with a rapid expansion of brotherhoods of laymen devoted to the cult of a specific saint, and Anne had gained in popularity. Toward the end of the Fifteenth Century, Anne as “saint” rose in great prominence due to an order of Franciscans, who had become champions of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. Luther recalls that the honor paid St. Anne rivaled, if it did not exceed, that shown to he Virgin herself.[iii]
But regardless of St. Anne’s increased followers in medieval Europe, the Blessed Virgin did indeed reign above her as a preeminent spiritual power. To her was bestowed the highest veneration. Historian Joseph Lortz explains,
"Everything was dedicated to her and bore her name – places, churches, alters, girls. The widespread custom of singing the Salve Regina on Saturday evenings arose as a means of extolling her fame. The devout soul of the people was as much expressed in fervent hymns to Mary and legends about her, as in the countless number of paintings and sculptures of the Madonna, some of them very beautiful. Many confraternities were formed in her honor, and many endowments made. In all of this period her praise was never silent." [iv]
While emphasis on Anne is usually explicit in Luther’s story, Mary’s impact on the young Luther is often overlooked. Historian Robert Fife attempted to paint a graspable image of Luther the child in the realm of saint and Mary veneration:
"The Virgin Mother and the saints greeted the eyes of a boy from alter and windows, and their glory became familiar in prayers and hymns. Here love and pity, protection and help came to him clothed in warm humanity. The Virgin, whose song, the Magnificat… was usually sung at vesper services. Her figure sank into his memory as she appears at the last judgement, showing to her Son the breasts that suckled Him and pleading for mercy on mankind. Singing the Litany and the Rogations in the choir he learned to know the saints, and these brief figures gave him protection against the severity of the Judge and the wiles of the demons. The shining form of the saints stamped themselves enduringly on the boy’s imagination." [v]
A recollection from Luther’s Table Talk verifies the impact medieval Mariolatry had on the young Martin Luther. Sometime in 1503, he unintentionally stabbed his shin on a short sword and cut an artery in his leg. Thinking himself near death from the wound, he cried out, “Mary, help!” Help indeed arrived, but in the form of a surgeon who dressed the wound. Later that evening, the wound broke open again. The same fear of death gripped him, and Mary was called upon once more to save his life. Had Mary saved Luther? The mature Luther looking back on this experience realized how far from the spiritual help of Christ he actually was: “I would have died with my trust in Mary.”[vi]
The thunderstorm of 1505 that had chased him to the cloister also accompanied him inside in the guise of fear and trepidation. This prevailing dread was none other than Christ as the severe judge. As Robert Fife explains,
"[Christ] became a great source of unhappiness in the cloister…he refers frequently to his conviction that Christ was indifferent to human woes and must be won over through the intercession of his mother, the Virgin. The picture of Christ sitting in judgement on the last day dwelt vividly in his mind, so that he could not shake off fears connected with it. [Luther said,] 'When I looked on Christ, I saw the Devil: so [I said], ‘Dear Mary, pray to your Son for me and still His anger.’"[vii]
In the Augustinian monastery, meditation on the blessed mother was also a unique channel to make the heart fertile for divine grace. Mary was crowned with a special degree of glory that surpassed others in the divine realm. Bernard of Clairvaux had popularized her through his sermons. He had expounded the degrees of salvation, with Mary at the highest point. Jarislov Pelikan points out, “She was at the same time the personal embodiment of the supreme virtues of which humanity was made capable through the gift of grace: in her, as Bernard said, ‘is every goodness found in any creature.’”[viii]
Luther’s frequent mentioning of Saint Bernard speaks of his fondness and familiarity with his writings. Later recollecting Bernard’s influence on his own Mariolatry, Luther looked back on the years before his break with Rome and said,
"St. Bernard, who was a pious man otherwise, also said: ‘Behold how Christ chides, censures, and condemns the Pharisees so harshly throughout the Gospel, whereas the Virgin Mary is always kind and gentle and never utters an unfriendly word.’ From this he inferred: ‘Christ is given to scolding and punishing, but Mary has nothing but sweetness and love.’ Therefore Christ was generally feared; we fled from Him and took refuge with the saints, calling upon Mary and others to deliver us from our distress. We regarded them all as holier than Christ. Christ was only the executioner, while the saints were our mediators." [ix]
He also recollected, “Christ in His mercy was hidden from my eyes. I wanted to become justified before God through the merits of the saints. This gave rise to the petition for the intercession of the saints. On a portrait St. Bernard, too, is portrayed adoring the Virgin Mary as she directs her Son, Christ, to the breasts that suckled Oh, how many kisses we bestowed on Mary”![x] Luther concluded though, that even in St Bernard’s incessant praise of Mary as she directs the sinner toward Christ, Bernard left out Christ completely: “Bernard filled a whole sermon with praise of the Virgin Mary and in so doing forgot to mention what happened [the incarnation of Christ]; so highly did he… esteem Mary.” [xi] Thus, young Luther partook in Mariolatry, but the mature Luther looking back saw only the excesses of medieval devotion and teaching on Mary. He saw that she had been adorned with attributes that only belonged to Christ.
[i] Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Tischreden 1531 – 1546, IV No.4422, quoted in Robert Herndon Fife. The Revolt of Martin Luther (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), 122.
[ii] Martin Luther, “Sermon of December 22, 1532,” WA XXXVI, 388, quoted in Robert Herndon Fife. The Revolt of Martin Luther, 122.
[iii] Martin Luther, D.Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung Werke, I, 415, quoted in Robert Herndon Fife. The Revolt of Martin Luther, 13-14.
[iv] Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany, trans. Ronald Walls (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1968), 1:112.
[v] Robert Herndon Fife. The Revolt of Martin Luther (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), 13-14.
[vi] Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 54, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 14.
[vii] Robert Herndon Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), 123. Luther’s quote is from, Martin Luther, “Sermon of May 21, 1537,” WA XLV, 86 quoted in Robert Herndon Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther, 123.
[viii] Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through The Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 144.
[ix] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 22: 377.
[x]Ibid., 22: 145.
[xi] Ibid., 54: 84.