Luther on Excommunication - With a Title Page of the \"Man of Sorrows\" after Albrecht Dürer

Luther, Martin (1483-1546)

Sermo de virtute excom[m]unicationis.

Leipzig: Ex aedibus Valenitini Schumann, 1519


Quarto: 18.5 x 13.5 cm. [8] p. Collation: A4

One of numerous editions printed in 1519. The first ed. appeared in 1518.

Bound in modern marbled boards. A nice copy. The beautiful title page woodcut, a reverse copy of Dürer’s “Man of Sorrows” from the title page of the “Small Passion”, is attributed by Neufforge (334) to Heinrich Vogtherr (1490-1556) (see the final paragraph of this description.)

In his “Sermon on the Virtue of Excommunication”, Luther decries the bishops’ abuse of the ban as a way of punishing communities that failed to pay ecclesiastical dues. Luther uses this sermon to emphasize a distinction between an “outward” ban from temporal communion with the church and an “inward”, spiritual ban that only God can impose (vide infra.) Luther published this treatise in August 1518, when he himself was under threat of excommunication. In that same month, he received a summons from the Vatican to come to Rome and be tried for heresy.

Luther on Excommunication:

“Immediately after returning from Heidelberg on 16 May 1518, Luther stirred up considerable dust with a sermon on excommunication. Already during Lent of 1518 he had treated the theme once. That had not been a reference to the ban threatened against Luther himself but to the way the bishops used the ban and to the tyranny and ignorance of their officials, who employed the ban quickly when they wished to enforce ecclesiastical interests of a legal or financial sort.”(Brecht)

"[Luther's sermons on excommunication were] motivated by his pastoral concern for proper ecclesiastical practice. In a Lenten sermon preached in Wittenberg on March 17, 1518, he had already attacked the misuse of the ban. 'So far has this childish veneration and holiness gone,' he complained about the use of ecclesiastical power, 'that they have started this game of excommunication, and the letters are flying about like bats, all because of a trifling thing.' According to Luther, the ban, like the letters of indulgence, was no longer used for the edification of troubled Christian consciences. Instead, it had become a means to enforce the fiscal policies of the church. Many a Christian community had been 'banned' because it had not paid ecclesiastical dues in time or was unable to raise the money.

"[Luther's views on the subject] caused much consternation among the ecclesiastical authorities because Luther had incited people to defy the ban in the name of a righteous cause. … Since a public debate on the ban was not possible, Luther continued to warn Wittenbergers about its misuse. (Concordia)

“In order to counter the distorted version of his statements on the ban, Luther accordingly reconstructed and published the Latin sermon “Sermo de virtute excommunicationis” (The Virtue of the Ban) in August, 1518. By the ban, he meant the church’s withdrawal of outward communion. But in this Luther distinguished between an outward communion with the church and an inward, spiritual one. The ban affects only the outward communion, i.e., one’s participation in the sacraments and the life of the church. God alone has jurisdiction over the inward. The ban does not mean that a person is given over to Satan, but at most it merely ‘announces’ this. (Brecht)

"The 'Sermo de virtute excommunicationis’ and Luther’s later 'Sermon on the Ban' (1520) reveal the full intensity of Luther's pastoral concern for the plight of the layman: the ban, like the sacrament as such, is only an external means to maintain discipline in the Christian community. A man is not condemned because he violated external ecclesiastical laws; rather, he is condemned on the basis of his own sin and unbelief. Sin is lack of trust in God's grace, not disobedience to ecclesiastical laws. … In his sermons on the ban, as in his sermons on penance, baptism and the Lord's Supper, Luther tried to show that individual and communal faith in God's grace was more important than external dependence on the mechanics of a sacramental system." (Concordia)

The "Man of Sorrows"

The identity of the artist responsible for the unsigned woodcut of Christ as the "Man of Sorrows" is open for debate. It has been attributed to Heinrich Vogtherr but also to Urs Graf. The image is based on the woodcut by Albrecht Dürer that graces the title page of Dürer's "Small Passion." But while the composition of the woodcut is Dürer's, there are significant if subtle departures in this new rendition. Two of the nails used to crucify Jesus (absent in Dürer's image) can still be seen in Christ's right foot and left hand. Their inclusion makes Christ's suffering more palpable. In terms of his physique, the figure of Christ differs markedly from Dürers. While Dürer's Christ is lithe and muscular, an ideal Renaissance figure, the Christ in the second woodcut is a withered, exhausted figure, an early Reformation "everyman".

Benzing 219; Knaake 93; Claus (Leipzig), Schu-91; VD 16, L 6037; Literature: Martin Brecht, “Martin Luther”, Vol I, “His Road to Reformation”, pp. 240-242; The Concordia edition of Luther’s Works, Vol. 39, pp. xxii, 5 ff.)