The Magnificat: Luther’s Evolving Vision of the Virgin Mary

Luther, Martin (1483-1546)

Das Magnificat Vorteutscht und außgelegt durch D. Martinum Luther Aug. Vuittenberg.

Wittenberg: Melchior Lotter, 1521


Quarto: [88] pp. a-l4


Modern marbled boards, vellum spine and corners. A fine copy with contemporary marginalia in red and black.

Luther wrote his “The Magnificat Translated into German and Explained” in two parts, the first composed before his appearance at the Diet of Worms and the second part while he was in hiding in the Wartburg in May and June 1521. Given that Luther’s vision of the church and of Mary’s nature and place within Christianity were evolving (and were to evolve much further over time), and the fact that Luther left the Diet a changed man living in changed circumstances, it is no wonder that Luther’s exposition of the Magnificat has been the subject of numerous conflicting interpretations.

In Albert Steinhaeuser’s view the work “is a classical discussion of the place that the Virgin Mary occupies in the Protestant system. Although Luther regards her in one place as sinless, and invokes her aid and intercession at the beginning and close of his work, these are isolated instances; the whole tenor of the exposition is evangelical, and as far removed from the Mariolatry of Rome as from an ultra-protestant depreciation of the Mother of our Lord. ‘She does not want you to come to her, but through her to God.’ There is something very human, and altogether unlike the radiant Queen of Heaven, in the Mary who ‘goes about her household tasks, milking the cows, cooking the meals, washing pots and kettles, sweeping out the rooms.’ It is Luther’s contribution to the German Madonna, and the Weimar editors well compare this and similar passages of the Magnificat with Albrecht Durer’s Marienleben, a series of quaint woodcuts portraying the life of the Virgin (1503-10).”

But Hartmann Grisar, one of the leading Catholic writers on Luther, writes “Luther’s 'Exposition of the Magnificat' has frequently been taken as a proof of Luther’s great piety. It indeed contains many good thoughts, even apart from those relating to Mary, but in numerous passages the author uses his pen for a highly prejudiced vindication of his new teachings on the state of grace. It should also be borne in mind that the printers started on the book just before the Diet of Worms, and that it was intended to attract and secure the support of the future rulers of the Saxon Electorate. Luther was also engaged at that time on his exceedingly violent screed against Catharinus, in which he attempts to reveal the Pope in his true character as Antichrist. When, after the Diet of Worms, he continued his work on the Magnificat he was certainly in no mood to compose a book of piety on Mary. The result was that the book became to all intents and purposes a controversial tract, which cannot be quoted as a proof of his piety or serenity of mind during those struggles. Luther's Magnificat is as little a serious work of edification and piety as his exposition of certain of the Psalms, which appeared almost simultaneously and was also directed " against the Pope and the doctrine of men.”

VD16 L-5453; Benzing Luther 855; Kuczynski 1431