Jan Hus Memorial, Prague

Jan Hus Memorial, Prague

On a 2013 visit to Prague, we came upon a massive statue in the Old Town Square dedicated to Jan Hus (say Yan Hoos). Knowing nothing of what this man had done to earn his monument, we listened to our local guide. Hus was a master at Charles University in Prague. He led an early rebellion against the Catholic Church, paving the way for Martin Luther a century later. Hus was martyred in Germany in 1415.

Our guide took the occasion to add an observation of his own. He said that the people of Prague were known to be devout but not religious. There have been so many wars of faith since the 15th-century, he said, that the people had lost interest in going to church. The city is filled with antique places of worship, religious statuary, and the stately Saint Vitus Cathedral looking down from its high vantage within the walls of Prague Castle.

In 1517, Martin Luther made himself known as a vigorous critic of the Roman Catholic Church. He had arrived at his opinions during the reign of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) as Pope. The issue that esspecially galled Luther was the Pope’s practice of selling indulgences to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther’s defiance of the Church in Rome was prefigured by Jan Hus, and Savonarola in Florence, among others. A dramatic but thoroughly distorted account of Savonarola’s death by burning at the stake can be seen in the Borgias (see Italy below). In stringing together my collection of movies, it was illuminating for me to realize the extent to which this religious faultline affected the politics of Europe up to the time of the Revolutions. There was a Lutheran influence on Henry VIII when he broke with the Vatican and established himself as head of the Church of England (see British Isles below).

In 1961, John Osborne’s play, Luther, premiered on the London stage starring Albert Finney. A year or two later, i t opened on Broadway with Stacy Keach in the title role. The ideas were interesting but I found it too wordy, except in the scenes involving the theatrics of selling indulgences. There was a movie made from the play in 1973 with Keach continuing in the role. It suffered from the same deficits as the stage version. Judi Dench played the “runaway nun” that Luther married late in life. In 2003, a fresh Luther film appeared, with Joseph Fiennes in the lead role.

Luther  (2003)

This is not the play. It is a film with ties to a Lutheran organization. Joseph Fiennes plays Martin Luther (1483-1546) with more English finesse than Germanic bombast. This is an apparently faithful biographical film, though it is easy to suspect some bias for the Lutheran view. It opens in the year 1507. Early in the film Luther visits Rome and is outraged by the iniquities of the holy city. He returns to Germany and begins to preach against the sale of indulgences. There is a passable scene with the performance of a lurid morality play and a not-so-dramatic scene with a seller of indulgences. A very elderly Peter Ustinov plays the Prince of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, who acts as protector of Luther. The performance is full of the familiar Ustinov quirks, but it is mature and dignified.

The renegade cleric nails his Theses to the doors of a church and writes a set of books setting forth his ideas. It is clear that the recent development of the printing press played a major role in this revolution against the pervasive power of the Roman Catholic Church. He is brought to trial in Germany and refuses to recant, becoming a hero to the disaffected people. It is a very remarkable time. Luther is appalled by the violence that ensues. He writes a Bible in the common German language. Over the years things settle down, and Martin marries a “runaway nun.” The fight continues and Martin takes a leadership role. It ends in 1530 when the clergy stands up to the Germanic emperor and the Lutheran doctrine triumphs. A print legend says Martin lived another sixteen years, fathered six children and saw the foundations laid for “one of the great institutions of the Western tradition” – the Lutheran Church.

Cathedral Cities Related Posts:

Return to Early Europe Overview