Martin Luther in Bologna

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the year in which Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses, helping start the process of the Protestant Reformation. At the time he was a member of the Order of Saint Augustine.

Luther at the Diet of Worms (Anton von Werner)
Luther at the Diet of Worms (Anton Von Werner)

Some 6 years earlier in 1510, he journeyed to Rome from Nuremburg as assistant to Anton Kresz, on an administrative trip to meet with the order’s Prior General, Giles of Viterbo. Along the way they stayed at various Augustinian houses, including Santa Maria della Misercordia in Bologna. Further detail of this journey can be found on this site..

The church of Santa Maria della Misericordia is located just outside of the line of the city walls, described in a previous post The Walls of Bologna, near the entrance to the Margherita Gardens.

Santa Maria della Misericordia, Bologna
The church of Santa Maria della Misericordia, Bologna

Some time around 1930, a fresco of Saint Augustine in this church was found to have been half covered up. The full fresco depicts Saint Augustine giving his rule to four Augustinian monks. The bottom half of the fresco had been covered with lime mortar for centuries hiding the four monks. There had been no work done to the church, so that the reason for its being covered up is a mystery.

Fresco Saint Augustine Santa Maria della Misericordia Bologna
The fresco which had been partly covered over for centuries

The fresco has been attributed to the school of Francesco Francia and Lorenzo Costa. These artists were friends and active in Bologna in the first ten years of the 16th century, and the fresco is thought to have been painted around 1510.

The bottom half was uncovered in 1931, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a full restoration was performed. At that point, a similarity in appearance between one of the monks and existing portraits of Martin Luther was noted.

martin Luther Santa maria della Misericordia Bologna
The monk thought to be Martin Luther

This portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder is thought to be the most accurate image of Luther as a young man.

Martin Luther (Lucas Cranach the Elder)
Martin Luther (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

As the date of the painting and that of Luther’s trip are very close and the location is where Luther stayed in 1510, it is entirely plausible that Luther along with other Augustinian monks posed for this painting. Further it’s also possible that the painting was white washed after Luther’s excommunication in 1521.

Most of the information in this post appears in an interesting little book entitled “Il Fascino E Il Mistero. Sulle tracce di perdute storie a Bologna e dintorni” by Maurizio Catassi and from a description of the fresco on this site. Both of these are in Italian.

I’ll leave it to you to make up your mind about it!

Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustine Monk, workshop of Lucas cranach the Elder.
Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustine Monk


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