The term Renaissance (re-birth) was coined by scholars and artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to claim that they were heirs of the classical world. This process of rebirth and re-evaluation of the classical inheritance  began in Italy during the early fourteenth century and spread across Europe. This period was also a great age of geographical exploration and scientific discovery.

Political powers

The major political power was the Holy Roman Empire, which stretched from the Netherlands to Hungary. Its rival was the more centralized French monarchy. The struggle between them was fought in Italy, then a patchwork of different states. Renaissance popes were also active participants and in 1527 Rome was sacked by imperial forces. Renaissance rulers used their patronage of arts and scholarship to promote their power and legitimacy. In Italy, Renaissance art reached a pinnacle of achievement in the work of Leonardo (1452-1519) Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1475–1564).

Luther and the Reformation

The invention of a printing press in about 1450 in Nuremberg introduced the idea of mass production. This ensured that the anti-papal ideas of the German monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546) circulated widely. The resulting Reformation by the mid-sixteenth century ended a unified Christendom. The sophisticated prints of Luther’s countryman, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) made him the first artist with a truly international reputation.

Two great reformers of the church

Silver medal of Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon, 1545, 4 cm diameter, © Trustees of the British Museum.Silver medal of Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon, c. 1545, 4 cm diameter, Germany © Trustees of the British Museum

The reformation movement, formulated by the ideas of Martin Luther (1483-1546), began with an "act of God" as the young student was struck by a bolt of lightning in 1505, promising to join a monastery if he survived. As a monk, Luther formed his concept of "Justification by Faith" (the supremacy of God's will), which led to his criticism of the validity of the selling of indulgences by the Roman church (for time off in purgatory). He chose to display his thoughts publicly in 1517, by nailing his challenge to authority (known as the "Ninety-Five Theses") to the door of his parish church in Wittenberg.

Philip Melancthon (1497-1560), an academic in Wittenberg, supported Luther's position and employed his intellectual skills in the practical interpretation of his ideas into religious practice, as set out in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, advocating religious services in everyday language and the removal of unnecessary images from churches.

Printing disseminated Luther's radical thoughts in a short period and helped to spread his reputation as a heroic figure. It is ironic that such a strong critic of the cult of saints in fact became the subject of his own cult in the 1520s, represented in printed and medallic images. This medal, dated 1545, celebrates both men, with a bust portrait of Luther facing right on one side, and Melancthon on the other. Although a heroic figure to many, Luther was unwilling to lead the movement, leading to the fragmentation of types of Protestant worship and by the time of this medal the reformation had lost its impetus, under the challenge of a revived Catholic church.

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