Skip to main content

Luther and Columbus turn the world upside down

Sebastian Münster: New islands as a new world, 1549 Woodcut, colored, on paper. (Photo: Stiftung Eutiner Landesbibliothek, Eutin)

The ideas and discoveries of Martin Luther, Christopher Columbus (c. 1451–1506) and Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) have, at the beginning of the 16th century, turned the world known up until then upside down. Whether by “discovering” a new continent, the Reformation of the church or the heliocentric world-view: “Luther, Columbus and Copernicus questioned fundamental conceptions, deemed until then without alternative, of the nature of the world”, explains Dr. Thomas Eser, curator of the exhibition “Luther, Columbus and the consequences” at the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg

On the occasion of the anniversary of the Reformation, the museum focuses with this special exhibition on the consequences of these revolutionary changes. Around 200 exhibits illustrate the simultaneity of a pioneering spirit and an apocalyptic mood, of thirst for knowledge and a ban on curiosity. Among others, handwritten manuscripts of Luther, Columbus and Copernicus can be seen for the first time in Germany. 

“After a highly-regarded exhibition on the occasion of Martin Luther’s 500th birthday, the Germanic National Museum again takes a Reformation anniversary as an occasion for a special exhibition. According to the spirit of time, we put the Reformation era now in a larger context of the history of mentality and culture and draw parallels until the present time”, declares enthusiastically the director general, professor Dr. Großmann, about the concept of the exhibition. 

None of the three innovators wanted broad transformations

A glimpse of the exhibition with a view to the “Langer Anton”. (Photo: Germanic National Museum, Nuremberg)

Starting with portraits of the three innovators at the beginning of the 16th century, the exhibition traces how all three rather unintentionally paved the way for new things. Luther initially wanted to restore the original state of the church, Columbus searched for a sea route to India – a part of the “old world” – Copernicus as well referred to ancient knowledge with his heliocentric model – the antique idea of the planets orbiting around the sun.

However, already in the 16th century the presumed posting of the theses began already to be stylized as a turning point and the onset of the Reformation. But Luther did not at all seek the public confrontation. The later reformer initially aimed at an expert discussion within the church on the sale of indulgences. The exhibition displays an early print of the theses of 1517 with handwritten highlighting and private correspondence. In it, Luther explains his understanding of faith. Because of a non-authorized printing of the theses as pamphlets, it created a momentum of its own. 

Research on the desktop is not sufficient

In the secular realm, the voyages of discover made the people of the 16th century clearly aware that research made on the desktop was not sufficient. Traditional knowledge from old books was increasingly put into question. At the same time, the prestige of own personal experiences and experiments was rising. At this point, the 16th century decisively laid the foundations for the modern science. A juxtaposition of globes and maps from the 16th century in the exhibition shows  the radical change of the world-view in the course of only a few decades. 

Cornelis Jacobsz van Culemborch: Iceberg on the pier of Delfshaven, 1565. Painting on wood. (Photo: Museum Rotterdam Van de Stad/Permanent loan from Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap, Amsterdam

The idea of an open and progressive future was largely foreign to Luther and the following generations. To them, the future meant the end of times, because all events since the birth of Christ leads implacably towards his return on Judgment Day. After the Reformer believed he had exposed the Pope as the Antichrist, this day was imminent according to the Bible. This idea unsettled and frightened many, but at the same time it comforted them with its promise of redemption from a world about to collapse. The dividing of the world into good and evil with depictions of the Last Judgment is illustrated in the Nuremberg exhibition through paintings.

“The Little Ice Age” provoked famines and epidemics 

Another factor of the changes of the 16th century was the cooling which Europe experienced. Because the crises were not only man-made – the “Little Ice Age” with its climax between 1560 and 1630 had an impact on people’s life. Famines and epidemics were the consequence. The exhibition ends with illustrations of winter landscapes which appeared at that time. But the people at that time did not persist in repentance, but looked for culprits for the cold period. Leaflets and interrogation records of witchcraft and sorcery trials exemplify a rigorous, “hardened” jurisdiction against the incriminated. At the same time the images of witches fascinated as an immoral counter-world and projection surface for sexual fantasies. 

At the end of the special exhibition, a connection is established to the present time. Here, the visitors can discuss on tablet PCs and comment on the exhibition. The Germanic National Museum wants to encourage a debate on how we deal with changes today. Are they unsettling or do they give us confidence for the future? Do we learn from history?


Source:epd/GNM Date:13-07-17
Reformation anniversary, discoveries, change, exhibition, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum


„Luther, Kolumbus und die Folgen. Welt im Wandel 1500–1600“

Germanisches Nationalmuseum
Kartäusergasse 1
90402 Nürnberg

Opening hours:
13. Juli – 12. November 2017
Dienstag bis Sonntag 10 Uhr bis 18 Uhr
Mittwoch 10 Uhr bis 21 Uhr 

8 Euro, 5 Euro reduced rate

Further information:
Exposition website

Bavaria’s contribution to the anniversary of the Reformation

The 2017 Bavarian State Exhibition “Knights, Peasants and Lutherans” at the castle Veste Coburg examines the age of the Reformation and the impact of Martin Luther.


Soon, a large number of Nuremberg's citizens professed the Lutheran teachings. Martin Luther said about Nuremberg that the city is "Germany's eye and ear". With 21 printing houses, Nuremberg was the media capital of its time.