Songs, sermons and cartoons: The legacy of Luther on exhibit at St. James Cathedral

Artifacts from the time of the Reformation tell the story of Luther’s influence. Photo: Joelle Kidd
Published October 26, 2017

The Cathedral Church of St. James in Toronto is commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with an exhibit titled “The Reformation: Martin Luther & His Legacy.”

The exhibit explores Luther’s influence from different angles. A range of artifacts lining the walls of the cathedral are supplemented with translations and reproductions of significant artworks, musical pieces, and cartoons.

Items on display include pieces from the church archives, as well as books on loan from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto and from Wilfred Laurier University. These include a first edition of The Great Bible of Henry VIII, printed in London in 1539, a 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, and a Second Edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs from 1570.

Two of Luther’s own sermons (printed at Wittenberg in 1522) are on display, and reproduced in translation.

“I find it really fascinating to be able to read and think, here is a document that is a living document, that a congregation would have heard in the same way that someone might hear one of our sermons today,” says Dean of Toronto and rector of St. James Cathedral, Andrew Asbil. “For 500 years, here it is. And it continues to speak.”

Much of how the Reformation spread was through mass media, notes Archivist Nancy Mallett, curator of the museum and archives at the Cathedral Church of St. James. The newly invented printing press made it easier to distribute literature and translations of the Bible, and revolutionized the way art could be produced and disseminated. On display in the exhibit are copies of several cartoons and caricatures, including two original prints from the time, forerunners of our modern editorial cartoons. “People couldn’t read, so the caricatures drew their attention to things,” says Mallett, who put together the exhibit along with a team of volunteers.

Some of the drawings on display seem like light teasing; a Catholic caricature of music-loving Luther with his nose turned into a flute, for example, or a drawing of Luther writing his theses on the church door with a long pen that is knocking off the pope’s crown. Others, however, show the darker side of this fraught period. An original print of a woodcut from 1545 shows a gruesome imagined scene of the pope and his cardinals hanging from the gallows with their tongues cut from their mouths.

Asbil sees the Reformation as “formative in the way that we as Anglicans walk our faith.”

He adds: “Five hundred years of history, in the grand scheme of things, feels like a very short period of time in our journey as Christians … It’s always ‘what’s old is new again’, and what our ancestors learned in their walk in faith is something that we continue to learn in our own time.”

It is important to reflect today on the importance of the Reformation, Asbil says. “Pulling together all the artifacts and being able to say, we’ve travelled 500 years … in some ways we’ve travelled further apart, and in some ways we’re travelling closer together.”

The exhibit is on view in the nave of the Cathedral from October 25 to November 1. There is no cost for admission.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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