Martin Luther and
15th Century Rome

Erik Erikson
Every monastic order had a central office in Rome, as well as a mother monastery; but a monk on business would not get any closer to the Vatican than the office of his order's procurator. Martin was able to meet only some bureaucrats, lobbyists, the shyster lawyers, and the political agents attached to the various office-holders; and the prostitutes of both sexes who beset them all.

As for Renaissance splendor, the city architecture did not reflect much of it as yet. Imposing avenues had been planned and partially laid out; and a few grandiose palaces, with rather stern and simple exteriors, had been erected to house the Renaissance which was on the move to Rome. But whatever existed of uniform styles of life and of art was confined mostly to the exclusive interiors of these palaces; the streets were still medieval in character. Michelangelo was at work on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael was adorning the wars of the Pope's chambers; but these projects were private, and excluded, if not the popolo of aristocrats, certainly the populace at large, and all undistinguished foreigners. St. Peter's was in the process of being rebuilt, many of the old buildings having been torn down to make space for that imperial edifice which would not be completed for another century. What in style was a renaissance of Caesarian antiquity, no doubt seemed primarily Italian to the busy German monk; he was interested in works of art only for the sake of some curious historical circumstance, or gigantic proportions, or some surprising realism of technique which always impresses those who have not specifically learned to enthuse about a new style.

In his provincial eagerness to absorb the spiritual possibilities of Rome, Martin visited the seven churches, fasting all the way, in order to be ready for communion in St. Peter's, the last and most important. He had no thought of disengaging himself from the flourishing relic business, and he went eagerly to see the arms of his beloved St. Anne, which were displayed in a church separately from the rest of her bones. He saw with awe the halves of the bodies of St. Peter and of St. Paul, which had been weighed to prevent injustice to the church harboring the other halves. The churches were proud of these saintly slices: some later saints, immediately after their souls' departures, had been carefully boiled to prepare their bones for immediate shipment to worthy bidders. With these and other relics, the various churches maintained a kind of permanent fair where one could see, for a fee, Jesus's footprint in a piece of marble, or one of Judas's silver coins. One sight of this coin could save the viewer fourteen hundred years in purgatory; the wanderer along the holy road from the Lateran Church to St. Peter's had done his afterlife as much good as by a pilgrimage to the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem. And so much cheaper.

--- From The Erik Erikson Reader
Robert Coles, Editor
(c) 2000, Norton

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