Tag Archives: Reformation

That one afternoon hanging out at the winery really paid off

Johannes Gutenberg

Now we know what relief printing is. What really got the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation going was the printing press. Printing is for making multiple images, the printing press is for making many multiple images quickly.

What if you could save time by applying even pressure across an inked block with a giant screw instead of laboriously rubbing it down with a baren?

In 1436, in Germany, Johannes Gutenberg came up with the screw press idea, or at least he saw a wine press in use and adapted it for printing. A wine press has a straight-sided barrel with gaps between the staves. You load the grapes into the barrel, then lower a heavy metal disk on top of them to break the skins and crush the grapes. You put additional pressure on the disk by turning a big vertical screw. The grape juice runs out the gaps in the barrel and into a tray.

Gutenberg’s press

Gutenberg used the same technology to exert pressure on an inked wood block and paper. Watch these Youtube videos to see how it works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeikqw0kyqI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLctAw4JZXE

http://www.bargaintraveleurope.com/12/Germany_Wine_Museum_Rudesheim.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_wine_press

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How block printing is done

The block or plate is a flat piece of wood or linoleum that you cut a design into with cutting tools.
You spread the ink onto the block with a brayer—a rubber roller. The ink goes on the parts that stick up.
You lay a sheet of paper on top of the inked block and apply pressure to it (make sure the ink is pressed to the paper) with a baren.
Carefully pull the sheet off the block and hang it to dry.

Here’s your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about block printing— https://www.boardingallrows.com/block-printing
https://www.dickblick.com/categories/printmaking/tools/

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Relief printing

Wait a minute—how did the Protestant Reformation become such a big deal so quickly? How did copies of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe? Copies? Who copied ‘em? Not the monks—copying 95 Theses was the kind of thing that got you fired from your church job.

One word: printing. Er—no, make that 2 words: printing press.

Let’s talk about printing first. Printing allows you to make many images that are all alike.



Printing is a graphic design process where you transfer an image onto a surface. Printing can be as simple as leaving muddy footprints—you transfer the image of your feet in mud onto the clean kitchen floor. That’s called ‘relief printing.’ ‘Relief’ refers to the raised treads on your sneakers. Relief is the part that sticks up. A rubber stamp is a relief printer. The raised parts transfer ink onto a piece of paper. Maybe when you were young you cut a potato in half, carved a drawing into the flat surface, dipped it in paint and pressed it onto a piece of paper. That’s relief printing.

Print artists carve an image into wood or linoleum, roll ink onto it and transfer the ink onto paper by applying pressure—
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-printmaking
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/special-topics-art-history/creating-conserving/printmaking/v/moma-relief-process
https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/family-how-to-relief-printing

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Honey, I started the Reformation

Martin Luther famously wrote down all his beefs with the Church and nailed them to the front door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. They were the 95 Theses (plural of thesis)—ideas to be discussed. His goal was simply to reform the Church, get it back on track. He didn’t take into account that people were tired of overbearing institutions like the feudal system and the Church. Martin Luther had set off unintentionally the Protestant Reformation. Oops. Copies of his 95 Theses spread across Germany and Europe. People seized on these theses and seethed. The Pope was not happy with Martin Luther and put him on trial. Luther refused to take back what he said. The upshot was Luther was excommunicated—made an outlaw who couldn’t be part of the Church any more. He couldn’t even attend mass. So Martin Luther started up his own church. This branch of the Christian Church, which includes Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, &c, &c, is called ‘Protestant.’ To differentiate it, the old Church is called ‘Catholic,’ which means universal.

While he was in exile (and this is why I brought up the Reformation), Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German so Germans could read it. What a guy! The only problem was, handwritten books are expensive. Getting a team of monks to write out a whole bible is no picnic. The Bible (KJV) has 783,137 words. Up until around the Year of our Lord 1450, owning a bible was a rich-guy luxury, whatever the language. If only there were some way to make more bibles, cheaper and faster.**

** Martin Luther left out 7 books from his translation of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) because they’d been rejected by the Jewish Council of Jamnia in ad 90. Those books are still in the Catholic Bible tucked in between the Old & New Testaments. They’re known as the Apocrypha. 

ps—Luther, like the Church he reformed, was flawed. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that he was capable of the antisemitism that must have been common in Europe 500 years ago—he published a screed against Jews. As I said last post: we’re imperfect; we try to learn from our mistakes and trust G-d loves us anyway.

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https://www.history.com/topics/reformation/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses
https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/thesis
https://wordcounter.net/blog/2015/12/08/10975_how-many-words-bible.html
https://www.britannica.com/topic/apocrypha

Martin Luther

My take on Lucas Cranach’s portrait of Martin Luther. His studio cranked out a bunch of these. There’s one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436047 They got Joseph Fiennes to play Luther in the 2003 movie. I think they should have gone with a beefier actor like Phillip Seymour Hoffman (wasn’t he still alive back then?). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309820/

I wrote in earlier posts about 2 things that were troubling about the mediæval Church:
1) the Bible was not accessible to ordinary shmos, mainly because it was in Latin. Hardly anybody spoke Latin anymore. Hardly anybody could even read.
2) the clergy sold indulgences, which promoted the idea you could buy your way into Heaven.*

Both of these conditions were troubling to a monk in Saxony (where Germany is now) named Martin Luther (ad 1483 – 1546). He was a philosopher as well as a religious scholar. His philosophical mind told him there should be nothing to stand between you and G-d. The clergy shouldn’t need to intercede on your behalf—anybody can have a conversation with G-d directly in the form of prayer.

Why? Because Jesus was crucified to pay for our sins. That’s it. Paid in full. Selling indulgences to absolve sin belittles Jesus’ sacrifice. Martin Luther put forth the idea that only your faith and G-d’s grace are needed to get into Heaven. Grace is a gift freely given. You have merely to believe in Christ’s sacrifice to benefit from it. 

* I want to reassure my Catholic Christian pals that the corruption of the Church we’re talking about was from 500 years ago. I’m not knocking Catholicism nor promoting Protestantism. Churches, like human beings, aren’t perfect. We muddle along. We try to learn from our mistakes and trust that G-d loves us in spite of them.

https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/sola-gratia/
https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/martin-luther
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/luther/

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Another monopoly on communications

If you were a member of the population’s majority (serfs and short-on-cash freemen), you were feeling left out. You couldn’t afford books and you couldn’t read them and you couldn’t understand the language they’re written in. You went to church but couldn’t understand what was being read out of the Bible.

Devout Christians wanted to connect with their Savior but it seemed like the only people who could talk to Jesus were the clergy, because they spoke Latin. The priests must have believed that they alone had access to G-d. That was a problem.*

Religion concerns itself with the afterlife: where do we go when we die? The Bible tells us we each are a soul with a body attached. Because we have weak, material, worldly bodies, we’re all prone to sin. In the Christian Church, sin is to disobey the Ten Commandments or to disobey the teaching of Christ. If you haven’t properly confessed and atoned for a sin you committed, the sin could keep you out of Heaven. The Church had a process whereby a Christian confessed sin and was told what he had to do (prayer and/or good works) to get his soul back on track.** But beginning in the thirteenth century, churches were selling indulgences—people gave money to the church to make sure they got into Heaven right away after they died.

So once again, a small handful of elites were in sole control of communication—this time it was communication between human beings and G-d. The illiterate shmos had little access to that communication. Not everyone in the clergy was happy about that. Just as we saw with the ancient Egyptian scribes when the alphabet hit, big things were about to shake loose.

* I’m a Presbyterian who enjoys going to other people’s churches now and then. I have to tell you, a Catholic mass in Latin (maybe it was here https://sites.google.com/site/unavocepittsburgh/latinmasspittsburgh) is an almost transcendental experience. I didn’t understand the particulars of what was said—anyone can figure out the obvious bits—but it was moving. I guess I’m saying my take on what’s coming up next is complicated.

**As usual, I’m simplifying this topic.

https://brewminate.com/forgiveness-for-sale-indulgences-in-the-medieval-church/
https://www.thoughtco.com/indulgences-their-role-in-the-reformation-1221776

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