Martin Luther: Fat Reformer?

By his own admission, Luther put on a few extra pounds in his later years. During a business trip (of sorts) to Eisleben (his place of birth) several days before his death, he joked to friends that he would shortly return to Wittenberg and "give the worms a fat doctor to feast on." In actual fact he never made it back to Wittenberg. He passed away in Eisleben early in the morning on 18 February 1546. 

luther's face in death.jpg

A sketch of Luther's face in death, completed by Lukas Furtenagel the same afternoon, lends some support to Luther's self-designation as a "fat doctor." Furtenagel's main purpose in drawing the dead Reformer was to capture Luther's calm composure. Furtenagel, in other words, wished to make it clear to anyone interested that Luther had died with complete confidence that God would welcome him into his eternal presence on the basis of Christ's completed work for him. But in the process, Furtenagel captured some rather telling fat rolls on the Reformer's neck. 

Furtenagel's portrait of Luther's face in death served as the basis for Lukas Cranach the Younger's fuller portrait of Luther on his death bed. Cranach's oil painting gave Luther a torso which more or less matched the plump facial (and neck) features discovered in Furtenagel's drawing and -- again -- gave some credibility to Luther's own apparent assessment of his weight.

Luther on deathbed.jpg

Even so, certain early modern Roman Catholic representations of Luther grossly exaggerated (pardon the pun) claims of his fatness. So, for instance:

Luther as Winesack.png

Luther's rotundness in this image serves to highlight (or suggest) his gluttonous character. Similarly, the enlarged (and rather fancy) chalice he carries in his hand suggests his proclivity for the demon drink (not to mention extravagance). The presence of the chalice likewise reminds viewers of Luther's rebellious insistence upon serving the laity the Eucharist wine. The downtrodden wife in tow suggests, perhaps, his tyranny. And the slew of children tucked into both ends of Luther's wheelbarrow suggest his addiction to another "vice," not to mention his (and his wife's) failure to observe the monastic vow of celibacy which he (and she) had taken in the years prior to the Reformation. Intriguingly, Luther's "illegitimate children" in this image are in fact other Protestant reformers (hence the otherwise alarming reality that many of them are bearded). John Calvin can be seen on the far right side of the front portion of the wheelbarrow (almost as if he were leading the pack, somewhat appropriately). All in all, Luther is represented here as fairly reprehensible.

Gauging Luther's actual degree of weight gain in later life might prove a difficult task, and for that matter, a rather worthless one. But perhaps his added pounds, whatever their number, have some theological significance. One could, at a stretch, argue that, much like his serene expression in death, they point to his confidence that God's evaluation of him rested, in the final analysis, upon Christ's obedience and suffering in his stead, not upon his own performance, even as such was reflected in his restraint (or lack thereof) at the dinner table.