A Brief Animated History of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses & the Reformation–Which Changed Europe and Later the World

What­ev­er our reli­gious back­ground, we all soon­er or lat­er have occa­sion to speak of nail­ing the­ses to a door. Most of us use the phrase as a metaphor, but sel­dom entire­ly with­out aware­ness of the his­tor­i­cal events that inspired it. On Octo­ber 31, 1517, a Ger­man priest and the­olo­gian named Mar­tin Luther nailed to the door of Wit­ten­berg’s All Saints’ Church his own the­ses, 95 of them, which col­lec­tive­ly made an argu­ment against the Roman Catholic Church’s prac­tice of sell­ing indul­gences, or par­dons for sins. Luther could not accept that the poor should “spend all their mon­ey buy­ing their way out of pun­ish­ment so they can go to heav­en,” nor that it should be “eas­i­er for the rich to avoid a long time in pur­ga­to­ry.”

In oth­er words, Luther believed that the Church in his time had become “way too much about mon­ey and too lit­tle about God,” accord­ing to the nar­ra­tion of the short film above. Cre­at­ed by Tum­ble­head Stu­dios and show­cased by Nation­al Geo­graph­ic for the 500th anniver­sary of the orig­i­nal the­sis-nail­ing, its five play­ful­ly ani­mat­ed min­utes tell the sto­ry of the Ref­or­ma­tion, which saw Protes­tantism split off from Catholi­cism as a result of Luther’s agi­ta­tion. It also man­ages to include such events as Luther’s own trans­la­tion of the New Tes­ta­ment, pre­vi­ous­ly avail­able only in Greek and Latin, into his native Ger­man, the pub­li­ca­tion of which cre­at­ed the basis of the mod­ern Ger­man lan­guage as spo­ken and writ­ten today.

Luther’s trans­la­tion gave ordi­nary peo­ple “the oppor­tu­ni­ty to read the Bible in their own lan­guage,” free from the inter­pre­ta­tions of the priests and the Church. It also gave them, per­haps less inten­tion­al­ly, the abil­i­ty to “use the words of the Bible as an argu­ment for all sorts of things.” Luther’s thoughts were soon mar­shaled “in the pow­er strug­gles of princes, in revolts, and in the strug­gle between kings, princes, and the Pope about who actu­al­ly decides what.” Squab­bles, bat­tles, and full-scale wars ensued. The con­se­quent insti­tu­tion­al schisms changed the world in ways vis­i­ble half a mil­len­ni­um lat­er — but they first changed Europe, where traces of that trans­for­ma­tion still reveal them­selves most strik­ing­ly. Few trav­el­ers can be trust­ed to find and explain those traces more ably than pub­lic-tele­vi­sion host Rick Steves.

In Luther and the Ref­or­ma­tion, his 2017 spe­cial above, Steves vis­its all the impor­tant sites involved in the cen­tral fig­ure’s life jour­ney, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion in micro­cosm of Europe’s grand shift from medieval­ism into moder­ni­ty.  In more than 40 years of pro­fes­sion­al trav­el, Steves has paid count­less vis­its to the mon­u­ments of Catholic Europe. Appre­ci­at­ing them, he admit­ted in a recent New York Times Mag­a­zine pro­file, required him to “park my Protes­tant sword at the door.” His sto­ry-of-the-Ref­or­ma­tion tour, how­ev­er, lets him draw on his own Luther­an tra­di­tion with his char­ac­ter­is­tic enthu­si­asm. That enthu­si­asm, in part, that has made him a such a suc­cess­ful trav­el entre­pre­neur, though he pre­sum­ably knows when to stop amass­ing wealth: after all, it’s eas­i­er for a camel to go through the eye of a nee­dle than for a rich man to enter the king­dom of God. Or so the New Tes­ta­ment has it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the World’s Five Major Reli­gions: Hin­duism, Judaism, Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­i­ty & Islam

60-Sec­ond Adven­tures in Reli­gion: Watch New Ani­ma­tions by The Open Uni­ver­si­ty

Ani­mat­ed Map Shows How the Five Major Reli­gions Spread Across the World (3000 BC – 2000 AD)

The Reli­gious Affil­i­a­tion of Com­ic Book Heroes

Chris­tian­i­ty Through Its Scrip­tures: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty

Rick Steves’ Europe: Binge Watch 11 Sea­sons of America’s Favorite Trav­el­er Free Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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