Martin Luther

WB.175     1850–98 • Enamelled and gem-set gold, heliotrope • medallion

With a gold portrait of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546), founder of the Lutheran faith. The profile is probably copied from an engraved ‘portrait’ of 1710–20 by Adolph van Laan. The jewel was made in the Renaissance style in the mid-19th century.

Curator's Description

Circular bloodstone medallion; bust of Martin Luther in gold and relief; gold frame, enamelled with herring-bone pattern; outer border of scrolls interrupted by diamonds in raised settings; suspension chain.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

8 cm wide, 7.3 cm high, 4.9 cm deep, and it weighs 31.6g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1986:-

Origin: Uncertain; perhaps Dutch or German, 18th or 19th century; set in a neo-Renaissance frame.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: The identification of this bust as a portrait of Martin Luther was first published in Read 1902 but no sources for this particular likeness were listed, although the medallion was catalogued as “German, 16th century” - an attribution repeated in Dalton 1927.

The well-known contemporary portraits of Martin Luther are those few brilliant studies produced by his most trusted friend, Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), who from 1505 was court painter to the Elector of Saxony, mainly working in Wittenburg itself. Their friendship was to develop into a particularly close relationship, even to becoming godfathers to each other's children after Luther's marriage in middle age to the ex-nun, Katherine von Bora - a marriage at which Lucas Cranach acted as a witness. Cranach's portraits of Martin Luther between 1520 and 1526 are penetrating and illuminating documents, revealing some of the violently contrasting aspects of Luther's extraordinary personality. Indeed, Cranach's only profile portrait of Luther is dated 1520, when Luther was thirty-seven, and it serves as a valuable point of comparison with the gold relief in this pendant medallion. There is no mistaking the heavy jaw and coarse jowl that were to become even more pronounced with age; nor, indeed, that distinctive brow, nose and mouth that make his likeness so recognisable.

Whilst the gold relief in the medallion undoubtedly depicts Martin Luther, it probably aims to portray him as a man of fifty or more years. The famous painting of Luther aged forty-five, which entered the Electoral Kunstkammer in Dresden in 1621 from the estate of Giovanni Maria Nosseni, provides the most conclusive evidence of how Luther's face had aged; although it is a three-quarters view and the hair is hidden under a hat, the heavy firm-set contours of that forceful face are most clearly recorded.

Profile portraits of the middle-aged Luther are more difficult to find, especially as they do not exist among the vast range of plaquettes and medals of the sixteenth century. Both the German and Netherlandish plaquettes of the Renaissance might be expected to provide the source of this gold relief, but there appears to be no related specimens before the 200 years' Anniversary of the Reformation, held in 1717, when several medals with the almost identical bust portrait of Luther were struck, the earliest being attributed to J. von A. Karlsteen (1654-1718) and C. Wermuth.

This gold relief within a pendant medallion, therefore, appears to be the only one of its kind in existence. The search for an engraving or print which the goldsmith might have copied has revealed that not only were profile portraits of Luther extremely rare but also that the most strikingly similar bust in profile was by an early eighteenth-century artist, Adolph van der Laan, whose etchings were being produced in Amsterdam during the first three or four decades of the century. His portrait of Martin Luther is fully signed with the words ‘del. et sculp.’, which might seem to indicate that he had freely created this interpretation rather than basing it closely upon an older portrait. It appears to belong to the period c. 1710-20 and to offer an idealised picture of the ageing founder of Lutheranism - a subject that would appeal to a fairly wide audience in Holland in the eighteenth century.

When van der Laan's version is carefully compared with the gold relief, which is exactly reversed in every detail, the similarities are striking: the three-quarter angle of the shoulders and the strict profile of the head itself; the hair with its curling, wavy treatment falling to the collar and becoming thick at the back of the neck; the soft shirt collar, tied with a short string, the voluminous folds of the sleeves of the doctor's gown with its smooth shoulders and bands in front. The goldsmith working in his soft medium in high relief might well depart a little from his engraved source, and so it seems probable that these two versions and the 1717 Anniversary medals of Luther are directly related.

Because the age and origin of the pendant jewel are totally undocumented, the possibility that Adolph van der Laan's print served as a model for the goldsmith has to be considered. Although the goldsmith has created a pendant jewel of largely Renaissance character, there are many puzzling and inconsistent features. Neither the enamelled cartouches on either side of each of the six diamonds nor the intervening six strips of feeble, stringy scrollwork in black enamel are convincing as part of the repertoire of a Renaissance goldsmith. An analysis of the design of those six repetitive strips of ornamental scrollwork reveals several elements that are contrary to true Renaissance practice, although it is clearly closely related to a type of mid-sixteenth-century enamelled decoration best exemplified by the two heart-shaped pendant lockets in the Schatzkammer der Residenz, Munich, first recorded in the inventories of 1598 and 1635 (see H. Thoma and H. Brunner, ‘Katalog der Schatzkammer der Residenz’, Munich, 1964, nos 639, 640). This distinctive form of scrolling black champlevé enamel, occasionally found on a delicately pounced gold ground, has been attributed to a Munich court goldsmith, perhaps Hans Reimer, in the third quarter of the sixteenth century.

Furthermore, the goldsmith has omitted to provide the usual central suspension loop at the top of the medallion, which is normally mid-way between the two side loops; the latter are, in fact, rarely to be found on pendant jewels of oval or circular form, as contemporary drawings and designs for sixteenth-century jewels testify. A medallion jewel that had originally been intended as a hat-badge or enseigne would have four loops for stitching on to the cloth, but this jewelled frame shows no sign of alteration and it must be assumed that the frame was designed as a pendant ab initio, albeit without the central suspension loop.

Finally, the goldsmith's use of a polished hardstone as a background to the plain gold relief is equally puzzling. The very few extant examples are all firmly associated with workshops in Italy, particularly in Florence, where the plain gold reliefs superimposd on semi-precious stones, as in the seven lunettes of 1585 representing scenes from the life of the Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici (reigned 1574-87) and made for a tabernacle in the Tribuna of the Uffizi, are firm proof of the continuing vogue for this kind of work (Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti, ‘Capolavori del Museo degli Argenti’, Florence, 1969, no. 80). A similarly well-documented example, the large Pax of the Lamentation presented to the Cathedral of Milan in 1561 by Pope Pius IV, has plain gold reliefs of crowded scenes applied to a ground of banded agate, and consequently it has been assumed that this kind of work was also being done in a Milanese workshop (see Yvonne Hackenbroch, ‘Renaissance Jewellery’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, New York and Munich, 1979, p. 41, fig. 83). However, the two much-published pendant jewels with portrait busts of the Emperor Charles V (as the victor of Tunis in 1535) and of François I, both in the form of gold 'cut-out' heads and shoulders on, respectively, jasper and lapis lazuli backgrounds, are both elaborately enamelled and neither has a provenance or a documented history. Indeed, the one publicly owned example - the Charles V, victor of Tunis, medallion in the J. Pierpont Morgan Gift of 1917 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - seems of very doubtful antiquity and is almost certainly inspired by the similar but far more beautiful version without any enamel decoration, which is mounted in a small turned ivory box in the Hapsburg Imperial Treasury in Vienna. (For illustrations of both the Charles V and the François I enamelled medallions see Hackenbroch 1979, figs 68 and 72 and col. pl. II, where both are attributed to a workshop in Milan, c. 1536-47, but where no mention is made of the historic Hapsburg version in Vienna; the latter is discussed in Ernst Kris, ‘Goldschmiedearbeiten des Mittelalters, der Renaissance und Barock’, Vienna, 1932, no. 38, pl. 29; for a second close variant in a wooden box see no. 39, pl. 29.)

A third unprovenanced - and extremely dubious - pendant jewel of this type depicts the Emperor Charles V as an ageing man and has quite recently been published as having been “given the lapis lazuli ground and setting some time in the late nineteenth century, possibly in Vienna” (see A Somers Cocks and C. Truman, ‘The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection’, London, 1984, pp. 158-9, no. 40). However, it is also stated that the gold bust in relief is “Italian, mid-sixteenth century” and that it was very probably removed from its original back-plate at the time when the gold enamelled, gem-set frame and lapis lazuli ground were made. The history of the piece, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, extends back only to the Max von Goldschmidt-Rothschild Collection, much of which was sold at Parke-Bernet, New York, in April 1950. Just as the Metropolitan Museum's pendant jewel of Charles V, as victor of Tunis in 1535, is very similar to the beautiful version in the turned ivory box in the Hapsburg Treasury in Vienna, so this gold relief of the ageing Charles V corresponds closely to a far finer version mounted on a hardstone ground in a turned wooden box, also preserved in the Hapsburg Imperial Treasury (Inv. no. 2222; see Kris 1932, no. 40, pl. 29, where the ground is described as obsidian). As both these gold reliefs of Charles V (the Pierpont Morgan enamelled example and the Max von Goldschmidt-Rothschild plain example) are also closely related to two well-known medals by Leone Leoni, the goldsmith who made them had a most readily available source to draw upon. Among the 1,079 drawings by Reinhold Vasters (in the Victoria and Albert Museum) are two carefully coloured oval pendant medallions in jewelled enamelled frames of the Emperor Charles V, both in profile on a lapis lazuli ground. One drawing depicts Charles V in armour and laurel wreath exactly as in the Pierpont Morgan version but without the inscription; the other drawing corresponds closely with the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection example, except that the drapery and the bonnet are enamelled in red; even the neo-Renaissance oval frames are very similar in design. The faker and restorer Reinhold Vasters (active 1853-90) was a goldsmith of Aachen and the drawings were sold at Vasters' sale in 1909 and came, via Murray Marks, to London; ten years later they entered the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection.

In the 1984 catalogue of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Charles V is said to be 'stamped-out and chased', but without seeing the reverse of the relief no definite opinion about the technique of manufacture can be formed; it is not stated how the relief is fixed to the ground, but as there is only one general photograph in colour and the back of the lapis lazuli is stated to be 'plain', it is presumably fixed by means of an adhesive. The areas of drapery and the bonnet worn by the ageing Charles V are given a kind of texture by a roughened or matted surface - very much in the manner of the Martin Luther medallion. This feature is unique to these two reliefs, neither of which was intended to be enamelled.

Not only are there no surviving pendant portrait jewels of this type which can be accepted as authentic - the François I medallion was also found to be set in a neo-Renaissance frame - but there are no references in the documents and archives to jewelled settings for these gold portrait reliefs. The examples in Vienna are cabinet pieces, mounted in ivory or wooden boxes; similarly, “the four medals, that is the Pope, the Emperor, the King of France and the Turk, in thin gold on backgrounds of black sardonyx” belonging to Isabella d'Este, who died in Mantua in 1539, were not intended to be worn as jewels and were not mounted in precious settings but were kept with her collection of 1,620 objects in her famous Grotta and adjacent rooms. These four medaglie were thus briefly described by the notary Odoardo Stivini in the inventory which he drew up in 1542 (‘Archivo Gonzaga. b. 400’, in the Archivo di Stato, Mantua; printed in A. Luzio, Isabella d'Este, ‘Archivo Storico Lombardo’, X, 1908, pp. 413-25), but there is no record of what became of them after the Gonzaga collections were dispersed in the seventeenth century. However, even if there were documents or other evidence to show that mid-sixteenth-century workshops in Milan and Florence did produce these pendant portrait jewels, in which the gold bust in relief is 'cut out' and set on a ground of polished hardstone, an Italian origin for the Martin Luther pendant medallion would be even more improbable than a Bavarian provenance.

Evidence of jewels of this type in mid-sixteenth-century France can rarely be found in the inventory of 1560 listing the jewels belonging to the French Crown (see Inventaire des Joyaux de la Couronne de France en 1560, ed. P. Lacroix, ‘Revue universelle des arts’, III, Paris, 1856, pp. 335- 50; IV, Paris, 1856-7, pp. 445-56, 518-36). There is one jewel listed, which might appear to combine a hardstone ground with an applied gold head in relief:

“no. 440: Une enseigne sur fons de lappis où il y a applicqué dessus une teste de femme et à l'endroict de l'oreille une petite poincte de diamant, estimee xx.”

This hat-badge (enseigne), with its lapis lazuli ground and female head with a diamond in the ear, might have been a plain gold relief enriched with a diamond, but the clerk compiling this inventory has omitted the vital descriptive details and so, equally, it might have been a cameo head of a woman. In any case, the country of origin (or atelier) is not mentioned, and there is no suggestion that the head is a portrait of a contemporary person. The one item that does identify a contemporary person is not described as a jewel; it simply reads:

“476. Une pierre noire où il y a dessus l'empereur Charles le Quint qui est doré seullement, estimee vi.”

This portrait was only gilded metal, of low value and clearly not intended for wearing. Certainly Luther did not have a powerful following in France, where the Huguenots were principally Calvinists, and consequently in those days of violent persecution of the French Lutherans (the 'Martineau') it seems wholly untenable to propose a French origin for the Martin Luther pendant jewel.

Perhaps the most telling argument against the medallion's classification as a Renaissance jewel is the absence of any evidence to show that portraits of contemporary (or near-contemporary) famous men were ever mounted in gem-set jewels and worn as pendants for all to see. Whilst it became de rigueur for favoured subjects to wear jewels proudly displaying the portraits of their prince (and even of his consort), whether carved in cameo, enamelled in gold relief or executed in the more medallic idiom of the ‘gnadenpfennig’, this custom appears never to have been extended to include the wearing of a portrait jewel depicting men like Martin Luther, even among those German princes who, like the Elector of Saxony, became staunch adherents of Lutheranism.

Although the neo-Renaissance style of the frame of this pendant jewel is generally indicative of a mid-nineteenth-century origin, the unusual character of the gold relief and the fine cutting of the heliotrope background might favour a slightly earlier date. Eighteenth-century Dutch craftsmen, when meeting the demand for a luxury object decorated with Luther's portrait, would tend to copy from the most popular print available. It is interesting to note, therefore, that a silver box made in Amsterdam in 1736 by the silversmith Willem Wobbe is engraved with the portraits of Huss and Luther - the latter being remarkably close to the print by Adolph van der Laan and, hence, to the gold relief of this pendant jewel. (For an illustration and a complete description of the silver box by Willem Wobbe see J. W. Frederiks, ‘Dutch Silver’, vol. II, The Hague, 1958, p. 98, no. 283.) Whilst a Dutch origin for the gold portrait relief now seems certain, the possibility of a later neo-Renaissance frame being made in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century to replace an older frame cannot be overlooked.


  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 175, pl. XLII
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 175
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no. 40, pl. XXVI, fig. 178.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1986: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels, London, BMP, 1986

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