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Christ vs Antichrist: Comparing Actions in Religious Polemical Print

By Jessica G. Purdy |

Printed religious and political polemic was a mainstay of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the aftermath of the Reformation, Protestants pitted themselves against Catholics and juxtaposed their stances on almost every aspect of doctrine possible. These conflicts were often played out in the form of printed propaganda, and innumerable examples of these arguments, accusations and responses survive across Europe.

A particularly interesting and early example of these polemical writings is the German vernacular text, Passional Christi und Antichristi (Passion of Christ and Antichrist). Attributed both to Martin Luther, and to his co-religionist Philip Melanchthon, the work was published in Wittenberg in 1521 by Johann Rhau-Grunenberg. It is also illustrated by 13 pairs of antithetical woodcuts by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The work was reproduced in various languages throughout Europe. Johannes Hoochstraten printed an English translation by John Frith in Antwerp in 1529, under the title A pistle to the Christian Reader: The Revelation of Antichrist. Antithesis, Wherein are Compared Togeder Christes Actes and Our Holye Father the Popes (USTC 407350). A French translation, under the more ambiguous title Les faitz de Iesus Christ et du Pape, par lesquelz chacun pourra facilement cognoistre la grande difference d’entre eux (The facts of Jesus Christ and the Pope, by which each one can easily understand the great difference of them) was published by Pierre de Vingle in Lyons in 1534, and reprinted by an anonymous printer in c.1560.

The Passional Christi und Antichristi and A pistle to the Christian Reader: The Revelation of Antichrist provide a stark comparison between the exemplary life of Christ, captioned with quotations from the Gospels, and the sacrilegious actions and government of the Pope, captioned by quotations from canon law. The title of the French edition, Les faitz de Iesus Christ et du Pape, par lesquelz chacun pourra facilement cognoistre la grande difference d’entre eux, is suggestive of a religious text that merely seeks to present the Gospel alongside a history of the papacy. However, it too contains opposing images of Christ and the Pope’s earthly examples, ultimately framing the Pope as both the literal and prophetic Antichrist.

The juxtaposition of images depicting the lives of Christ and Antichrist were, of course, not new. John Wycliffe employed a similar technique in the mid-fourteenth century, and became the first person to compare the Pope to Antichrist.

The images included in each translation of the Passional Christi und Antichristi demonstrate the Pope’s distortion of Christ’s life and teachings. For example, an image of Christ washing the feet of his disciples sits next to a woodcut of the Pope having his feet kissed, drawing interesting comparisons between the roles of servant and master in each image. A second pair of woodcuts first shows Christ carrying the Cross whilst in great pain, and pairs it with an image of the Pope being carried in a decorated litter carried by four men, and escorted by a fifth man.

These editions, and the woodcut images they all contained, promoted Protestantism and vilified the Pope for his corruption of Christ’s life. The clever combination by Luther of words and images made the religious messages accessible to the literate and illiterate alike. The two mediums worked together to inspire both shock and devotion within the reader and undoubtedly engendered a fiercely emotional response. The popularity of these works was aided by the spread and reach of print and the increasing fascination with anything associated with Luther in the mid-sixteenth century.

Each of these works, the 1521 German edition, the 1529 English edition, and the c.1560 French edition, are all held by the John Rylands Library in Manchester, one of the Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partner libraries. Whilst the German and English editions are as common as it is possible to be whilst still being deemed ‘rare’, the French edition lives up to its epithet: only this copy and a variant copy at Sankt Gallen in Switzerland are known to survive.

The French edition was previously owned by the Jesuit Collège de Lyons in 1614 (their ownership inscription can be seen on the title page), and later by James Whatman, the eighteenth-century Kentish papermaker and noted collector of early French books. The Rylands’ English edition also has a reasonably impressive history. It was once in the possession of the seventeenth-century antiquarian, Thomas Baker, before it was owned by a John Benet in the eighteenth century, who wrote the ownership inscription that can be seen in the above photo. Frith’s English translation was also owned by William Tyssen-Amherst, first Baron Amherst of Hackney in the nineteenth century. The German edition was owned by the German-Canadian Dr Otto Schäfer in the twentieth century. All three were acquired by the John Rylands Library between 1995 and 2017, when they were put on display as part of the Rylands’ quincentennial commemorative ‘Reformation’ exhibition, which showcased rare religious tracts connected with the monumental changes sparked by the Reformation. From the long collecting history to the diversity of translations, it is clear that Luther’s contrasting textual and visual argument formed a simple and potent message with incredibly wide appeal.


Jessica G. Purdy is a PhD Candidate in Book History at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her thesis examines the foundation of parish libraries and the use of their collections by readers in an attempt to understand religion at a parish level. Her general research interests centre around the history and physicality of the book and reading, the political and religious changes during the English Reformation, women in power in medieval and early modern England, and the Tudor and Stuart courts.

Twitter: @jessicagpurdy

Academica: https://mmu.academia.edu/JessicaPurdy


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