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The Story of the Luther Seal, or Luther Rose

October 10th, 2012
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luther-sealLuther’s seal, or as it is sometimes called, Luther’s rose, is the most widely known symbol of Lutheranism. It’s origins are interesting. Luther was  invited to create a personal symbol to summarize his faith in the 1520, as his writings became increasingly popular, there was a desire on the part of the Wittenberg printers somehow to try to indicate what was an authorized publication of Luther’s works, and so they asked Luther to tell them what he would like to have as his personal mark on his published works. I put a copy of the first known printed version of the seal, further down in this post.

It was very common in Luther’s Day for public servants, theologians, political rulers, and others of some public note, to have a personal seal. In 1530, Prince John Frederick wanted to give Luther a gift of a signet ring, as an expression of his appreciation, love and respect for Dr. Luther. The gift was personally presented to Luther, by Prince John, at the Coburg Castle on September 14, Holy Cross Day, when the Prince stopped at Coburg while travelling back from the meeting in Augsburg. The Coburg Fortress was the southernmost fortified property in what was then Electoral Saxony.  Luther could not attend the Diet of Augsburg, but had to remain behind in Coburg, since he was still considered by the Emperor, Charles V, to be a public criminal, not to mention the fact that he was also considered a heretic and excommunicated by the Roman Church.  Lazarus Spengler, of Nürnberg, [see note below about Spengler], apparently helped to have the ring prepared, he asked Luther for an explanation of the seal. Luther offered both an explanation and also an indication of the colors it should contain. This was somewhat unusual, for full color seals were very rare, in these early years of printing. Any four-color image in a book would have to be provided by hand. The ring was a thank you from John Frederick to Luther, in return for Luther having dedicated his translation of the Book of Daniel, to the Prince. Johann Frederick was, in my opinion, the greatest lay-hero of the Lutheran Reformation. You can read more about him here.

The image in this post is a colorized version of the original version of the Luther seal, as it first appeared in print, originally in black and white (see image below). It is one of the best presentations I’ve seen of it, in color. And this is why I say this. Generally, in color versions of the seal, the blue is too dark and deep. Luther’s concept was that the blue stands for a blue sky. This is more accurate. The image was found on Wikipedia and is in the public domain. I removed the Luther initials “M” and “L” which appeared on it when it was first printed. If you click on the image, you will be taken to the original size of the graphic. As I said, this image is in the public domain and you can use it as you wish. I thought I’d mention this image and talk a bit about this famous symbol for Lutheranism. The other symbol for Lutheranism, is the stylized letters of the motto Verbum Domini manet in aeternum, [The word of the Lord endures forever], which I’ll describe and explain in a future post.

Here is how Luther explained his seal, when he was asked about it by the man who was preparing the ring for him, at Prince John’s request:luthslg

“Grace and peace from the Lord. As you desire to know whether my painted seal, which you sent to me, has hit the mark, I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology. The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. ‘For one who believes from the heart will be justified’ (Rom. 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. ‘The just shall live by faith’ (Rom. 1:17) but by faith in the crucified. Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matthew 28:3; John 20:12). Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed. And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal. This is my compendium theoligae [summary of theology]. I have wanted to show it to you in good friendship, hoping for your appreciation. May Christ, our beloved Lord, be with your spirit until the life hereafter. Amen.

A note on the text of this letter:

Martin Luther, Letter to Lazarus Spengler, July 8, 1530, as included in the translation by Amy Marga from “Luthers Siegel: Eine elementare Deutung seiner Theologie,” in Luther 67 (1996):66–87. Translation printed in Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. XIV, Num. 4, Winter 2000, pg. 409-410. The text used for this translation is from Johannes Schilling, Briefe, Auswah, Ubersetzung und Erlauterungen in Vol. 6 of Ausgewaehlte Schriften/MartinLuther. The text of Luther’s letter is also found in the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, Briefe Vol. 5:444f and in English translation in Luther’s Works: American Edition, Vol. 49:356-359).

180px-lazarus_spenglerWho was Lazarus Spengler?

Born: March 13, 1479 – Nürnberg, Germany
Died: September 7, 1534 – Nürnberg, Germany

Lazarus Spengler, the ninth of twenty-one children, was the son of a clerk of the Imperial Court of Justice. He entered the University of Leipzig in 1494, but when his father died in 1496, he returned to Nürnberg and obtained a position in the town clerks office. In 1507 Spengler became town clerk and in 1516 also Rathsherr. It is interesting to note that when Martin Luther passed through Nürnberg on his way to Augsburg in 1518, Spengler made his acquaintance. He warmly espoused the Reformation doctrines and in 1519 published Schutzred favoring Luther. Spengler himself became one of the leaders in the Reformation work at Nürnberg. So it is not surprising to find his name on the list of those condemned by the Bull of Excommunication launched by Leo X on June 15, 1520, against Martin Luther and his friends. But Nürnberg ignored the bulla and even sent Spengler as one of their representatives to the Diet of Worms, April, 1521. In 1525 Spengler went to Wittenberg to consult with Martin Luther and Melanchthon as to turning the Benedictine Ägidienstift into an Evangelical Gymnasium, and this was opened as such by Melanchthon on May 23, 1526. Spengler was the prime mover to the Visitation of 1528 and upheld strict Lutheranism in the negotiations at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530.

Source: ELHHB Website [Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal]
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (August 2003) Source

Here is more on Spengler:

By Rev. Jerry Gernander

Lazarus Spengler: A Lutheran Teacher

“To the honorable and wise Lazarus Spengler …” This is how Martin Luther began a letter in the summer of 1530. Luther had written A Sermon On Keeping Children in School, and sent it to his friend, Lazarus Spengler.

“I hope that it may do much good, and I have published it under your name,” Luther wrote, “with the sole thought that it may thereby receive greater attention and, if worthy, be read by the people of your city. … I hope you will continue to push and promote this matter, as you have been doing anyway all along.”

Lazarus Spengler was the leading Lutheran layman during the Reformation. Only one year after Luther posted the 95 Theses, Spengler met Luther and supported him. In 1520, when the pope excommunicated Luther, he excommunicated five others too—including Spengler! (Spengler had written a best-selling book which praised Luther’s Bible-based teachings.)

Spengler was a fighter. He appealed directly to the emperor to have his own excommunication repealed (and it was). Spengler worked hard to influence his city of Nuremberg to adopt and support Lutheran teaching and practice. His city council was one of only two city councils to sign the Augsburg Confession, and Spengler himself was present and active at Augsburg. As secretary of the Nuremberg city council, Spengler was the city’s chief representative at many important religious meetings.

But one of Spengler’s greatest victories was a peaceful one. In 1524 Martin Luther issued a call for Lutherans to start schools. Spengler wasted no time. He himself was the leading voice in convincing Nuremberg’s city council to begin a Lutheran school. Already in 1525, on Nuremberg’s behalf Spengler consulted in person with Luther about the new school. By May of 1526, the school opened.

But he did not only help get the school started. We also know he was concerned about the quality of the teaching. The Nuremberg city council, no doubt influenced by Spengler, tried to make sure the school obtained the very best teachers. Philip Melanchthon himself was the first choice to head the school, but he declined. The first teachers at the school — in the subjects of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, history, literature, rhetoric, mathematics, science and astronomy — were well known and highly regarded. All of these teachers were Lutheran.

However, even this was not all Spengler did. Not only did he help get the school started; nor was securing good teachers enough. Spengler also kept working to influence the city council to give the school proper financial support and scholarships for worthy students.

From Spengler’s example we see (1) that a concern for pure Lutheran doctrine goes with a zeal to start Lutheran schools; (2) that the teachers in Lutheran schools need to be the very best; and (3) that we also have a duty to encourage financial support for these schools.

This might be all we can say about Lazarus Spengler’s official involvement with the Lutheran school in Nuremberg. But it is not all he did in the realm of “Christian education.”

In 1524 he wrote a hymn. We might call it a “teaching hymn.” For those who might not go to the new Lutheran schools, this hymn itself taught them the same Christian faith taught in the schools.

We sing this hymn too: #430 in our Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, “By Adam’s Fall Is All Forlorn.” (Stanzas 5-9 are newly translated and published in the ELH by Rev. Mark DeGarmeaux.) The faith this hymn teaches is the reason for having Lutheran schools. A fitting stanza for the subject of Lutheran schools is the last verse of Spengler’s own hymn:

Your Word, a Lamp unto my feet,

A Light, it leads me always.

Your truth with joy I gladly greet,

To guide me on my pathway.

In us shall rise

For Paradise

This Morning Star for one and all.

His Holy Dove

Grants us in love

The hope of life eternal.

Jerry Gernander is pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Princeton, Minnesota.

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. May 26th, 2009 at 06:36 | #1

    Enjoyed this. Thanks. Got linked over from In Light of the Gospel. I’m not a Lutheran by denomination, but I have been reading about him a good deal in my church history II class. So this post proved very interesting to me. In fact, I’ve made several Luther-related posts in the last week or two myself.

  2. Erich Heidenreich DDS
    November 7th, 2010 at 18:42 | #2

    This is an interesting story on Spengler, Luther, and Psalm 127. It is also an excellent exposition on faith, especially for today’s man, who worries about how to feed his stomach.

  3. November 8th, 2010 at 09:23 | #3

    About 2 years ago one of our members commissioned an original piece of art based on Luther’s seal. Joyce Hutchinson of Mascoutah, IL created a beautiful 4′x4′ painting of the seal with four “solas” added to the corners, and the painting now adorns the narthex of Messiah Lutheran Church in Lebanon, IL. You can see Joyce’s painting at her website (http://fineartamerica.com/featured/luthers-rose-interpretation-joyce-hutchinson.html), and she is also making prints and reproductions of the painting available.
    Interestinly enough, after finishing the piece and learning of its symbolism, Joyce chose not to sign the painting wanting all the attention (and glory) to go to the object of the faith, Jesus Christ.

  4. RomGabe
    October 10th, 2012 at 07:02 | #4

    My former boss (confessed Agnostic), who was not too familiar with Lutheranism but very familiar with Middle Ages literature, made the comment that this Rose looks like the War of Roses icons/insignia (only 40-50 years before the 95 theses were posted/nailed).

    Anyone know if there is a connection here ?

    • October 10th, 2012 at 09:40 | #5

      There is no direct connection, but the image of a rose was not uncommon across Europe in that era.

  5. JD
    October 10th, 2012 at 23:50 | #6

    At the Augustinerkloster in Erfurt, the gentleman who gives the tour said that Luther got the idea of the rose for the seal from one of the stained-glass windows there. I think it was one of the windows directly above the altar. Although I haven’t heard this anywhere else, I remember that it did look like very much like the rose in the seal.

    • October 11th, 2012 at 08:46 | #7

      I’m quite certain that is a bit of pious speculation, well intended, but ultimately unable to be proven. The “rose” itself is a very common symbol from the Middle Ages, and no doubt Luther had it in view from seeing it in a wide variety of applications.

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