Frederick III’s Dream

Anonymous  Woodblock  1617

On October 30, 1517, Elector Frederick III had a strange and elaborate dream.  The next day, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  The Reformation had begun.

One hundred years later, this broadside was printed in Leipzig to mark the anniversary.  It shows how Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, correctly foretold of Martin Luther’s centric role in the Reformation.  By posting the 95 theses, Luther challenged the Catholic Church, which would lead to the split between Catholics and Protestants still followed today.

There is so much happening in this letterpress print.  On the right side near the top you see a seated Martin Luther writing in a book.  He’s receiving Divine inspiration from above.

My favorite part is actually the man at the bottom picking up what looks to be parts of Luther’s pen that have sprouted off.  I think it’s such a great representation of how word of the 95 theses spread.  Copy after copy after were made and distributed.  This was the 16th century version of “going viral.”

Happy Reformation Day!

Here is a description of Frederick’s dream found at

On the morning of the 31st October, 1517, the elector said to Duke John,

“Brother, I must tell you a dream which I had last night, and the meaning of which I should like much to know. It is so deeply impressed on my mind, that I will never forget it, were I to live a thousand years. For I dreamed it thrice, and each time with new circumstances.”

Duke John: “Is it a good or a bad dream?”

The Elector: “I know not; God knows.”

Duke John: “Don’t be uneasy at it; but be so good as tell it to me.”

The Elector: “Having gone to bed last night, fatigued and out of spirits, I fell asleep shortly after my prayer, and slept calmly for about two hours and a half; I then awoke, and continued awake to midnight, all sorts of thoughts passing through my mind. Among other things, I thought how I was to observe the Feast of All Saints. I prayed for the poor souls in purgatory; and supplicated God to guide me, my counsels, and my people according to truth. I again fell asleep, and then dreamed that Almighty God sent me a monk, who was a true son of the Apostle Paul. All the saints accompanied him by order of God, in order to bear testimony before me, and to declare that he did not come to contrive any plot, but that all that he did was according to the will of God. They asked me to have the goodness graciously to permit him to write something on the door of the church of the Castle of Wittenberg. This I granted through my chancellor. Thereupon the monk went to the church, and began to write in such large characters that I could read the writing at Schweinitz. The pen which he used was so large that its end reached as far as Rome, where it pierced the ears of a lion that was crouching there, and caused the triple crown upon the head of the Pope to shake. All the cardinals and princes, running hastily up, tried to prevent it from falling. You and I, brother, wished also to assist, and I stretched out my arm; — but at this moment I awoke, with my arm in the air, quite amazed, and very much enraged at the monk for not managing his pen better. I recollected myself a little; it was only a dream.

“I was still half asleep, and once more closed my eyes. The dream returned. The lion, still annoyed by the pen, began to roar with all his might, so much so that the whole city of Rome, and all the States of the Holy Empire, ran to see what the matter was. The Pope requested them to oppose this monk, and applied particularly to me, on account of his being in my country. I again awoke, repeated the Lord’s prayer, entreated God to preserve his Holiness, and once more fell asleep.”

“Then I dreamed that all the princes of the Empire, and we among them, hastened to Rome, and strove, one after another, to break the pen; but the more we tried the stiffer it became, sounding as if it had been made of iron. We at length desisted. I then asked the monk (for I was sometimes at Rome, and sometimes at Wittenberg) where he got this pen, and why it was so strong. ‘The pen,’ replied he, ‘belonged to an old goose of Bohemia, a hundred years old. I got it from one of my old schoolmasters. As to its strength, it is owing to the impossibility of depriving it of its pith or marrow; and I am quite astonished at it myself.’ Suddenly I heard a loud noise — a large number of other pens had sprung out of the long pen of the monk. I awoke a third time: it was daylight.”

Duke John: “Chancellor, what is your opinion? Would we had a Joseph, or a Daniel, enlightened by God!”

Chancellor: “Your highness knows the common proverb, that the dreams of young girls, learned men, and great lords have usually some hidden meaning. The meaning of this dream, however, we shall not be able to know for some time — not till the things to which it relates have taken place. Wherefore, leave the accomplishment to God, and place it fully in his hand.”

Duke John: “I am of your opinion, Chancellor; ‘tis not fit for us to annoy ourselves in attempting to discover the meaning. God will overrule all for his glory.”

Elector: “May our faithful God do so; yet I shall never forget, this dream. I have, indeed, thought of an interpretation, but I keep it to myself. Time, perhaps, will show if I have been a good diviner.”

The Magic Circle

John William Waterhouse  1886  Oil Painting

Long before there was Halloween, there was Samhain (pronounced sow-in), celebrated by the ancient Celts.  It was celebrated between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, falling on October 31.  As one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, it was one of the most important days of the year.

This day involved all the normal rituals you would assume for a time of the year when the days were getting shorter and colder.  Animals were brought in from pastures and slaughtered for the winter.  Bonfires would be extinguished an relit to symbolize cleansing needed before the long winter.

But most importantly, the evening of Samhain was a threshold between this world and the Celtic Otherworld.  This means spirits or other magical creatures like fairies would cross over to this world.  The Celts believed that if they left offerings of food and drink, the spirits would cross over to bless them and protect them over the long winter months.

In addition to spirits, it was also believed that the dead would return during Samhain.  The living would invite the dead to their feasts and leave their places open for them.  Not unlike Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, the dead were honored and revered, welcomed and remembered.  Modern Pagans continue to celebrate to this day.

John William Waterhouse was an English Pre-Raphaelite most known for his paintings of Greek mythology and Camelot.  Being nearly a generation younger than the original Brotherhood, he is generally considered the last of the great Pre-Raphaelites, working well into the 20th century.   He managed to bridge classicism, Pre-Raphaelitism, and Impressionism, and also happens to be one of my favorite artists.

I struggled to find the right painting for Samhain.  Although I was originally looking for something more specifically Celtic, I just love Waterhouse and thought it was a good opportunity to feature him.  This is one of his earlier works.

Practically every single one of his paintings feature a lone female, and this is no exception. It’s implied that she is some sort of witch, as she draws the circle around herself and her cauldron.  However, unlike most paintings featuring a witch, cauldron, frog, and raven, she is young and lovely.  There are flowers in her belt and her dress features what appears to be Greek warriors.  It’s an odd choice when you think about it, but somehow it works perfectly.

My favorite part of this painting is the steam rising from the cauldron.  It seems like there is just a hint of forms, although no matter how hard I look I can’t quite make out something specific.  I’ve always imagined it as the spirits crossing over, not quite formed.

The look on her face, the concentration, the passion.  It’s like she sees something we can’t.  Maybe it is the soul of a lost beloved, crossing over for one night.  I envy her.

I wish you all a blessed Samhain.  May you prepare for the coming winter in any and all ways you see fit.  Maybe set an extra spot at the table tonight, just in case.



Leif Erikson Discovers America

Hans Dahl  Oil  Late 1800s

On October 9 we celebrate the journey of Leif Erikson from Greenland to North America, the first European to do so, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.  Actually, no we don’t.  Generally, Americans have no idea there even is a Leif Erikson Day, even though it has been a US holiday since 1964 (in Illinois since 1956).  And if you do know, you probably don’t know that date, although you may know “somewhere around Columbus Day.”

So why is it October 9?  That’s the date the Restauration arrived in New York in 1825.  It held the first emigrants from Norway to the US.  No, it holds no significance to Leif Erikson himself.

Leif Erikson is the son of Erik the Red (hence the “Erik-son” name).  His father settled Greenland after being exiled from Iceland.  Erik the Red took after his father, who settled Iceland after being exiled from Norway.  So you could say that Leif had exploration in his blood.  Luckily for him, he wasn’t exiled, just looking for adventure.

Around 1000 CE Leif Erikson set off from Greenland in search of land first seen by Norse explorer Bjarni Herjolfsson.  Although “explorer” is a bit of a stretch for a title.  Herjolfsson was sailing for Greenland and was blown off course.  He saw other land (probably Labrador and/or Newfoundland), but was in a hurry to get to Greenland, so didn’t even step ashore.  But his story inspired Leif, who a few years later went to check it out for himself.

According to the Norse Sagas, Leif went to Norway and became a companion to King Olaf.  Here he was converted to Christianity.  The king sent him out convert the people of Greenland and beyond to Christianity as well.

So Leif set out for a new world.  He landed first at a place he named Flat Rock Land or Slab Land, then went to a place he named Forest Land.  I guess he thought since his dad had named Greenland, those were exciting names.   But finally he came to Vinland (or Vineland) a place full of salmon and grapes.  The story goes that he and his crew stayed there for the winter and then returned to Greenland with a second boat full of grapes.

Notice that story is pretty uneventful.  Kicked around Canada a bit, did some fishing and wine making, built some huts, went home.  No slaughter of First Nations people.  No land grabbing or gold mining or spice stealing.  His brother and sister had different experiences when they returned, but that’s why they don’t have their own days.  Leif was the explorer, they were the exploiters.  He never made a return trip.

This oil painting is by Norwegian Romantic painter Hans Dahl, best know for his sweeping Norwegian landscapes, most often with a wind-swept figure facing away from the viewer.  In the late 19th century he was part of the Düsseldorf School, a group of highly talented and influential artists.  Unfortunately for him, by that time Romanticism had fallen out of favor for Modernism and his art was considered old-fashioned and not en vogue.

This painting, Leif Erikson Discovers America, is a bit of a break from Hans Dahl’s other works.  Although it does show hills in the distance and the wonderful breaking waves of the ocean, the focal point is on the hero and his crew.  The figures are arranged so your eye travels right down the line to the small bodies at the bottom and then out to the boat where the rest of the crew waits, then out to the water.

It really gives you the sense that he is the most important.  Everything else seems small behind him, even the large, blue sea.  He looks so grand, so majestic, like he derseves to have a national holiday named after him.

Happy Leif Erikson Day!

For more reading and cool paintings of Leif Erikson, check out this cool blog.  Leif Erikson



Abraham and Isaac

Harold Copping  Illustration  Circa 1910

Tomorrow evening marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, one of the most important Holy days in Judaism.  In addition to the Jewish New Year, it is also a Day of Remembrance.  Celebrants remember the story of Abraham and Isaac at the alter.

Abraham was instructed by God to take his son, Isaac, to Moriah to serve as a sacfrice.  Abraham obeyed and took his son to the alter and prepared him.  However, before Abraham could perfom the sacrifice, an angel appeared.  God was satisfied with the knowledge that Abraham would have done what he asked, so he didn’t need to go through with it.

And here’s when the story gets pretty important.  The angel called out to him a second time.  Genesis 22: 16-18:

16 He said, “I have sworn by myself — says Adonai that because you have done this, because you haven’t withheld your son, your only son,17 I will most certainly bless you; and I will most certainly increase your descendants to as many as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will possess the cities of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed — because you obeyed my order.”

Isaac went on to be the father of Jacob, who in turn became the father of the 12 Tribes of Israel.  Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, was a prophet of Islam and an ancestor of Muhammad.  So indeed, Abraham’s descendants are many.


Some people may recognize this painting by Harold Copping, or at least his style.  He is one of the most popular Bible illustrators of all time.  I believe this is an illustration from The Copping Bible, which he produced in 1910.

Harold Copping worked with missionary societies and traveled to Palestine and Egypt to make his Biblical illustrations more realistic.  His painting “The Hope of the World” from 1915 is particularly popular, as it shows Jesus with children from different nationalities.


This painting has a much different composition than most paintings you see of Abraham and Isaac at the altar.  Copping shows Abraham looking up, probably toward the angel sent to stop him.  However, there is no angel in the painting.  Maybe this is the moment before the angel arrives and Abraham is just taking one last look, one last breath, one last hope that he won’t have to go through with it.

Also different in this painting is the positioning of Isaac.  He appears calm.  And although his legs are bound, his father’s reassuring hand rests on his chest.  The viewer doesn’t see his face.  In many paintings he is seen twisting or fighting.

Abraham is center stage.  For someone that’s in his mid-hundreds, he looks fit, strong.  But take a look at his wrists and hands.  They are my favorite part of this painting.  He grips the knife of sacrifice in his right hand, but when you look closely you see the hands of an old man.  And the juxtaposition of one hand gripping a knife and the other hand comforting his son is such a great representation of Abraham’s faith to me.  He will do what he feels needs to be done to please his God, but that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.

Luckily for Isaac and his descendants, Abraham’s gesture was enough.  And it is this act we remember.  Shanah Tovah, happy new year!


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