Tom also points out that Albrecht Dürers decision to immortalize Ulrich Varnbüler in a portrait might suggest that he saw Ulrich as Luther's savior. After all, Tom wonders, why would Dürer, and artist considered a genius by his contemporaries and celebrated/sought in his own times by emperors, kings, courts and philosophers as the "Leonardo of the North" have chosen Ulrich Varnbüler as the subject for one of only several portraits Dürer chose to accomplish in his lifetime? Moreover, why would Dürer also offer such glowing praise and commendation in the form of a personal tribute and testament inscribed on the drawing by the artist -- an incredible and unprecedented act of singular rarity?
To draw your own conclusions, read on for a fascinating account of the history of those times and about the possible role of one of our ancestors at a key moment in religious history.
Ulrich Varnbüler, Albrecht Dürer, and Martin Luther
by Thomas VanBuhler
Remember we (the Varnbülers) didn't get to Stuttgart-Hemmingen until 1650. During the period from about 1500 to 1650, we were somewhere else; principally in Lindau, I believe, but also in other places such as Tübingen. Also, interestingly, during this period 1500 to 1650 and beyond, this record shows the principal occupations of the Varnbülers to be Jurists, Academicians, and Militarists, in that order. Again, it reflects Doctoral level training, in my opinion and investigative experience, principally provided by the Hapsburgs in Vienna (point of information).
But let us focus on those very wonderful, incredible, astounding Renaissance-laden decades -- 1500 to 1520 or 1530 -- in what is today southeastern Germany and the free-towns of Lindau, Konstanz, Ulm, Wittenberg, Nurmberg, München, et al, and the pathways to Italy via St. Gallen and Chur in Switzerland, etc. Enter Albrecht Dürer and Martin Luther. Enter Willibald Pirckheimer and Ulrich Varnbüler. Enter Emperor Charles V and Pope Adrian VI (that's right, Emperors and Popes !!, are active participants here), former Emperor Maximillian and Pope Leo X, the "modern world" leaders who saw and understood Luther's threat and had started proceedings against him, having suddenly died in 1519 and 1521, respectively. Enter Papal Bulls, Golden Bulls, Electors, Diets, stake-burnings, excommunications, and frustrating, tinderbox times for millions of Germans. The Diet of Worms was convened in 1521 by Charles V (elected 1520), and Leo X. Luther was condemned. Spanish guards were waiting for him as he exited with cries of "to the fire with him", but friends and supporters hurried him off to safety. A century earlier, a similar situation and decision in Konstanz had caused reformer John Hus to be burned at the stake. Many, including admirer Albrecht Dürer we can reasonably presume, thought this punishment awaited Luther as well. Indeed, the Pope had earlier excommunicated Luther.
Soon after issuing a ban to Luther to leave Worms, Charles was recalled to Spain to fend off an attack on Italy by the French, a set of wars which would ultimately last another twenty years. The Elector Frederick of Saxony, who legally held sway over todays southeastern Germany and who was seen as uncooperative in matters concerning Luther by Leo X, was put in charge of the problem. Luther was expelled from Worms, and subsequently kidnapped in the Thuringian forest by Frederick's soldiers, who as it turned out were sent there as Luthers protectors. Frederick had Luther secretly interned in Wartburg Castle near Eisenach. No one, it seems, certainly not Albrecht Dürer, presumably not Charles V, not even Leo X, knew what happened to Luther. Then Leo X dies, and Adrian VI assumes the Papacy. In December 1521, Luther turns up in Wittenberg, and subsequently returns to public activity several months later (March, 1522). Remember, Luther, a monk and member of the Catholic clergy, now officially excommunicated and condemned, is also officially banned from the Holy Roman Empire, to be detained and held on sight.
The previous information is all based on the published accounts of others who have written about this time, including accounts by Dürer and Luther. If I need to re-emphasize anything, it would be the devotion that Dürer had for Luther as a messenger from God. Luther had publicly said what many Germans felt in their hearts, and had struck a chord among them. They felt betrayed by the activities of their Church, particularly the selling of Indulgences that were supposed to provide salvation. Dürer and Luther were largely cut from the same cloth. The Elector Frederick provided an introduction by sending one of Luther's books to Dürer in 1520. Some accounts say Dürer knew of Luther before this time. One account has Dürer first meeting Luther at the Nurmberg home of humanist Willibald Pirckheimer October 23, 1518. But the effect of Frederick's gift was electric. Remember, Dürer was already famous, having achieved fame, from Maximillian and others, in his own time. Dürer replied, in very personal terms, that he wished to draw and engrave Luther (though he never did) as a "lasting remembrance of this Christian man who has helped me out of great distress". Dürer did send other valuable engravings to Luther in support of his cause.
Then came the Diet of Worms, and Dürer's conclusion that Luther was probably dead. Dürer wrote, "O God, if Luther is dead, who will henceforth deliver the Holy Gospel to us with such clearness". Imagine Dürer's elation to find early in 1522 that Luther was alive; that he had not been killed at the hands of the Emperor as suspected. But the clergy in Wittenberg had revolted, burning all their sacred images, causing Luther to return to restore order. Luther was now exposed and subject to immediate arrest. What was the Emperor to do with this contemptible situation? (Remember, Charles was pinned down in Spain by the French who were threatening war in Italy). What he did was dispatch his brother Ferdinand to the scene, the Elector Frederick having lost the favor of the Emperor but retaining his power to rule. Charles, absent as leader of the Catholic party in Germany, however, had forfeited his power as ruler to the Elector Frederick who promptly called the Reichstag to order in Nurmberg. The Reichkammergericht, the Supreme Court of the Reichstag, was asked to rule on the matter of the Diet of Worms and the disposition of one Martin Luther, now at-large. The chief presiding officer of this Supreme Court (ed: we assume) was Ulrich Varnbüler. "The Court declared the Edict of Worms impracticable and demanded the convocation of a general council of the Church".
Thousands of people - among them many members of the diet and even a sister of the emperor - defied the pope and his nuncio, Campeggi, by taking communion in both kinds from the hands of the Lutheran pastor Osiander. Charles finally turned his attention to this matter once again in 1529 by convening a diet at Speyer, who ruled to affirm Worms and, once again, indict Luther. But there arose such a public outcry from, by now, a well-entrenched following, including some Princes, that the political practicality prevailed and followers of Luther, from that day forward, came to be known as "protestants". Moreover, Albrecht Dürer, celebrated artist and disciple of Luther, was moved to immortalize one Ulrich Varnbüler with an engraved portrait (one of only several engraved in his lifetime). The inscription on the portrait, in Dürer's own hand, reads, "with this likeness, Albrecht Dürer of Nurmberg wishes to honor and make known to posterity, Ulrich, surnamed Varnbüler, Principal Confidential Secretary of the Imperial Roman Government, and his dearest friend". One account of these proceedings stated that "Dürer converted this drawing into a woodcut, and that the sitter was Imperial Counselor and Pronotary, and later Chancellor of the Supreme Imperial Tribunal. Since 1515 he had been a friend of Dürer and Willibald Pirckheimer."
Note: A source quoted in the paragraphs above is "The Germans" by Eric Kahler. 1974, Princeton University Press.