Beards distinguished most of the leading sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, yet Martin Luther continued his habit of shaving, a practice he knew well from his years as a tonsured Augustinian friar. In an important sense, the man’s facial politics denied religious change, a crucial theme of the year 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As part of my research for a book on Renaissance beards, I posit several reasons for his resistance to the new facial styling and examine their significance.
In part, Luther’s ongoing adoption of a clean-shaven face was about generational custom, similar to Thomas More and the fellow Augustinian Erasmus, while younger European men of all faiths began to sport beards from the 1520s on. Luther’s portraits often show him with the shadow of facial hair or occasionally stubble or short tufts missed by the razor, thereby insisting that he was physically mature and manly without needing to show a full beard. But among the reformers, Luther stood out in an obvious, visible way by refusing to grow a beard, and his shaved visage was a crucial element of a distinctive, popular and widely disseminated iconography that he probably did not dare to disrupt.
Only once did he become bearded, and this exception proves the rule, for his disguise as Junker Jorg in 1521 was about deception and hiding at a time of danger, until numerous images were circulated of whiskered Luther in order to dispel rumors of his death. Thereafter, Luther’s clean-shaven face implied that he was unafraid, open and independent of political machinations.
Alongside those personal and political aspects, Catholic reasoning that he was exposed to while a friar informed Luther’s understanding of facial hair. Beards had signified laymen’s bestial, worldly and sexual nature so that clerics were expected to shave as well as tonsure their scalps. Hence, for bearded Reformers, their facial hair signaled their anti-Catholic innovation, a public gesture of religious change. Luther’s shaved countenance marked him as a man who remained separate from these Reformist clergy and also from the laity, including political leaders like the ostentatiously bearded Electors of Saxony.
In so many ways a man emblematic of dramatic religious change, in terms of the politics of appearance Luther was more equivocal, dropping the tonsure but keeping the old-fashioned and initially Catholic habit of shaving. No longer a cleric and soon a married man who began to father children, by continuing to shave Luther chose to exhibit a hybrid, even contradictory nature, virtuously clean-shaven still like a friar and theologian, and appearing unlike his secular as well as clerical contemporaries, yet at the same time egocentrically remarkable and iconographically idiosyncratic.