The Reformation – Luther and the lamp

Scroll awarding the Freedom of the City of Manchester to Enriqueta Rylands, 1899.
Freedom of the City of Manchester, scroll awarded to Enriqueta Rylands, 1899. English MS 1139.

The Reformation exhibition at the John Rylands Library marks 500 years since Luther declared his famous 95 theses (see Renegade, rogue, radical). Today we celebrate a more recent anniversary, that of the formal opening of the John Rylands Library on 6 October 1899, which itself marked twenty four years since the marriage of John and Enriqueta Rylands. On the same day, the City of Manchester gave Enriqueta the Freedom of the City.

This beautifully illuminated scroll given to Rylands to mark the occasion includes a number of symbolic images, from the Lancashire red rose and the Manchester bee, to coats of arms and feather pens. Near the top right hand corner of the scroll is a lit oil lamp.

Oil lamp, detail of scroll.

This is not the lamp Aladdin rubbed to call up the genie, but a symbol of enlightenment. A lit lamp, or candle, has often been used as a symbol for education and learning. This is certainly appropriate for the John Rylands Library, especially as it now forms part of The University of Manchester. However, the lamp also symbolises the Reformation. Indeed, the symbol of the lit oil lamp appears in the first object displayed in our Reformation exhibition. In this engraving, based on a portrait painted during his lifetime, Luther is shown sitting at a table holding a book. The scene is lit by an oil lamp on the table.

Engraved portrait of Martin Luther, copied from a painting by Lucas Cranach, 1597.
Statue of Martin Luther in the John Rylands Library, sculpted by Robert Bridgeman

The statues ranged along the walls of the Library’s historic Reading Room represent a Nonconformist perspective on ‘the history of human thought.’ Enriqueta Rylands chose Calvin and Luther to represent the Protestant Reformation. She wanted the statues to be as historically accurate as possible and sent a copy of this engraving to the sculptors – the face of the resulting statue is quite recognisable. However, the statue in the Reading Room (see image) leaves out the objects on the table. These are more important than they might first appear; the oil lamp does not simply give Luther light to read by. The lit lamp became a Protestant symbol for the enlightenment gained by reading the  Bible. Luther was closely associated with the symbol because of his efforts to make the Bible available for people to read in their own language.

The lamp on the Freedom scroll represents Enriqueta Rylands’s contribution to education and enlightenment through the founding of the John Rylands Library, and to Protestant Nonconformity through her provision of access to the Bible in both the vernacular (local) and ‘original’ languages. The autumn exhibition shines a light on the Library’s exceptional Reformation collections and the enduring legacy of Enriqueta Rylands.


Finally, the little Manchester bee seen buzzing below the lamp in the scroll has recently appeared at Longford Park – where John and Enriqueta Rylands lived. A Manchester bee and a lit candle together form the subject of a poignant tree sculpture carved by Keith Macauley in remembrance of the Manchester Arena attack on 22 May.

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