Faith at around 1500

Religion was omnipresent in the early modern period. Divine services and prayers structured everyday life. Churches dominated the cityscapes; bells called the faithful to Mass; they also heralded joyous occasions, dangers and death. People believed that God was the omnipotent ruler—to win his favor was their ultimate goal. They hoped for redemption on the Day of Judgment. The faithful did many things, both inside and outside churches, to escape God’s wrath during their lifetime.

Acts of faith inside churches

In churches, the faithful attended services, they immersed themselves in prayer, and donated money or candles. Here, they could receive the seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Marriage and sometimes also Holy Orders and Extreme Unction. Rituals accompanied the whole of life from birth to death.

Belief around 1500


The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was at the center of the celebration of Mass. The faithful were supposed to partake of the sacrament, the Holy Communion, at least once a year.


Only bishops may administer confirmation. The confirmand received the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.


The confession of sins was the prerequisite for partaking of the Eucharist. This was one way for sinners to gain remission of sins, which was pronounced by the priest.


Children were usually baptized within a week after their birth. Baptism was a precondition for the salvation of the soul. In baptism, the child was given his or her name.


The sacrament of marriage is shared by bride and groom in mutual agreement. Only by the blessing of the priest, however, was it legally valid. Marriages took place both inside and in front of churches.

Last sacraments

The priest visited the moribund, administered the Eucharist and heard his confession. Extreme unction is the anointment of sense organs and limbs: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, and feet.

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The faithful went on long and short journeys to “holy places.” They did so for various reasons: to obtain penance and remission of sins, to fulfill a vow, as punishment for a crime, because they hoped for God’s help or to give thanks for it.

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Sale of Indulgences

An indulgence is an act of mercy that absolves an individual from his or her sins. It can be purchased by acts of piety. By 1500, this model had turned into a thriving business: the remission of sins could be purchased for money.

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Faith, practiced at home

Faith was also part of everyday life. People prayed in the morning and in the evening, and before meals. Religious representations adorned many everyday objects. Rich people even had religious books and works of art.

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Church fairs

Church fairs (also called kermesses) were occasions where piety intermingled with festivity. The parishioners celebrated the anniversary of the consecration of their church with religious services, but also with a fair around their church.



Susanne Kimming-Völkner


Christian Eisenberg


Alltag und Frömmigkeit am Vorabend der Reformation in Mitteldeutschland: Katalog zur Ausstellung „Umsonst ist der Tod“, hrsg. v. Hartmut Kühne/Enno Bünz/Thomas T. Müller, Petersberg, 2013.Angenendt, Arnold: Grundformen der Frömmigkeit im Mittelalter, München, 2003.Kimmig-Völkner, Susanne: Vorreformatorische Frömmigkeit, in: Martin Luther. Treasures of the Reformation/Martin Luther Schätze der Reformation, hrsg. v. Harald Meller/Colin B. Bailey/Martin Eberle/u. a., Dresden, 2016, 92–93.Limentani Virdis, Caterina/Pietrogiovanna, Mari: Flügelaltäre : bemalte Polyptychen der Gotik und Renaissance, München, 2002.Thürlemann, Felix: Rogier van der Weyden:  Leben und Werk, München, 2006.