Josef Franz

New painting spurs mystery

October 21, 2009

A previously unknown painting by a German artist has sparked a debate among art historians. This painting by Josef Franz (b. 1503) depicts a pivotal moment in western religious history, the moment when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany.

It was not an uncommon act for students to nail religious/philosophical challenges to the door of the church. However, it was the nature of Luther’s challenge that changed history. His theses began the Protestant reformation. The painting by Franz has been dated to within 2-3 years of the actual event. Since Franz lived in Wittenburg at the time of Luther’s posting, it is possible that he was an eyewitness to the event, or at least heard it firsthand from someone who did witness it. This makes it probably the most accurate rendering of the event found so far.

What is causing the controversy is not the actual image of Luther posting his theses, but the other paper seen tacked to the door of the church. Reports hold that the doors to the church usually held challenges. What is unusual is that the second paper posted to the door does not depict a challenge, but a drawing. It has not been reported that pictures were ever posted to the door. The drawing depicts a tall, thin man wrapped around a tree. The man appears to be dressed in modern business attire, a black suit, white shirt and black tie.

Conservators and art historians have minutely examined the painting and have come to the conclusion that the drawing was done at the time of the original painting, not added at a later time. How a seemingly modern image came to appear in a painting nearly 500 years old is a mystery. The historians at the Louvre are also debating what the significance of the drawing is. Some of them maintain that the image is an accurate depiction of what was on the door at the time Luther posted his theses. Others hold that the drawing was not actually posted on the door, but was placed in the painting by the artist for symbolic purposes. What the image of the man symbolizes has escaped the historians, however.

Little is known about the artist Josef Franz. He was born in Wittenburg, Germany in 1503. He showed a definite talent for drawing and painting at a very young age. Some have gone so far as to call him a prodigy. He completed several paintings while still a child. This newly-discovered painting appears to be the last painting Franz completed. While what happened to him is a mystery, he seems to have disappeared about 6 months after completing this painting. At the time he was working on a portrait for the local Bishop. The painting was never finished. In the lower corner of the canvas, which was still blank, is a crudely drawn multi-limbed stick figure and the statement “Er Kennt Mich”, which translates into “He knows me”.

It is unknown what happened to Franz. He may have become ill and died with no record (a fairly common occurrence at the time.) It is also possible that he simply moved to another region and was forgotten. What is known is that no paintings by Franz from after this time have been discovered. Some state that the fact he did not finish the painting of the Bishop, along with no record of his death, may indicate foul play. All that is known is that Franz disappeared before finishing the painting.

Historians are hoping to find more works by Franz, in hopes that it will help clear up the mystery of his disappearance and shed more light about the life of this mysterious child prodigy.


Further Mystery of the artist Josef Franz


Historians and conservators working at the All Saints Monastery in Wittenburg have come across documents that may explain part of the mystery surrounding artist Josef Franz, while creating even more of a mystery. Josef Franz was a fifteen-year-old artist in Wittenberg, considered by many to be an artistic prodigy. Just as he was becoming widely famous, he disappeared, never to be heard from again. Now part of the story of his whereabouts has been solved.

At the time of his disappearance he was working on a portrait for the local Bishop. The painting was never finished. In the lower corner of the canvas, which was still blank, is a crudely drawn multi-limbed stick figure and the statement “Er Kennt Mich”, which translates into “He knows me”. Documents uncovered last week at the monastery indicate Franz was taken there for treatment as a “lunatic, possessed of demons, and raving”.

He was placed under the care of Brother Maynard, a monk healer at the monastery. Few of Brother Maynard’s documents survive. A leather folder was discovered containing the few scraps that survive. The documents are badly burned, most are nearly impossible to read. A few of the documents seem to refer to Franz. The talented artist apparently requested parchment and painting supplies, which Brother Maynard gave him, in hopes that his madness might subside.

The drawings done by Franz so disturbed Maynard that he began having trouble sleeping. He describes vivid hallucinations and mentions the “Other visitor to Franz, the one that waits below his window in the tower”. He describes this unknown visitor as “Wearing strange clothes, a black-and-white Jester’s motley, though nothing about this visitor would be considered a jest. He stares for hours at Franz’s window, but none may see his eyes. If one leaves the Monastery to ask after the visitor, he is not there. Even the grass where he stood is undisturbed.”

The visitor seemed to have disturbed Maynard nearly as much as Franz. Several drawings by Franz from his time in the monastery show similar images to the one he added to his painting of Martin Luther. The drawings that survive are also badly burned.


The text in the drawing roughly translates into “Who is he?” It appears that this visitor was as unknown to Franz as he was to the monks of the monastery. Psychologist Lee Magnus who examined the drawings pointed out that the very rough nature of these drawings, coming as they do from a talented artist, may indicate severe mental problems.


The text in this drawing translates to “Why is he watching me?” Dr. Magnus hypothesizes that the drawing of multiple limbs is indicative of Franz’s descent into madness. While the discovery of this pouch of burned documents solves some of the mystery of Josef Franz, it leaves an even greater mystery in its wake. Along with the burned documents of Brother Maynard is a note from the abbot, Brother Wilhelm. He states that Brother Maynard was becoming increasingly agitated as he worked with Franz. Eventually one day he seemed to lose all composure, raving about the “black-and-white demon-man”. He began to burn all his documents and scream that the devil had come to All Saints Monastery. He was subdued by the other monks. They took him to the room immediately next to Franz’s, as its location in the tower would prevent his escaping from the window and the heavy door could easily be locked. As the monks left Brother Maynard, one said he heard strange sounds coming from Franz’s room. He described these sound as “The sound of a million ants, walking across a sheet of metal foil, and the sound of wet leather being slowly wrung out by powerful hands.” When the monks opened the door of Franz’s room, it was empty. The window in the room was locked, and Franz could not have escaped from there in any event, as the room he was in was 75 feet above the ground below. Any escape attempt from the window would have killed him. Likewise, the door was locked, and there was no chance of escape that way, as the only passage out of the tower led through the monk’s common room. Nobody had seen Franz come down, and the abbot concludes that this is a mystery only Brother Maynard may understand. He also notes that many clues to Franz’s illness, as well as what happened to him may well have been in the documents that Maynard burned. The brothers collected the charred remains and presented them to the abbot for him to investigate. The abbot’s note states he has learned nothing from what remains, and mentions in passing that he had noticed Maynard looking out the window on several occasions. When asked, he would say he was looking at the black-and-white jester, but none of the other monks would see him when they looked. A search of the records indicates that Brother Maynard never regained his sanity, and he died, raving, about two years after these events.

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