3-D Printers Replicate Reformation-Era Artifacts

Mar 23, 2017

One of the most symbolic objects of the Reformation is the indulgence chest - a wooden artifact used by the Catholic Church to collect payments for indulgences. One of these historic chests is located at the Luther House Museum in Wittenberg, Germany, but today's 3-D printing technology is bringing replicas of Reformation-era artifacts like this one to the United States.

The German Embassy in Washington is sponsoring the 3-D production of several items from the Protestant Reformation - including the indulgence chest, a Luther bust, a ceramic writing set and a Bellarmine Jug - a popular jug that is decorated with the face of a bearded man and was widely used in the 16th and 17th centuries. Replicating these items is part of a campaign to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

3-D Printing Enlarge image The Luther-era indulgence chest being pieced together at Direct Dimensions. (© Direct Dimensions) Direct Dimensions, a 3-D printing facility based in Baltimore, is printing the Luther-era indulgence chest for the German Embassy. In order to replicate this historic item, the facility needs nothing more than a computerized 3-D file. To print the chest, Direct Dimensions divided the object into panels, printing several sections at a time.

Hunter Brooks of Direct Dimensions says the most challenging part of the process is piecing it all together and quality control - making sure the printer does what it should. Brooks says that producing the indulgence chest takes about two weeks, estimating about 20 hours of printing time alone. After the panels of the chest were pieced together, the item was given to an artist, who will hand-paint it to look like it is made of wood.

Although it will look exactly like the original indulgence chest in the Luther House Museum, it will not feel like it is made of wood. The illusion, however, allows people to see items just as they looked in the past.

3-D Printing Enlarge image A replica of the Luther-era indulgence chest before being painted. (© Direct Dimensions) "The whole process of taking something that's lost or very valuable to history - and being able to reproduce it into modern times and applying our technology is really great and we love any opportunity to do that," Brooks said. "We thought that this was a unique opportunity to represent history."

This is not the first time the company has represented history. Brooks says that Direct Dimensions has printed everything from Egyptian artifacts (such as the Rosetta Stone) to auto parts to prosthetic ears. When asked about the future of 3-D printing technology, he said that a hot emerging trend is digitizing existing objects and bringing them into virtual reality. This can be done through the use of 3-D scanners, which can scan anything from a penny to a skyscraper and bring them into a virtual world. By putting on a pair of virtual reality goggles, an individual can then enter this virtual world and experience it firsthand.

Although the Reformation began 500 years ago, modern technology makes it increasingly possible to perceive artifacts from history in today's world. The German Embassy is partnering with several US colleges and universities to commemorate the anniversary of the Reformation on campuses, and all of these partner schools have received 3-D printing files for the Luther-era objects. Over the course of 2017, these schools may choose to print the indulgence chest, the Luther bust, the jug and the ceramic writing set for display on their campuses. Once the German Embassy receives its replica of the indulgence chest, it will offer to temporarily display the artifact in several locations in Washington, D.C.

These items are part of a set of 20 Reformation-era objects scanned in German museums for the exhibition "Here I Stand", which commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. These files are available online for printing in the US, allowing anyone to discover history and understand Luther a little bit better.

Click to view 3-D images of the artifacts online

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

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Martin Luther