Where Luther Walked, #5: Wittenberg
Wittenberg is known as the 'Cradle of the Protestant Reformation'; no other city has such close with the Protestant Reformation as this ‘Luther City’ along the Elbe.
The Reformation had its beginnings here. It was the centre of Martin Luther’s activity.
DEVELOPMENT OF WITTENBERG
Elector Frederick the Wise aspired to elevate Wittenberg – which had long served as the capital of the Electorate of Saxony and as the seat of power of the Elector and Duke of house Saxony-Wittenberg – to the status of one of the leading spiritual and cultural centres of Europe. The Renaissance buildings constructed during this golden age continue to dominate the city’s skyline to this day.
In 1512, Luther was offered a professorship in Bible studies at the University of Wittenberg. Two years later, he was appointed to Wittenberg town church as a priest. There he would spend the next thirty years practicing biblical exegesis.
Luther nailed his 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences to the gates of the Castle Church. In doing so, he converted Wittenberg into the epicentre of the Protestant Reformation, a movement of great historical significance.
Martin Luther married the runaway nun Katharina von Bora in this city by the Elbe. He had his children baptised here and would eventually be buried beneath the pulpit of the city’s castle church on 22 February 1546.
MUSEUM OF REFORMATION HISTORY
Appropriately, Wittenberg is now home to the world’s largest museum of Reformation history, Luther House. This historic site is where the Reformer lived – first as a monk and later as husband and father –, where he composed his writings and where he instructed so many of his students.
Luther House’s permanent exhibition recalls not only the Reformer’s life and work, it delves into his everyday family-life and into the rich history of the reception of his ideas and of the influence they have had on people over the centuries as well.
Museum highlights include:
* the original town church pulpit from which Luther used to preach,
* a Lucas Cranach tablet-piece depicting the Ten Commandments
* and an authentic monk’s habit worn by Luther himself.
The centrepiece of any tour of the house, however, is the Luther Room (‘Lutherstube’) which has largely been preserved in its original form.
THE CASTLE CHURCH
An absolute must-see for any visitor to Wittenberg is the gate of the Castle Church, the actual place where Luther is said to have posted his 95 Theses in 1517.
In 1489, Elector Frederick the Wise commissioned a new palace – a Renaissance castle spanning four wings – to be built at the location where the original Wittenberg castle stood. The Castle Church is actually the North-Eastern wing of the former palatial complex.
Four days after Martin Luther’s death, he was laid to rest near the castle church’s pulpit. His coffin remains some 8 feet (2.4 metres) underground and is not accessible. Luther’s comrade-in-arms, Philipp Melanchthon, is buried in the church as well. Beneath the foyer lies the dynastic tomb of the Ascanian Electors.
In 1503, the building was consecrated according to Catholic rite, dedicated ‘All Saints’ and purposed as both a castle and collegiate church. In 1525, the Catholic Eucharist was abolished and Evangelical church services introduced in its place. The church was nearly destroyed in 1760 when the region was invaded during the Seven Years’ War. It survived but not without being severely damaged. The design of the current interior stems from the period between 1883 and 1892. Amazingly, the castle church came out of both World Wars largely unscathed.
The building in which Philipp Melanchthon lived – understandably named Melanchthon House – is considered the most beautiful townhouse in the city. Elector John Frederick I had the Renaissance-era structure with its especially characteristic gable built to house the Melanchthon family and to provide room for visiting students. In 1898, it was the Prussian state’s turn to contribute to the preservation of this great monument. It commissioned the scholar’s study and the room where he died to be reconstructed on the building’s first storey. Today, a collection of more than 400 paintings, prints and pieces of graphic art provide documentation about the life and work of the polymath who was Luther’s closest companion.
THE TOWN CHURCH
St. Mary’s town church in Wittenberg is considered to be the ‘mother church’ of the Protestant Reformation. What is the special significance of this place? It is where Martin Luther preached his sermons from 1514 onward, it is the oldest building in the city and it is the place where church services were held in German and where communion featured both bread and wine for the first time.
Lucas Cranach the Elder was an enigmatic personality. He too came under the patronage of Frederick the Wise, who found Cranach in the Franconian town of Kronach and appointed him to be the official court painter in Wittenberg. Lucas Cranach would go on to hold this position for forty years. The complex now known as the Cranach Courts (‘Cranach-Höfe’) – where the painter had his workshop and family home alike – is located in the heart of the historic city centre. It currently serves as an exhibition space and as a home for small galleries and guest accommodations.
In Wittenberg’s market square, the city’s two most important historic residents – Luther and Melanchthon – continue to greet visitors in the form of a bronze statue. The nearby restaurant Wittenberger Hof offers guests the opportunity to dine in the style of Luther’s time.