On Sunday 26 we were prompted by our friend Chris Mostert to take a trip to Lutherstadt Wittenberg as this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Reformation. It is an 80 km (40 minute) ride on a fast train from Berlin. It is a small town, population 50,400, pretty well given over to Luther. It has been a university town since 1502 and well known for its progressive thinking on theology. It has been known as the Rome of the Protestants.
The station is about a kilometre from the town, and the old town is about another kilometre in length, so there was plenty of walking between sites. We suspect they will run buses during the festivities later in the year.
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was a monk who triggered the German Reformation by publishing 95 theses against church corruption in 1517 and nailing them to the door of the Schlosskirche (the castle church). There is some controversy as to whether he did or didn’t nail the theses to the door of the church. But it is clear that they were the trigger for the German Reformation. These are the modern bronze doors on which the 95 Theses are displayed, thereby reinforcing the ‘nailed here’ theory.
We first visited Lutherhaus, a former Augustinian monastery where Luther lived as a monk and which became the Luther family home. It has been a museum since 1883. It is very engaging with panels of easily understood narrative, famous oil paintings, and artefacts from the times. We have always known of Martin Luther but we learned a great deal more about him and his times, and his impact on world history. There are wonderful paintings by the Cranachs – both younger and older. Lucas Cranach and Luther were clearly very close friends, both living in Wittenberg. The many sketches, wood blocks and oil paintings on display, chart the course of Luther’s work. It is a large exhibition and well worth the 2 hours needed to cover it. The centre piece is the Luther Room, which has been preserved largely in its original condition.
Lunch was next – eating a Turkish bread, meat and salad in the sun. Wittenberg has clearly been much visited and has an array of very inviting restaurants and little shops. We suspect that Berlin dwellers like to go there for a day when the sun is out. The architecture is well renovated mediaeval, extremely attractive, with houses very individual. Also lots of interesting little courtyards making it lovely for a wander. Fortunately we also had time for that.
This church, the St Marien church, is where Luther’s revolution began, with the world’s first Protestant services in 1521. Luther preached from here, and also married an ex-nun Katharina von Bora in that church. The church is a feast for the eyes with Cranach oil paintings covering the walls. The centre piece is a large altar, designed jointly by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son. We bought ourselves a calendar to remember the work of Cranach in recording Luther’s work.
On our way to the Castle Church, we passed through the central plaza and enjoyed the view of the town which you can see here. It is a shame we will never know if the 95 theses did get nailed on the door at the Schlosskirche as the original door was destroyed by fire in 1760 and replaced in 1858 with a massive bronze version inscribed with the theses in Latin. It is a beautiful door, as you can see in the image earlier in this blog. Luther is buried inside below the pulpit, as is his good friend Philipp Melanchthon.
Philipp Melanchthon was another contemporary of Luther. He was most important in assisting Luther in his translation of the bible into German. The original printing machine is on display. They apparently achieved the translation of the New Testament in 8 months, from the original Greek, then took 12 years to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew. Melanchthon was an academic active at the nearby university. He moved into Melanchthon house with his family in 1539 when the building was only 3 years old. It is a beautiful house, preserved unchanged over the centuries.
Melanchthon is regarded as the first ecumenical. Luther was eager to have everyone follow his new religion – Protestantism – and was very intolerant of those who would not, including Jewish people. He perhaps somewhat unrealistically even thought the Church of Rome would come over to his thinking. Melanchthon worked to have religions work together and that is his big contribution.
It must have been amazing to have these 3 men – Luther, Cranach, and Melanchthon working alongside each other at this time. We had known of Cranach, but not his connection with Luther, but had never heard of Melanchthon. So it was a real day of learning and we feel we have a lot to build on if we wish to learn more.
We walked a little more slowly back to the train and on the way passed the oak tree that marks the spot where Luther on 10 December 1520 burned the Papal excommunication warning against him. Ended up pretty tired, but worth it all.