The last of 4 blogs about Martin Luther, the Reformation, the Wettin dynasty and Emperor Charles V
Lutherstadt Wittenberg is regarded by many as the home of the Reformation. It was here that Martin Luther (1483-1546) started teaching theology in 1508, at the university set up by Elector Frederick (the Wise) of Saxony. It was also where he wrote his famous ‘95 theses’ in 1517, sparking religious divisions that were to convulse Europe for centuries. After his refusal to renounce his views before Emperor Charles V at the Edict of Worms in 1521 he eventually returned to the town and lived here for the rest of his life, protected by successive electors – see my blog on the Wettin dynasty.
A pleasant town with a population of 46,000, Lutherstadt Wittenberg is located on the river Elbe in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, 30 miles north-west of Torgau. At the heart of any visit to the town is the Lutherhaus, a former Augustinian monastery where Martin Luther was based on his first arrival in 1508. During the Reformation the monastery was dissolved and one wing became the home of Luther and his family. Now a museum, the permanent collection includes his desk and a library containing many original editions of his books. His living room (the Lutherstube) has been left as it would have been in 1535. It was here, after communal meals, students gathered to converse and hear Luther’s views, later collected into ‘Table Talk’ containing his beliefs on both religious and social issues.
Between May and November 2017 a major exhibition, ‘Luther! 95 Treasures, 95 People’, was held in the Lutherhaus as part of the national commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the issuing of the 95 theses. The 95 paintings, sculptures, letters, books and other contemporary artefacts from across Europe asked the question ‘How did he become who he was’? The second part of the exhibition looked at how ’95 public figures from the past five centuries have responded to Luther and his teachings, reflecting his influence or taking issue with his views’ (From the Foreword in the exhibition catalogue).
A walk along the main street takes you past the other major sites in the town. To the east of the Lutherhaus, outside the Elster Gate, is the Luthereiche, an oak tree planted in 1830 to mark the spot where in 1520 Luther and his supporters publicly burnt the Papal Bull which threatened to excommunicate him. To the west, on Collegienstrasse, is the Melanchthonhaus, the home of Luther’s long-time supporter Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560). He attended many of the religious conferences and debates on Luther’s behalf and in 1530 played a leading role in writing the Augsburg Confession, a major statement of Lutheran beliefs presented to Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg.
Further along is the Marktplatz, with its 19th century statues of Luther and Melanchthon, and the Cranachhaus, once the residence of the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). Cranach was court painter to the electors of Saxony and became a close friend of Luther, being a witness at his betrothal to Katherina von Bora and a godfather to their first child. His paintings are found in the Lutherhaus and in the Stadtkirche St. Marien (St. Mary’s Church), just off the Marktplatz, where Luther married Katherina and their six children were baptised.
From the Marktplatz a short walk along Schlossstrasse takes you to the Schlosskirche (Castle Church). It was here on 31st October 1517 that Luther is said to have pinned his 95 theses to the church door. Although intended as a document for discussion, not a full-blooded challenge to the Church, the nature of his questions and the language in which they were written caused uproar.
While questioning the religious basis for the sale of indulgencies (forgiveness of sins) and the whole idea of ‘justification’ - God’s act of freeing an individual from the consequences of sin - by ‘good works’ rather than by ‘faith’, which he believed was central, he raised issues that went to the heart of the way in which the Roman church was run. For example, Theses 86 asked: ‘Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of the poor believers rather than with his own money?’ It is not difficult to see why Pope Leo X wished to have Luther excommunicated and pressured Emperor Charles V to bring him to justice.
The religious issue became closely entwined with the political divisions within the Holy Roman Empire, the rivalries between the rulers of the many political entities and between those rulers and the emperor. Having made his stand at the Diet of Worms in 1521 Luther did much to further the Protestant cause in many parts of Germany. He produced the first translation of the Bible into German while in hiding at Wartburg castle (1521-22). The new printing presses meant that it was possible to widely distribute his writings. Many princes wished to end the outflow of money to Rome and the socially conservative Luther did nothing to challenge their position. In 1525 he spoke out against the widespread peasant rebellion in his pamphlet ‘Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants’.
More details of the religious controversies surrounding the life of Martin Luther can be found in the ‘Religious Divisions’ section of ‘Charles’ World’ on the Charles V website – emperorcharlesv.com – and in ‘Charles V: Duty and Dynasty’ - Chapter 7 (‘My Body and Soul’ – Reformation), Chapter 15 (‘Most Important is the Religious Question’ – Seeking Unity) and Chapter 21 (‘We must thank God for all’).
Luther died in February 1546. His tomb is beneath the pulpit of the Schlosskirche. That of Melanchthon and the electors Frederick the Wise and his brother and successor John the Steadfast are also in the church. It was only just over a year later that Elector John Frederick was defeated at the battle of Muhlberg (April 1547), Wittenberg surrendered to Emperor Charles V and John Frederick had to sign the Capitulation of Wittenberg – see my blogs on the battle of Muhlberg and the Wettin dynasty. Although the emperor had won the war he was unable to impose his religious beliefs throughout his empire. Lutheranism was to remain the official faith of many parts of Germany.