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Germany A-Z: Lutherstadt Wittenberg

The provincial German town of Wittenberg in Sachsen-Anhalt had no great importance until the early decades of the 1500s. Then, contemporary accounts of the town were rarely complementary. But then, the gathering and interaction of a remarkable group of Renaissance men, in the confines of a town of a few thousand people, thrust Wittenberg from regional significance to the forefront of Europe. The town on the Elbe became the cauldron for one of Europe’s two most significant revolutions.

In 1508 the monk Martin Luther travelled to Wittenberg. By 1517, as a theology professor, he was troubled by what he saw as abuses rife in the Roman Catholic church and drew up 95 propositions as a basis for reform. According to stories of the period, he attached them to the door of the so-called Schloßkirche, a church with origins going back to at least the 14th century and attached to the new Wittenberg castle residence built by the Wettin duke Friedrich III. It was a critical moment in European history, setting in motion events that would split Europe. Wittenberg would be the cradle of a religious revolt.

Friedrich, duke of Saxe-Wittenberg, had appointed Luther and the humanist and theologian Philipp Melanchthon to the new Wittenberg university. Luther was troubled by practices such as priests selling absolution and increasingly viewed the church of Rome as corrupt. It needed reform, Luther reasoned, so the humble worshipper could get closer to the true meaning of God and his word. Over 30 years, Luther studied the Bible, preached and unfolded ideas that became the Lutheran evangelical church. It was the support of Friedrich and other influential princes that allowed Luther to stand beyond the grasp of Rome.

For the traveller, the centre of what is now called Lutherstadt Wittenberg is largely a collection of monuments significant for their role in the story of Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s chief collaborator, the leading Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the elder, whose works depicted Luther’s career, and Friedrich, who supported Luther’s work and protected him while maintaining his conventional Catholic faith.

Wittenberg’s so-called ‘historic mile’ includes the Schloßkirche, with a door embossed with Luther’s theses, the Lutherhaus, Melanchthon’s house, Cranach’s house, the Stadtkirche St Marien, where Luther preached, Wittenberg’s university, the Leucorea, and Markt, the town square where statues of Luther and Melanchthon stand today.

The castle has had recent extensive restoration and some rebuilding. It was built by Friedrich III in Renaissance style to replace the old Ascanian castle — built about 1340 on the site of an even earlier castle — and completed in 1525. The south wing was destroyed in the Seven Years War and the castle was used for storing grain. It was again damaged late in the Napoleonic wars and the complex was reshaped by the Prussians in the 19th century. Ethnography and nature museums have been based inside, but extensive rebuilding of the south wing has made way for the Schloßkirche visitor centre and seminary. The west portion houses a research library on the Reformation.

The Luthereiche, corner Lutherstraße near rail station, is the site of the oak where Luther burned the pope Leo X’s warning of excommunication.

The so-called Theses Door of the Schloßkirche was cast in bronze in 1858 to record Luther’s rebellion. In a contemporary account, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in 1517 – but this cannot be verified. The original door was destroyed, along with much of the church, by damage during the Seven Years War. Further damage in the Napoleonic wars was made good by the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The 88m tower appeared at the end of the 15th century, but much of the Gothicised interior and the lookout, with the inscribed Luther hymn ‘A powerful fortress is our God’ is later. The theses are reproduced in Latin on the present door. Inside the church, on either side, are the graves of Luther and Melanchthon, marked by tablets bearing epitaphs, and the resting place of the elector. The church is also the resting place of Friedrich — with a bronze monument by Peter Vischer the younger — and Friedrich’s brother and successor Johann ‘the Steadfast’, with monument by Hans Vischer. Both Cranach and Albrecht Dürer contributed altar paintings.

The Lutherhaus, the former Augustinian monastery where Luther lived and worked as a monk and which was taken over by him after his marriage, is today an extensive museum of the Reformation. The ornate Hörsaal is a feature, along with the Lutherstube, a living room that was part of the original house with wooden interiors and furniture, and works by Cranach the elder. The Katharinen-Portal (1540) was a gift from Luther’s wife, the former nun Katharina von Bora, to her husband. It includes Luther’s study, a pulpit and monk’s habit he used, family rooms, a biographical tour, artworks and a treasury – in all about 1000 associated exhibits. The Lutherhaus and connected buildings, including university buildings, are all 16th century but the present appearance of the house is shaped by the 19th century rebuilding of Friedrich August Stüler.

The Melanchthonhaus consists of the Renaissance residence, expanded into a museum of Melanchthon’s work including manuscripts and art.

The former home and workshops of the artist Lucas Cranach the elder at Markt, completed in 1506, was Cranach’s first Wittenberg home and workshops. Many young artists of the period travelled here to work under Cranach’s teaching. Cranach moved in 1518, but later repurchased the Markt property as a print shop, where Luther’s first New Testament translation was published. He sold it in the 1540s. The building was later partly rebuilt in Baroque. Cranach took over the many rooms and courtyard of Wittenberger Hof at Schloßstraße 1, the town’s biggest residential complex, now the Cranach-Hof. The east wing and rear were the studios. The complex, which included a pharmacy, was enlarged to include workshops in 1540, renovated again in the 18th and 19th centuries and twice recently. Cranach left Wittenberg in 1550, ceding the site to his son. It is again being used for art, printing and teaching and the pharmacy later returned to the site.

The Stadtkirche St Marien — also known as the Marktkirche — is where Luther, Melanchthon and Johannes Bugenhagen preached. It includes works of art depicting Luther and his ideas by Cranach the elder and his son, chiefly the Reformation Altar of 1548. But it is also the oldest building in Wittenberg, with a 13th century Gothic façade.

Luthers Hochzeit, the street festival weekend celebrating the marriage of Luther and the former nun Katharina von Bora in the second week of June, takes over the town and restricts access to parts of it to all but ticket holders. Inquire at the tourist office near the castle.

A free PDF city guide to Lutherstadt Wittenberg is now available at the Culture encounters section of Raven Travel Guides Germany.

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Lutherstadt Wittenberg

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