Finding Luther in Wittenberg

500 years ago this reformer made history

By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author, Marilyn Heimburger and courtesy Pre-History Museum in Halle

Millions of visitors are expected to visit Wittenberg, Germany between now and 2017, when the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther occurred.

The German state of Saxony-Anhalt is launching a giant campaign to publicize the anniversary and show off its Luther treasures to the world.

The kick-off event starts October 31 when the State Museum of Pre-History in Halle on the Saale River showcases numerous Luther archaeological artifacts that have recently been uncovered, mostly in Mansfeld, Luther’s childhood home, and Wittenberg at Luther House, where Luther taught.

Luther House in Wittenberg

Entitled “Finding Luther—Archaeologists on the Reformer’s Trail,” the 4,000-square foot exhibit will be shown in the newly-restored Pre-History Museum.

“Except for his writings, the bulk of the reformer’s possessions got lost,” says Dr. Michael Schefzik, curator of the Museum. “On the other hand, the archaeological excavations in 2003 yielded hundreds of objects which certainly had belonged to the Luther family.”

examining articfacts
Dr. Schlenker and Imes Vahlhaus from the Pre-History Museum In Halle inspect Luther articles

LUTHER’S LIFE COMES INTO FOCUS

Only in the last several years, after research by various archaeologists, was it feasible to draw a picture of the life of the Luther family, especially in Mansfeld where the Luther family moved to in 1484, shortly after Luther was born.

“Historical truth and legends (about Luther) are almost inseparably intermingled with each other,” says Dr. Schefzik. Now, more is known and will be explained in this new exhibit.

Dr. Bjorn Schlenker
Dr. Bjorn Schlenker of the Pre-History Museum at Luther’s Mansfeld home excavations

Dr. Schlenker indicates where first Luther artifacts were located in a parking area near Luther’s home

Some of the Luther exhibits visitors to the museum will find include:

  • Luther’s childhood marbles? Archaeologists believe they found them—made of clay and probably heated over an open fire in the Lutherhaus in Mansfield.
  • Luther’s mother’s thimble (?) has been preserved and is beautifully made.
  • Heating stove tiles of several colors from Luther House in Wittenberg with pictures of Adam and Eve on them, as well as possibly Frederick the Wise, who befriended Luther.
  • Iron keys, padlocks, nails, large headdress pins, knives, belt buckles, chards of pottery, beads, garment accessories, jewelry, a beer tap, coins, fish and wild fowl bones and much more.
ceramic tile

SURPRISES YET TO COME

In addition, the museum has a few exhibit surprises that only visitors there will get to see. Many more Luther objects, such as goblets and beakers, are on loan from other museums and estates that will be shown in the exhibit. Luther received the vessels from wealthy patrons and gave them to selected friends.

Don and Marilyn Heimburger with Wittenberg Mayor Eckhard Naumann

The new Luther finds have attracted National Geographic, which plans a comprehensive report on the news, as well as many German newspapers and other news agencies.

While in Wittenberg (Home of the Reformation), which you could make your home base for a few days as you tour the various surrounding Luther sights, you’ll want to see the Town and Castle churches, the Luther House, a UNESCO World Cultural heritage site, the Philipp Melanchthon house, the Market Square with the town hall built between 1523 and 1535, the Lucas Cranach houses (he owned several), and some of the town’s museums. The town, first documented in 1180, has a great many historical buildings.

drummers
Wittenberg Festival in market square

The Castle Church, with an 288-foot-high tower, was once the magnificent castle of the electors of Saxony, built between 1489 and 1525 for Frederick the Wise. It also became the university church, and it was here that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door. Today a black bronze door (installed in 1858) has replaced the original one. The door commemorates October 31, 1517 when Luther nailed his theses “on the power of indulgences” to the door.

Medieval ladies add to Wittenberg’s Festival
Meat sizzles on an open fire at Wittenberg town festival
Musicians at Wittenberg festival

Luther's grave
Martin Luther’s gravestone in Castle Church

OLDEST CHURCH WORTH A VISIT

Wittenberg’s oldest church is the Town Church, the Town and Parish Church of St. Mary, set in the central square. The pulpit, at which Luther preached, can actually be found now at the Luther House. If you go, note the series of epitaphs by Lucas Cranach the Younger around the altar. They are from around 1560.

castle church
Wittenberg’s Town Church

Other Wittenberg highlights include:

  • The multi-colored turreted high school designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser
  • The Piesteritz residential housing complex on the west part of town, with some housing built as early as 1916, used to house factory workers
  • Museum of Town History, a collection of thousands of old historic Wittenberg documents and artifacts

For fun, visit the historical printing workshop in town and see how printing used to be done at the time Luther translated the Bible into German. You can even purchase a few humorous Luther quotes which have been printed at the shop.

WITTENBERG FESTIVALS

Hundertwasser School

Every year on the second weekend in June, thousands gather in the streets of this town for Luther’s Wedding, a town festival that includes medieval merrymaking with processions, strolling musicians and entertainers.

July and August brings the Wittenberg Summer of Culture which includes theater shows, courtyard concerts, a wine festival and “ErlebnisNacht” which features unexpected happenings at unexpected times in unexpected places in the old quarter.

Several hotels worth looking into are the Alte Canzley Hotel and Restaurant (www.alte-canzley.de), the Goldener Adler (www.goldeneradler-wittenberg.de) and the Luther-Hotel Wittenberg (www.luther-hotel-wittenberg.de). All are very close to all the attractions and the old town.

hotel interior
Bruckenkopf Hotel

A newer hotel, across the Elbe River, is the Bruckenkopf Hotel, owned by the Schult family. Renate and Gehard Schult have invested heavily in the renovation of this sprawling military complex once used by the Kaiser’s Army and Napolean’s Army. There are 24 rooms in the brick fortress portion of the complex. The staff is friendly, and there is no noise except an occasional duck splashing in the nearby pond. The complex also provides rooms and cabins for boaters and bikers, tenters and motorhomes (www.marina-camp-elbe.de).

Schwarzer Baer restaurant
Schwarzer Baer restaurant is a favorite in town

If you like good German food, a number of restaurants downtown can accommodate you. Nearly all hotels offer good food in their restaurants, but a favorite of the locals is the Schwarzer Baer, which is connected to a hotel (naturally) and Luther used to come in there to eat and drink, and it’s said he even slept there.

Wittenberg is best reached from Berlin’s Tegel Airport, and frequent ICE, ICE night and IC and EC trains stops in Wittenberg. For more Wittenberg information, go to www.wittenberg.de (e-mail: info@wittenberg-information.de). For individual town tours, contact English-speaking guides Bettina Brett at bettina.brett@arcor.de or Astrid Muehlmann at astrid.muehlmann@web.de. Both are veteran guides and are well-known locally.

Wittenberg tour guides
Wittenberg tour guides Astrid Muehlmann and Bettina Brett

Reverend Scott Moore in the pulpit at Eisleben Church, where Luther was baptized.
Luther Museum in Eisleben.

OTHER NEARBY CITIES

If you’re in Wittenberg, you really should take the time to visit some other nearby Luther sights and towns. They include the town of Eisleben, nestled in the hill country of the Mansfeld basin. It’s here that Luther was born (November 10, 1483) and baptized the next day in the Church of St. Peter and Paul. His home has been turned into a very interesting museum that documents his early childhood and youth and gives an insight into the spiritual environment in which Luther was raised.

town of Mansfeld
Overview of Mansfeld

On the hill overlooking Mansfeld, you can visit the Mansfeld Castle where Luther preached. In town is his parent’s large home, where they are now uncovering many Luther family artifacts.

Luther house in Mansfeld
Luther’s boyhood home in Mansfeld surrounds the large tree in the center of the photo

In Torgau, the political center of the Reformation, you can visit the Hartenfels Palace Chapel, consecrated by Luther on October 5, 1544. It is regarded as the first church to be built as a Protestant church.

Luther studied theology and sciences in Erfurt between 1501-1505. In 1505 he requested acceptance into the Erfurt monastery, home to the Augustinian monks, an order known for its scholarship. In 1507 Luther was ordained as a priest

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