During my tenure as a teacher in Virginia, I had the privilege of chaperoning our school’s senior trip Europe. The trip was based on Dr. Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, a staple many of us EBC alumni remember from Mr. Glock’s Christian Worldview course. Students and chaperones get a whirlwind tour of Germany, Italy, and France (and I do mean whirlwind), but it is definitely a memorable experience. Though I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy this experience four times, the first trip was especially enjoyable, since my wife and I were able to chaperone the trip together.
The pictures accompanying this brief reminiscence were taken from that first trip in 2005, but Wittenberg has remained pretty much the same since then (since Martin Luther’s time, in fact), at least the key historical part. In honor of Reformation Day, I’d like to take you on another brief whirlwind tour of a city that played a key role in the formation of the Reformation.
The featured image at the top of this article is the main altar area inside the Stadtkirche or Stadt- und Pfarrkirche St. Marien zu Wittenberg, or “City Church” to us non-German speaking Protestants. This was effectively Martin Luther’s “home church,” where he preached over 1,000 times, without being an official leader of the church.
Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach the Elder designed and painted the altarpiece, set up many years after the Reformation began around 1547 or so. (Lucas Cranach the Younger, also a friend of Luther, worked on the altarpiece as well as a young boy; he is buried in that church). The left panel shows fellow Reformer Philipp Melanchthon performing a baptism in the church (the original baptismal font is still there, though you can’t see it in the photo, sorry); the central image is the Last Supper; and the right panel features Johannes Bugenhagen, main lecturer at the University of Wittenberg and pastor of the church at the time of the altarpiece’s construction (and friend of Luther, Melanchthon, and the Cranachs, of course). The bottom panel is Luther preaching before Christ on the cross.
Here is a view of the rear of the City Church in one of the main square’s of Reformation-era Wittenberg. The main white façade building is city council offices and such, if memory serves me correctly. In front of it is a statue of Luther (one of a few in town). The layout of the Reformation era part of town is mainly a long rectangle, effectively beginning on one end with City Church and ending with the Castle Church, where Luther nailed the 95 theses. Shops, homes, and other businesses flank both sides of the major (almost only) street. The University of Wittenberg is off to the left from this main square. Wittenberg certainly has a modern side, though it is not terribly close to the “Famous Historical Part of Town” (a lot of the historically significant European cities you can think of are like that).
The Door (Sort Of)
At the other end of the main thoroughfare is the other church, Schlosskirke, or Castle Church. It is one of the first sites you see when entering the city, as it is right at the main access point to Wittenberg. Off to the left of the main entrance, along the thoroughfare heading toward the City Church, you see the location of “the door” where Luther nailed the 95 theses so long ago. As we know, it wasn’t unusual for someone to nail things to that door: it was effectively the bulletin board for students and citizens in town, since the Castle Church served as the chapel for the recently-founded university. (The university is a couple of blocks over and does not look anything like a university “should” to us moderns, so I never took any pictures of it.)
The original doors, being a fairly typical wooden outside doors, facing weather and nails and pounding and usage over centuries, are long gone. In their place since 1858 is this bronze sculpture with the 95 theses embossed (in a much larger font than surely he used) in Latin, not German, as Luther himself wrote them. The doors weigh over a ton and are decorative: they never open – there is a short iron railing in front preventing tourists from getting too close.
The tympanum painting features Christ crucified in the center, naturally, flanked by Luther and Melanchthon. Luther is holding the Bible; Melanchthon is holding the Augsburg Confession. Between the painting and the doors is an engraved description of the event commemorated, as instigated by King Frederick William IV of Prussia.
Inside Castle Church is rather resplendent as well, with several paintings by the Cranachs, full-sized statues of Reformation-era notables including Frederick III, an impressive-sized pipe organ, several beautiful stained-glass windows (which were not there in Luther’s day, I believe), and another ornate altarpiece. Luther and Melanchthon are buried in this church.
The Luther House and Museum
Certainly one of the other main attractions in Wittenberg is Luther’s home, where he had many of his famous “table talks” with university students long into the night. His living quarters with Katherina were quite modest and narrow, as most homes of that era certainly were, though the picture seems like they lived in a mansion. Many of the upper floors housed university students. The Luthers’ rooms are quite modest inside.
Connected to the Lutherhaus is the Lutherhaus Museum, which now takes up most of the grounds. Though you can’t see it from this angle, the main entrance features a modern design, with glass doors and very twentieth-century angles. It’s an interesting mix of the present and the past, rather fitting to honor a man dedicated to timeless truth.
The Museum is smaller than most, but it houses several notable Reformation-era artifacts, including dozens of Cranach paintings, the pulpit Luther used in the City Church (it’s much smaller than you think it would be, when you see it in person – sort of like the Mona Lisa), and even a German New Testament in Luther’s handwriting (you can’t take pictures of that one).
Outside, in a small, lovely courtyard, stands this statue of Katharina von Bora (the tour guides I’ve had rarely call her “Katharina Luther”). Custom has it if any single lady rubs Katharine’s wedding ring, she will soon get married herself. (My wife clearly has her hands at her side – though most of the young senior ladies I’ve chaperoned on this trip have availed themselves of this … shall we say … “tradition.”)
Worth the Trip
Seeing the birthplace of the Reformation is a worthwhile experience. Setting aside temporarily the present conditions that make international travel difficult at best, assuming the Lord tarries long enough for travel and worldwide experience to happen again, I strongly urge you to make arrangements to see Wittenberg. Seeing the sites takes one full day, but it is an unforgettable day. You could easily combine this with a tour of Eisleben, the town where Luther was born and died. Close by is also the castle of Wartburg, where Luther was spirited away after the Diet of Worms and translated much of the New Testament into German – the castle has a very full history in its own right beyond Luther’s time there. In the midst of all this is Eisenach, birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, with an engaging Bach museum.
As I often told the students (okay, their parents) who were on the fence whether the trip was worth the expense: “Why does God ever give us any money, anyway? To get to know Him better and to help others get to know Him better.” Seeing the cradle of the Reformation and experiencing the world that brought about such a change in church history does indeed help you get to know God a bit better, especially by being where He was clearly moving in human history. Having additional fascinating historical sites close by certainly helps make the trip worth the cost. I’ve seen it all four times, and I’d be glad to go again. Go see where Protestantism began!