Being There: Wittenberg

I have valued the experience of being in important places because it brings history to life.  A long time love of the history of the New Testament has taken me many times to Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Greece.  The landscape, remains of buildings, even the climate, adds value to the written word.  Being there also raises questions of chronology.  What happened when, and how long was it before b followed a?

I had not visited the places that figured in Martin Luther’s life story until 2014, and more recently in 2016.  Many buildings are being restored in anticipation of big crowds in 2017, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s ninety-five theses being nailed to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg.

To my shame I admit to not taking much interest in Luther for many years.  One of my electives for the University of London Bachelor of Divinity was a paper on Luther and Calvin.  The Luther segment focused on his tracts published in 1520 including Of the Freedom of the Christian Man.  Three years earlier Martin Luder changed his name to Martin Luther, based on the Greek word eleutheros, signifying that he had been ‘set free’ from condemnation by the death of the Son of God.

But what a difference it made actually being there ? in Eisleben where he was born (and coincidentally where he died, aged 63), Eisenach where he went to boarding school, Erfurt where he studied for the priesthood (in the Augustinian Order),
Wittenberg (where he was appointed Professor of Exegesis), Worms (where he was tried and condemned), and Wartburg Castle (where he took refuge, and where he translated the New Testament from Greek to everyday German).

Of most interest was Wittenberg, where Frederick the Wise had recently established the university, and to which the 29 year old Dr Martin Luder was appointed a Professor.  Frederick and his brother, John Frederick, and his nephew also John Frederick effectively protected Luther throughout his life.

Before Luther became famous Wittenberg was a ‘nowhere’ place, with a mere 384 dwellings.  At his appointment Luther did not figure in the list of 100 professors in lesser universities.  That was to change after the issue of the ninety-five theses when Luther became the most famous (or infamous) man in Germany, who was excommunicated by the Pope and condemned by the Holy Roman Emperor.

Merely wandering through this small town was a revelation of the events and people back then.  There was the imposing Augustinian Cloister that Frederick gave to Luther, where he set up house with the redoubtable Katharina von Bora, which was both a hostel for students and an inn for the many visitors who sat at his meal table.

Nearby is the town church, St Mary’s where his friend Johannes Bugenhagen was pastor, and where Luther preached 4000 times in the 34 years he lived in Wittenberg.

In the town square is a statue of Luther, but also of his amazing colleague Philip Melanchthon, linguist, theologian, astronomer, jurist, and geographer.

One of the fine homes in the town belonged to Lucas Cranach, a wealthy man, and court painter for Frederick.  Cranach’s various portraits of Luther were disseminated throughout Germany and enhanced the reputation of Luther.  Cranach’s beautiful woodcuts formed the frontispiece of many of Luther’s writings, including his translation of the whole Bible published in 1534.  Cranach’s was one of the six print shops that were kept busy churning out the endless supply of Luther’s writings.

Then, at the end of the main street is the imposing Castle Church on whose door on October 31, 1517 Professor Luther nailed his paper attacking the sale of religious indulgences, an act the shook the world for centuries to come.

Paul Barnett