Celebrating Luther’s Legacy, Part I

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace (© Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace (© Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt)

By Becky Garrison

For Reformation church history buffs, the year 2017 holds special significance as the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. In 1517, so the story goes, the Rev. Martin Luther (1483-1546) cited his objections against the church where he served as a priest by posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Even though no historical evidence exists that this incident actually occurred, this year continues to serve as a seminal landmark in documenting the start of the Protestant Reformation. To this day, tourists arrive in Wittenberg with fake hammers in hand to reenact Luther’s supposed historical nailing. The Luther Decade (2008-2017), a tourism venture promoted by the Germany National Tourist Board, invites such Reformation history buffs to participate in a series of concerts, exhibitions and other cultural events.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther - Deutsches Historisches Museum

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther – Deutsches Historisches Museum

Even though Luther remains the obvious seminal figure of the Luther decade, according to Dr. Irene Mildenberger, Augustinerpfarrerin, Ev., “We now speak of the Reformation to show that it is more than Martin Luther. The Luther Decade includes works produced by other noteworthy individuals such as Luther’s collaborator Philip Melancthon and the printmakers Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger whose workshop played a seminal role in illustrating and distributing Luther’s message.

Mildenberger noted that people from the EKD: Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland helped to select the different themes. “Some of them were motivated by jubilees, like 2015 with Lucas Cranach the Younger’s 500th birthday (Image and Bible), or 2010 with the 450th anniversary of the death of Philipp Melanchthon (Education), German reformer and collaborator with Luther.” Other themes featured during this decade include confession (2009), tolerance (2013), politics (2014), music (2012), and freedom (2011).

In advance of the global celebrations planned in 2016 to commemorate the 500th anniversary, the theme of “Reformation and One World” focuses on the global dimension of the Reformation. This year highlights how Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses in 1517 began a movement that occurred alongside the actions undertaken by other European reformers including Huldrych Zwingli (Zurich), Johannes Calvin (Geneva), the Lutheran disciple Mikael Agricola (Finland), and Jan Hus (Czech).

The majority of events and exhibits connected to the Luther Decade take place in the neighboring German states of Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia located in central Germany where Luther spent most of his life. The specific towns Martin Luther inhabited are close enough that one can visit them with ease. For example, one only has to travel ninety minutes from Lutherstadt Wittenberg, the place where Luther resided for 35 years, to arrive at Lutherstadt Eislebe, the site of Luther’s birth and death.

Also nearby is the town of Erfurt where Luther enrolled at the Univeristy of Erfurt in 1501 under the name Martinus Ludher ex Mansfeldt. It is situated an hour from Eisenbach and its most famous landmark, the Wartburg Castle. Luther entered the Latin School in Eisenbach where he studied for three years. Then in 1521-22, Luther spent 300 days in the security of this castle at the bidding of Saxon elector Friedrich III (the Wise) under the name Junker Jörg (Knight George). It was here that he famously translated the Bible into German.

Writing set from the Luther house in Wittenberg - State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

Writing set from the Luther house in Wittenberg – State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

While church tradition credits Luther as penning the first German translation of the Bible, by visiting the Evangelical Monastery of St Augustine’s in Erfurt, one can find printed German translations of the Bible that were produced before Luther did his own versions. Scholars who wish to understand why Luther’s version is the one that became the foundation of Modern High German travel here to study the collection. In addition to these early translations, much of Luther’s other work resides here. While most of Luther’s theology pamphlets have been edited and published, this library contains the significantly lesser-known pamphlets penned by those opposing his theology. As many of these pamphlets have not been circulated, scholars seeking to research the debates ranging among 16th century European theologians could benefit from studying the writings of Luther’s opponents.

Luther Country can be visited in an organized and systematic fashion courtesy of eight travel routes that take advantage of Germany’s tourism infrastructure. For those who cannot make the trek to Germany, three exhibits will tour the United States later this year. Titled “Here I stand… – Luther Exhibitions USA 2016,” these three exhibitions will be held in New York City, Minneapolis, and Atlanta starting in the fall of 2016. Each exhibit will focus on different aspects of Luther’s life and ministry.

On display will be original works of art, manuscripts, and prints along with authentic relics and archeological finds. These pieces have been contributed by the State Museum of Prehistory (Halle), the Luther Memorials Foundation in Saxony-Anhalt, the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, and the Foundation Schloss Friedenstein Gotha.

From October 30, 2016 to January 15, 2017, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, situated in the heartland of US Lutheranism, will host the most comprehensive Luther themed exhibition. Included in this exhibit will be large-scale paintings and sculptures, graphics, books, autographs, and archeological finds.

At the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, the Luther exhibit will resemble a treasure chamber. This exhibit scheduled to run from October 7, 2016, to January 22, 2017 will focus on the significant events in Luther’s life that mark the beginning of the Reformation. On display will be works of fine art along with a selection of rare prints, books, and manuscripts.

In Atlanta, Lucas Cranach the Younger’s painting “Law and Grace” will be on display at the Pitts Theology Library of Emory University from early October to mid-January 2017. In this painting, Cranach the Younger illuminates the key component of Luther’s teaching whereby salvation occurs via the grace of God alone.

As each exhibit is designed to complement the others, those looking to delve into the work and life of Luther in depth may wish to plan a Luther themed road trip to visit these three cities. If a road trip is asking too much, armchair theologians can instead make their way through the publication designed to accompany the “Here I stand…” project. This book, scheduled for release in the Fall of 2016, will be produced in both English and German and feature images and texts from all three exhibits.

And for those more digitally-oriented, the project also has a virtual component whereby institutions such as Goethe-Institutes, congregations, schools, and universities will be able to download and print images and 3D-scans of original exhibits for the purpose of presenting these works at their institutions. For more information about this project, log on to their website (online as of October 2016), Facebook and Twitter.

While one can get a museum like experience that comes with viewing any historical objects, I gained a new and deeper perspective from visiting these famous sites in person. For example, during my trek to Wartburg Castle on a rain soaked Germany afternoon, I felt a dank cling in the air that I imagine Luther also experienced. While standing in the room where Luther translated his bible, I wondered how a man of such stature could remain in this confined space for almost a year without losing his mind. Being in that same room, feeling that timeless chill, made me think that maybe there could be some kernel of truth behind the legend according to which, during a battle with the devil while he was translating the bible, Luther threw a bottle of ink at Lucifer. Sadly, there are no remaining ink stains to attest to the veracity of this tale. The site of the alleged stain has been renovated many times over the years and, at present, one must be satisfied with a hole in the wall made show where Luther’s bottle supposedly hit it.

Mildenberger recounts a similar experience based on her time at the Evangelical Monastery of St Augustine’s in Erfurt where Martin Luther lived as a monk from July 17, 1505 to Autumn 1511. By living and working in this space, Mildenberger got a sense of how the architecture and climate informed Luther’s time at this monastery.

We pray here to times every day in the church were Martin Luther prayed in his years as a monk. So I know how cold it can be during winter time – there is still no possibility of heating. In some winters we had a temperature of about zero degrees three to four months during the wintertime! We are there only 15 to 30 minutes in this cold church building, but Martin Luther prayed several hours every day in this church. And most of the other rooms also were not heated. So in the Dormitory it was not warmer than in the church. In my first winter here we had minus seven degrees in the church! So I just can imagine a bit better what it meant for Luther to live here. Every day I walk through the cloisters and it is still a most impressing place for me. You just get another feeling for the time Luther lived.

Mildenberger expounded on the value of journeying in person to the exact sites where Luther lived and worked, especially for Reformation scholars: “It is like the difference between the original old books and later editions: You can get most of the information by reading books and looking to pictures, but you will understand some things better being on the original site.”


Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, Religion Dispatches, The Humanist, Believe Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues, and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church.

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