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food / travel

For Martin Luther Anniversary, Wittenberg Tries To Nail Another Reformation

As Wittenberg, Germany, prepares to celebrate the 500-year anniversaries of two major historic events, it has invested millions to transform itself into a world-class venue.

Wittenberg's Market square with the statue of Martin Luther
Wittenberg's Market square with the statue of Martin Luther
Dankwart Guratzsch

WITTENBERG — This German city of 50,000 people is preparing to celebrate the 500-year anniversaries of two major historical events: painter Lucas Cranach the Younger’s birth next year, and in 2017, Martin Luther’s Reformation theses, which is believed to have been posted on the door of the town’s Castle Church.

The Saxony-Anhalt state where Wittenberg is located is investing 85 million euros in the festivities, and everywhere you look there are construction cranes and scaffolding.

Formerly known as the “Protestant Rome,” Wittenberg will be greeting visitors starting next year with a fresh city feel that includes both new construction and extensive restoration of historic buildings such as the two main churches, St. Marien Parish Church and the Castle Church. German railway company Deutsche Bahn is building a new rail station, and the Castle is getting a new south wing.

But the changes aren’t merely cosmetic. They are an investment in the city’s potential. Groups from all over Europe and the United States already turn up here in huge numbers, and local politicians have embraced the notion that their town is actually a world-class venue.

The Luther House and Museum, the Cranach Houses and Courtyards, Bugenhagenhaus (considered the oldest parsonage in the world), the Renaissance-style Melanchthon House that is a UNESCO world heritage sites — all have already been restored with attention to every detail. And not without a certain amount of controversy. Pastor Friedrich Schorlemmer was so enraged that a staircase was removed in the court of Luther House and replaced with a glassed-in connecting walkway that he took his protest to the state capital of Magdeburg.

The two big churches are in the throes of restoration now. Protective cloths and temporary walls shield these precious relics of Lutheran Christianity in which the non-believer might perceive only uncluttered space. But the religion is all about simplicity, so every daub of color has a multiplicity of meanings.

History through Lutheran eyes

It’s here that people can discover that the rebel Luther was no fanatical iconoclast, despite his reputation otherwise. The superb works from the Cranach workshops have found a place here in the naves and side chapels of the churches. And the considerable treasure contained in the Castle Church reliquary was not squandered.

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Wittenberg in 1536 — Source: Universitätsbibliothek Würzburg

Architecture, spatial planning, and decoration carry not only meaning but a wealth of knowledge that helps us understand the world through Lutheran Christian eyes. Wittenberg is now being reworked by artists and artisans to make it fully readable today.

But it’s not just the monument people, the painters, the plasterers, and the glass artists who are busy here. Archeologists have gotten into the act in Wittenberg too. And they’ve found something major: the grave of Elector Rudolf II von Sachsen-Wittenberg (1307-1370), which had been thought lost. It has been positively identified by the sword Rudolf II carried with him to the grave.

Rudolf made Wittenberg his residence and in so doing laid the groundwork for the city’s later development. The idea that his grave was still in existence was thought to be impossible as recently as a few years before it was found in 2009.

The chance discovery was considered “one of the most stupendous archeological finds in Saxony-Anhalt,” according to the state’s Minister-President Reiner Haseloff. The finding unleashed a comprehensive examination of the remains, which has since been completed.

Finding the grave means that Wittenberg can now also claim its full role as the city of a German electorate. The grave and access to it are currently being converted to accommodate visitors.

If what they’ve been doing up until now is any guide, Wittenberg will seize the opportunity to create another celebration alongside the Cranach and Luther festivities — a big event around the city’s association with one of Saxony-Anhalt’s most famous electors.

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