'Luther Country' marks 500th anniversary of Reformation

Chicago Tribune
October 06. 2017 9:55PM

The doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther posted his 95 theses that questioned the Catholic Church and helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago this October. (Amy S. Eckert/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

WITTENBERG, Germany -- For the world's roughly 800 million Protestants, a small corner of eastern Germany is their spiritual home - a place that takes on added importance this year, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Covering an area roughly 150 miles long, so-called Luther Country is the birthplace and longtime home of religious rebel Martin Luther. Here it was that young Luther was allegedly frightened by a thunderstorm, interpreting a lightning strike as a sign to drop out of law school in favor of seminary. And here it was that the theologian famously assailed the Catholic powers that be when he tacked his 95 theses on a church door Oct. 31, 1517, setting off the Reformation.

While commemorative concerts and museum exhibitions have been taking place all year long, momentum is building as the clock ticks closer to Oct. 31, 500 years to the day since Luther posted his grievances on Wittenberg's Castle Church door.

At the center of the celebrations - and in the center of Luther Country, spiritually if not geographically - sits the small university town of Wittenberg. With a population of just under 50,000, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, as the city is officially known, was home to Martin Luther longer than anyplace else.

Stretching nearly a mile between the Castle Church and the monastery that became Luther's family home, Wittenberg's Collegienstrasse spanned the gulf between the established church and a new religious ideology. The town's de facto Main Street, cobbled Collegienstrasse charms visitors with overflowing flower boxes, a gurgling canal and sidewalk cafes. In between, mom and pop shops display Reformation-themed souvenirs from the pedagogic to the playful: biographies of Martin Luther and his cohorts; detailed analyses of early Protestantism; Reformation beer, wine and liquor; chocolates and noodles shaped into Luther's profile; and socks knitted with the words "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise" - Luther's supposed retort to the powerful officials of the Holy Roman Empire who wanted him to walk back his criticism of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
One of the many Martin Luther souvenirs visitors can find in Wittenberg, which is expecting an influx of visitors for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on Oct. 31. (Amy S. Eckert/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Within the honey-colored walls of the Luther House, the world's largest Reformation museum, it's easy to visualize the more intense world of the early 1500s, when heated theology discussions would have taken place at Luther's popular Table Talks. Faded ocher and blue paint cover the walls, and sunlight streams through circular glass panes. At the center of the room stands Luther's battered-looking wooden table, said to be the original.

Nearby, the house's cavernous lecture hall was the scene for frequent religious discourses allowing Luther a platform upon which to rail against church corruption and the habit of selling penitential indulgences that simultaneously fed Rome's growing budget.

Across Luther Country, from tiny Eisleben, where Luther was born in 1483 and died some 60 years later, to Erfurt, where he attended seminary, from Mansfeld, where Luther lived as a young boy, to Torgau, where his wife, Katharina von Bora, died, museums and monuments remind visitors that Martin Luther was once here. All claim close ties to the reformer. But at times, the links seem nebulous.

"After 500 years, many buildings simply don't survive," says Jochen Birkenmeier, research director and curator of the Luther House museum in Eisenach, where Luther is said to have lived and studied from 1498 to 1501.

While Birkenmeier and his team are reasonably certain which rooms Luther occupied at the Luther House in Eisenach, it is the reformer's relationship to the Bible that forms the focal point of the museum. Displays explain the rarity of Bibles in Luther's youth - Luther himself never saw a Bible until entering seminary.

Reformation events 

Reformation Celebration, Oct. 31, Wittenberg. The annual event includes a historical market, church services, lectures and musical performances. This year's celebration is expected to be larger than usual, and the date has been declared a national holiday for the first time.

Pop Oratory Luther, through October. The story of Martin Luther and the Reformation told through a 1,500-voice choir and symphony orchestra. Concerts to take place in Wittenberg, Berlin and Braunschweig, among other cities.

"Luther and the Germans," through Nov. 5, Wartburg Castle, Eisenach. The exhibit explores the complex ways in which Luther's writings have been used - and exploited - by generations of Germans.

"Luther! 95 Treasures, 95 People," through Nov. 5, Luther House museum, Wittenberg. An overview of Martin Luther's life and times in 16th century Germany.

"Heretic, Schismatic, Teacher of the Faith: The Catholic View of Luther," through Nov. 5, Luther House museum, Eisenach.

From airports in Berlin and Leipzig, all of the major Luther cities are easily reached by train. For more information about Luther-related sites and events, visit www.visit-luther.comwww.luther2017.de/en and www.germany.travel/en/specials/luther/luther.html.

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