Luther land

Germany’s Thuringia region will celebrate the rebellious monk this year, along with other beloved historical figures

Merchants Bridge — built over the river in Erfurt, Germany in 1325 — is lined with picturesque homes and shops.
Merchants Bridge — built over the river in Erfurt, Germany in 1325 — is lined with picturesque homes and shops.

On a map of Germany, Thuringia is the region in the center.

And it’s definitely been an epicenter of creativity. Within just a few miles of each other lived and worked an artistic vanguard — the writer Goethe, the poet Friedrich von Schiller, the composer J.S. Bach, the famed painter Lucas Cranach the Elder and architect Walter Gropius, the father of the Bauhaus movement.

And then there’s man who changed society’s ways forever — Martin Luther.

Yes, the radical thinker launched the Protestant Reformation in 1517 — which brought about a revolution in thought and a schism in the Roman Catholic Church that helped shape the theology of modern Europe (and beyond).

The towns within the state of Thuringia, where Luther studied, wrote and preached will celebrate the reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017.

And you’re invited to the party.

Whatever your religious stance (I’m a devout unbeliever), it’s impossible not to marvel at the philosophical pioneer — a 34-year-old monk who came to believe that man’s relationship to God, and road to heaven, required no priestly middlemen.

Luther translated the Latin Bible into the people’s spoken language — German — to make it accessible to all. He even wrote hymns so congregations could actively participate in a service (another first).

And he got into a lot of trouble for all of the above.

Famed writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller stand in front of the German National Theater in Weimar, Germany.
Famed writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller stand in front of the German National Theater in Weimar, Germany.

Meanwhile in Minnesota 

The Minneapolis Institute of Art’s current exhibit — Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation, open through Jan. 15 — transports viewers to this region’s 16th century with a mix of art, archeology and history, including the elaborate pulpit from which Luther preached his last sermon and a number of remarkably preserved Bibles from the period (and much more).

With concurrent exhibitions in Atlanta and New York City, the show at Mia is one of three marking the 500th anniversary of a momentous year when Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to a church door in Wittenberg (in the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt, where he grew up).

The exhibit includes many objects that have never traveled outside Germany. They’ve temporarily been located to the U.S. in part so that German museums and historic sites — expecting a crush of visitors in 2017 — can make preparations.

Erfurt

I began my trip in Erfurt, two and a half hours northeast of Frankfurt.

Founded in 742, the town of 200,000 is still spliced today with cobblestone streets below half-timbered buildings.

Its charming Merchants Bridge of 1325 (across a trickle) of a river is lined with homes and shops to peek into as you make your way to Erfurt Cathedral, where Luther was ordained (home of a Cranach painting, plus Jesus as a life-sized candlestick) aside the Church of St. Severus (Severikirche), its next-door rival.

They’re separated by a vast staircase on which outdoor opera is performed. (I witnessed Tosca mysteriously ascend into heaven with a sword instead of her usual landing in the Tiber River.)

Near a statue of Luther as The Great Reformer stands the church where Bach’s parents married.

But long before that, Luther had enrolled in the university here, where he studied law, as Dad decreed, until encountering a terrible thunderstorm, which evoked a vow: “If I live, I promise to become a monk.”

Tourists can visit the Augustinian Monastery to visit Luther’s humble, chilly room and a replica of his Bible with handwritten notes in the margins.

Erfurt’s Anger Art Museum boasts an enchanting collection of apple-cheeked Medieval Madonnas — plucked eyebrows, brunette coiffures above high foreheads — and altarpieces of alert saints.

Weimar’s City Palace houses the Castle Museum with a focus on painting from 1500 to 1900, including Germany’s most famous painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Martin Luther once lodged in the Franciscan monastery attached to the palace.
Weimar’s City Palace houses the Castle Museum with a focus on painting from 1500 to 1900, including Germany’s most famous painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Martin Luther once lodged in the Franciscan monastery attached to the palace.

Dark times

You can roll back the clock even further as you explore the town’s Old Synagogue, traced from the 11th century. During a pogrom of 1349, Jews hid their precious gold beneath the floor, recently unearthed and displayed, along with early Bibles — including one from 1160 that’s the size of a coffee table. By the 1860s, Jews banished, the building served as a dance hall.

There were no such celebrations under the bleak days of East Germany (German Democratic Republic, 1945–89). A former Stasi prison today houses a museum depicting life (if you care to call it that) under the Soviets.

These grim cells awaited many, after the dreaded middle-of-the-night knock on the door: “You’re coming with us to clarify some facts.”

Weimar

You can follow Luther west to Weimar, where he lodged in the Franciscan monastery attached to City Palace, HQ of the short-lived Weimar Republic between world wars. Today it’s a hothouse of medieval paintings.

“The Cranachs?” asked the attendant as I rushed in. “Turn right.”

And there they were — a desolate Christ, betrayed; Caritas, a sensuous young woman; and portraits of Luther. Like photographs enriched with understanding, they include an earnest youth with searching eyes; an older, pensive Luther; and the graying figure of later years.

Another Cranach — his masterpiece altar — resides in the church of St. Peter and Paul, featuring a crucifixion scene witnessed, in the corner, by John the Baptist, Cranach himself and his pal Martin, who also preached here.

Wander over to Market Square to spot Cranach’s house and the former abode of J.S. Bach, marked with a plaque.

Weimar is a cauldron of creative talent. The homes of Goethe and Schiller — rival writers whose statues stand side-by-side in front of the National Theater — are open to tour, as is the abode of composer Franz Liszt and the voluptuous Rococo library of patroness Anna Amalia, featuring Luther’s 1539 translation of the Bible.

And the pulse goes on. Weimar is also the birthplace of the Bauhaus Movement in architecture and crafts founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 at Bauhaus University, later shut down by the Nazis, but today still alive with the work and spirit of artists Klee, Kandinsky and Feininger in a sleek, Art Deco-esque building.

You can also tour the compact Bauhaus Museum, showcasing objects destined for everyday life — tea sets to furniture — designed to be “attractive, functional, cheerful and cheap.”

Locals celebrate at the annual Baroque Festival at Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, Germany.
Locals celebrate at the annual Baroque Festival at Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, Germany.

Gotha

Hop the rails and head 30 miles east to Gotha, founded in 770, and today dominated by Friedenstein Castle, named Rock of Peace by Duke Ernst, who built it in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War.

As the White House of its day, it housed both working and living quarters, gamboling stylistically from Baroque to Rococo to Classicism in its 365 rooms — including a ballroom, bedchambers, a library, an exquisite theater and a cache of precious paintings.

The Herzogliches Museum across the street is home to many Cranachs (his house is found on the town’s Market Square), including the oh-so-human double portrait of Christ with Mary Magdalene and the tender Dutch work famously titled Gotha Lovers. 

Oh, but what about Luther? Yes, he paid frequent visits to preach here at the Augustinian Monastery where he held office. In his will, he declared his wish to be buried in Gotha (though it never happened).

Eisenach 

“My dear town,” is what Luther called Eisenach, 40 miles east of Gotha.

It’s here, at age 14, his parents sent him to earn his keep as a choirboy in St. Nicholas church. In those days, the lads strolled, house-to-house, to literally sing for their supper.

One kind family took him in. He lived in their half-timbered dwelling, now a museum called Lutherhaus — today a treasury of medieval art that also offers a look into his boyhood bedchamber.

Newly refurbished, it tells the story of Luther and the Bible in interactive form, explaining the whys and hows of translating the work into German.

Visitors can tour the Latin school he attended (along with his admirer, J.S. Bach) and St. Georgen church where, excommunicated and ostracized by now, Luther preached to standing-room-only crowds. (Bach was baptized here; four generations of his family occupied the organ bench, where Telemann and Pachelbel also played.)

Above the town rises Wartburg Castle — perhaps Germany’s most iconic — where Luther was benignly incarcerated for a year while a hunted man.

He used this time to translate the Bible. He also composed 30-some hymns — A Mighty Fortress the most famous — which Bach later adopted in his cantatas. Head to the castle’s art gallery, where — surprise — more Cranachs bloom, including portraits of Luther’s parents.

J.S. Bach was born in Eisenach, and his early home is now the Bachhaus, a museum depicting his life and, in a stunning new addition — his music, exploring questions like: What did he actually write? (many conflicting editions) Look like? (only one authenticated portrait) What is a fugue? Polyphony?

Explore it all, plus enjoy live concerts hourly and recordings in surround-sound.


Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.


Lucas Cranach the Elder; Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, 1529
Lucas Cranach the Elder; Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, 1529

See an exhibit 

Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation — is showing at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) through Jan. 15.

Read a story from our sister publication, Southwest Journal, at tinyurl.com/luther-mn, to learn more about the exhibit, which features new information about the early life of Martin Luther, discovered during a 2003 excavation of a refuse pit near his childhood home.

Artifacts that were dated back to 1500 revealed a rather well-to-do Luther family, not a humble one as previously believed.