Lutherstadt Wittenburg, where history and street art collide

Wittenberg is a town full of surprises, the first being that the smallness and tranquility of the place belies the town’s global significance. This is, after all, the town that birthed the Reformation, the spiritual home of the world’s 850 million Protestants. The second is that, in a place that feels as if it has collectively taken a horse tranquilliser, there’s an active street art scene. In fact, the town has even hosted a street art festival. I’ve yet to work out whether that’s something of which Martin Luther would approve.

I hadn’t quite realised how small Wittenberg was in real life, the town’s place in history being many times larger than its physical size. The old town only has two streets, they run in parallel with each other, converging only where two important Luther-related sights are found: the Luther House and All Saints’ Church. In between, the town has a number of beautiful squares, ancient churches and town houses that survived the ravages of the Second World War largely in tact.

Media Magdalena by Innerfields, Wittenberg, Germany

They are called patience and hope and their fate is in my hands by Herakut, Wittenberg, Germany

The castle, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

The Future is Now by Contra, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Segregation by Case, Wittenberg, Germany

Walking a loop around the old town took less than an hour. Luckily there were plenty of distractions to keep me occupied until my train departed. These included churches that had paintings by a contemporary of Luther, and one of the most famous German artists of the era, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Based in Wittenberg he is considered the principle artist of Luther’s Reformation, even providing the woodcuts that illustrated the Luther Bible.

His house and studios where he worked for over four decades are located in the centre of town, with displays of his life, times and work. Maybe it’s the influence of his non-conformism that makes street art popular in Wittenberg. The old town has a number of striking pieces, some by artists, like Herakut, that are familiar from Berlin. It was the illuminating Media Magdalena, ironically subtitled “our daily bread” by Innerfields, that first caught my attention though. It seemed fitting for the epicentre of Lutherism.

Innerfields, a trio of German artists, seem fascinated by the impact of smart phones on our lives. They are responsible for a large piece in Berlin along the same lines. Other artists I found included a colourful piece by Contra , called The Future is Now, and a piece called Segregation by German muralist, Case, showing a person’s hand holding a book – a reference to the Luther Bible perhaps? There was more art in the new town, but it was in the mid-30ºC, way too hot to be roaming the streets.

Instead, I attempted to visit All Saints’ Church, where Luther is said to have nailed his theses. Surprisingly, there was a wedding taking place and I was told to come back in a couple of hours. By the time I returned the wedding had been replaced by a group of hand bell-ringers. This was more than I’d bargained for and, after enduring one ‘song’, I headed into the park behind the town castle and headed to Brauhaus Wittenberg for a refreshing local beer.

Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

The castle, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

The Future is Now by Contra, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

They are called patience and hope and their fate is in my hands by Herakut, Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

St. George and the Dragon are symbols of Wittenberg, Germany

There was a final surprise for me on my way back to the train station. Earlier in the day, I’d noticed two dragons on one of the pieces of street art and thought nothing of it. Close to the station though I came across another dragon, this time a sculpture. At first I thought this was a reference to St. George and the Dragon, which has an association with Wittenberg. Later, I discovered this was a flying serpent holding a golden ring in its mouth – the emblem of the artist, Cranach the Elder.

The Rome of the Protestants, Wittenberg

It was 31 October, 1517, when Martin Luther walked from his home, down the cobbled main street of the small, sleepy town of Wittenberg, to All Saints’ Church. It was a walk that would turn the world upside down. Legend has it that when he arrived outside the church he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to its door. This simple act would set in motion a religious revolution, propel Europe towards the Renaissance, and bring the old order crashing down. It was an act that changed the course of history.

Luther himself never intended for that to happen. He hoped instead to start a scholarly debate on what he saw as corruption in the Catholic Church. Once the genie was out of the bottle though, there was no putting it back. The Reformation had begun and there would be no stopping it. As I recreated one of the most famous moments in Western European history, I found myself increasingly incredulous that Wittenberg had played such a central role in the creation of modern Europe. It’s tiny.

Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Globe, Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Church of St. Mary, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Statue of Philipp Melanchthon, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Church of St. Mary, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

A university was founded in Wittenberg in 1502 and, despite its size, the town became a hotbed of radical thinking and was home to some of the most progressive scholars in Europe. These included Philipp Melanchthon, a man who argued for the education of women, and a staunch friend of Luther. I stopped at his former home before heading towards the spires of the Church of St. Mary. All Saints’ Church might be the site of the Ninety-Five Theses, but St. Mary’s is where Luther preached.

The church exterior has a brutal reminder of another aspect of Luther’s faith, and the commonly held beliefs of the time. High up on the church walls is a carving depicting a Rabbi looking into a pigs anus. They might have broken the rules on celibacy and even argued for female education, but these Reformers were still rooted in the traditions of antisemitism that also characterised Christianity for centuries. Luther’s attitude is most clearly seen in his 65,000 word treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies.

The views Luther expressed had a direct connection to the ideology of the Nazis, and his words undoubtedly led to Jews being persecuted at the time. In fact, he argued that they should be. It’s no coincidence that nearby is a memorial to the Holocaust. There are around fifty churches in Germany with similar antisemitic carvings, and a debate exists on whether, as symbols of hate, they should be removed. Expunging historical fact seems a dangerous activity. However unpleasant, we unlearn history at our peril.

This is also the church where Luther married Katharina von Bora, the interior has some wonderful paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. I wandered back into the sunlight and made my way through a narrow alley into the town’s showpiece: the Marktplatz. This beautiful square is framed by the 16th century Town Hall, elegant town houses, and is overlooked by the twin spires of St. Mary’s. It’s a dramatic sight, especially reflected in a mirrored globe of the world that sits on one side of the square.

Antisemitic sculpture, St. Mary’s Church, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Holocaust memorial, St. Mary’s Church, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther statue, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

House of Philipp Melanchthon, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Marktplatz, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

It was well past lunchtime when I arrived in the Marktplatz, something of a risk in small German towns. Luckily, I spotted the Brauhaus Wittenberg close to the square, took a seat in the courtyard and settled down to enjoy some earthly pleasures of local beer and flammkuchen. The temperature was in the mid-30s by this point, and it took a huge effort to dislodge myself from the seat to continue my tour around the town, and down the only street in the world that is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Wittenberg, home to Martin Luther and the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation, that split the Catholic Church asunder and paved the way for centuries of religious persecution and warfare, was the culmination of fundamental change taking place in Western Europe. Yet, two of the most important events that led inexorably to the emergence of Protestantism are the responsibility of two Germans. Johannes Gutenberg died in 1468, a mere 15 years before Martin Luther was born in 1483, but both would revolutionise the world around them.

In 1440, Gutenberg invented the printing press in Strasbourg, and was responsible for the first book ever printed in Europe from movable type, the Gutenberg Bible. In 1510, five years after becoming a Catholic monk, Martin Luther visited Rome. So scandalised was he by the corruption he witnessed there, that he returned to Germany to publish a series of pamphlets attacking papal abuses. Married to Gutenberg’s new technology, Luther’s ideas spread like wildfire across Europe.

Luther House, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherism around the world, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther House, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther statue, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Castle, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther was living in Wittenberg during this period, and here in 1517 he published his ’95 Theses’, legend has it by defiantly nailing them to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Known as the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, the 95 Theses were a list of questions that directly challenged the Catholic Church’s authority by claiming salvation could only be achieved through faith and divine grace. This would eventually lead to his excommunication as a heretic in 1521.

A couple of years ago I was myself in Rome. A visit that also left me scandalised, not by religion, but by the flagrant commercialism and deep unpleasantness of a tour around the Vatican. There was a particularly troubling ten minutes in the Sistine Chapel. I probably didn’t feel the same sense of outrage Luther felt, but it seems things haven’t improved much since 1510. A recent visit to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, as Wittenberg is now known, served to underscore the ideological divide that drove the emergence of Protestantism.

I walked through this small sleepy town wondering how it could have been that, during the 16th century, this was the epicentre of a radical strand of Christianity that directly challenged the immense power of the Catholic Church. Wittenberg would probably fit inside the Vatican, can boast few artistic masterpieces and the closest I came to seeing a crowd was a small group of elderly Americans on a guided tour of the Luther House, the former monastery that the Reformer called home for 35 years.

Luther first lived here as an Augustinian monk, before using it as a base to develop the ideas that would help bring about the Reformation. Compared to the Vatican, this is a small building, yet it’s still the largest museum anywhere in the world dedicated to the Reformation. It was just about the first building I saw walking from the train station to the old town centre, and was the starting point for a day of exploration around this lovely place.

All Saints’ Church, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther statue, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

95 Theses Door, All Saints’ Church, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Luther House, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

Martin and Katharina, Luther House, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

I was here on a Saturday and couldn’t believe how quiet it was. The building is largely the result of 19th century add ons to the earlier building, but there are areas that have been preserved almost intact from when Luther lived here. The famous ‘Table Talks‘ took place in the Luther Room, which still has its original features from a time when he would debate religion and other, more mundane, matters around a table with guests. In 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. She moved in that same year.

It turns out that Luther had a great fondness for women, and wasted no time in putting the new Reformation rules about marriage to full use. He and Katarina raised six children in this house. In fact, Luther had a rather modern (if somewhat sexist) take on some areas of life, stating once that, “Drinking wine in moderation and enjoying a lovely girl; that is in community with the fear of God, the sweetest life.” I started to get the feeling his beef with the Pope wasn’t just about the sale of indulgences.