Traversing Germany: The Riches of Luther Country by Emma Krasov

Photography by Emma Krasov

Just like in my previous travels to Germany, once again I was moving around in a state of dual fascination – recognizing the sights and sounds of my European roots, and discovering the incredible variety of cultural identities that constitute this country of many lands.

This June, in a group of international travelers from America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, I’ve visited quite a few of German towns with connection to Martin Luther in the course of a thematic trip though Thuringia and Bavaria, where medieval castles, baroque churches, and local cuisine restaurants rate high among the popular tourist attractions.

Martin Luther, called the father of the Protestant Reformation, was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, and on October 31, 1517, allegedly nailed his theses criticizing the Catholic church, and especially the selling of indulgences, to the gate of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s act of protest, considered the start of the Reformation, is widely celebrated this year, with every city and town in which he used to reside, preach, or hide from the authorities, pitching in with their own historical references, monuments, legends, and mementos.

Tiny, pretty, and pedestrian-friendly, Eisenach boasts the medieval St. Nicholas Gate in close proximity to a train station, and right across from it – a massive Luther memorial, created by the sculptor Adolf von Donndorf in 1895 – featuring the corpulent reformer in a long robe, towering above the relief depictions of his life’s pivotal events.

Historical Eisenach welcomed Luther on more than one occasion. Starting in 1498, and for three more years, the future church rebel attended St. George Latin school in town of then 3000 inhabitants, while residing in the councilman Cotta’s house. It is said that the pious matron of the family was so taken by young Luther’s heartfelt singing and devout payers that she offered him room and board. Now called Luther House, and housing the Luther Museum, it might be the oldest half-timbered building in Thuringia, well-preserved, and located in the old town center.A short walking distance away, there’s the world’s first and largest museum dedicated to the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in Eisenach in 1685. The adjacent new building of a musical center presents a multimedia exhibition on Bach’s music, holds a collection of baroque instruments, and offers live music performances. Baptized in the local Church of St. George (built in 1182; where Luther held a sermon in 1521 after being excommunicated by Rome) later in life Bach, a devout Lutheran, created his famous cantatas based on Luther’s hymns, like No. 80, “A mighty fortress is our God” (“Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott“).



A subject to the Edict of Worms (Imperial ban), Luther was aided by his early defender, Frederick III, who sheltered him at the Wartburg Castle in the wooded mountains overlooking Eisenach. Built in 1067, and richly decorated with murals and mosaics, Wartburg Castle was home to St. Elisabeth of Hungary in the early 1200s, and an inspiration for Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle (the prototype of the Cinderella Castle in Disney theme parks). Wartburg Castle was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999.

Here, in one of the chambers of the castle, Luther translated the New Testament into conversational German, and according to a legend, threw an inkwell against a wall while “fighting the Devil with ink,” by his own saying. The video “ink stain” appears on the wall during multiple daily tours through the themed exhibition, “Luther and the Germans” on view through November 5.

The well-researched and widely laid out exhibition doesn’t shy away from Luther’s controversies. In the curatorial sections, “The Reception of Luther and the Reformation in Divided Germany” and “Martin Luther under National Socialism” it addresses his characterization as “a traitor to the common people” in time of the Peasants’ War (1524-25) and his aggressive anti-Semitism resulting from the failed attempts to convert the followers of Judaism to Christianity.

While staying in the hospitable Eisenach, our group had a rather modern dinner of arugula and burrata, veal osso bucco with goat cheese polenta, and strawberry mousse with lime and basil ice cream at a historical restaurant, Turmschänke Eisenach, and spent the night at a chic Steigenberger Hotel Thüringer Hof in the town center.

Arriving in Schmalkalden – a small medieval town in Southern Thuringia, we started the day with a lavish lunch at Ratskeller restaurant, this time with all the traditional German fare, like roasted pork shoulder, seasonal white asparagus, and shiny round Thuringian potato dumplings.

On a guided walking tour of the town, visited by Luther many times in his tempestuous life, we learned about a special meeting of the Schmalkaldic League which resulted in far-reaching changes in the church practices. The Schmalkaldic League, an association of 16 Protestant princes sworn to defend one another against Catholic opposition, founded in 1531, assembled in the Schmalkalden Town Hall in 1537. This assembly (also called diet) was led by Luther and Philipp Melanchthon – the professor-theologian and intellectual leader of the Lutheran Reformation. The Articles of Faith presented by Luther during the meeting were incorporated into the Evangelical church’s Book of Concord. Today, priests are still ordained using the Schmalkalden Articles of Faith.

These historic events are the subject of the permanent exhibition, “Launch into a New Era” at Wilhelmsburg Castle, one of the major Renaissance castles in Germany, situated above the green tree crowns and red tiled roofs of Schmalkalden. The original interior rooms with characteristic period murals and exquisite stucco decorations, and the beautifully restored chapel with vaulted ceiling and working organ present an unforgettable experience enhanced by the views of baroque gardens that surround the castle.

We also visited the late-gothic church of St. George with stained glass windows and a thin black clock tower that bears a graphic reminder of Memento Mori, and a historical building in which Luther rented a top floor room during one of his visits to the town.

Transferring to the Bavarian Coburg we were about to embark on one of the best city walking tours in our group’s collective memory. Our guide, Beatrice Hoellein, who admittedly was born in Malaysia, married a German, and found her true vocation in leading multi-lingual tours in and around Coburg, started her amazing presentation standing at Marktplatz in front of the 1865 monument to Albert, Prince Consort of Great Britain from the House of Coburg. She made a reference to Coburg’s own “Brexit” when the city, located on the border of the two states, voted to drop Thuringia and join Bavaria in 1920 after a state-wide referendum.  Our guide then pointed to a depiction of the head of St. Moriz on the city’s coat of arms, on many building walls, and on manhole covers. She explained that the legendary Coburg Moor was the city’s patron saint, and that Coburg’s main church was also named after him.

We proceeded to visiting the St. Moriz church, where Luther preached in 1530, with a late-gothic hall, mid-18th century baroque interior, 13-meter tall alabaster epitaph of Duke John Frederick the Middle by Nikolaus Bergner (1598) and Schuke organ.

Then in an energetic tour-de-force, interrupted only for a quick yet substantial lunch at Brauhaus Coburg  (featuring local award-winning sausages) we visited all four castles of Coburg: Ehrenburg Palace, where Queen Victoria met the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and where Johann Strauss, the “King of Waltz” married his third wife Adele in the Palace Chapel; Rosenau Palace, one of Queen Victoria’s favorites, where her beloved husband Albert of Saxe-Coburg was born; Callenberg Castle, the summer residence of the Coburg dukes with a 400-year-old Protestant chapel, and Veste Coburg – the medieval fortress where Luther resided for six month in 1530 after being outlawed by the Emperor.  Here, Luther’s living quarters are authentically furnished and preserved as well as a chapel where he prayed.

The Bavarian State Exhibition “Knights, Farmers, Lutherans,” currently on display through November 5 at Veste Coburg, focuses on the impact that Luther’s teaching had on the people of Bavaria, and more precisely, Upper Franconia. It contains numerous examples of medieval and Renaissance religious art, reflecting the period’s fascination with death and its inevitability reflected in wonderfully crafted pieces, like a wooden mechanical clock depicting a skeleton riding a lion, and striking him with a bone over the head every 15 minutes on the dot.

We soon checked out of our Hotel Goldener Anker in Coburg, and were on our way to Augsburg, Bavaria’s third largest, and one of Germany’s oldest cities, founded by the Roman Emperor Augustus more than 2000 years ago. We stopped at Kastanienhof restaurant and beer garden in Pleinfeld for al fresco dining in the shade of old chestnut trees.

After a peaceful night sleep at the Hotel Augsburger Hof, steps from the city center with a monument to Emperor Augustus, we headed to the recently opened Fugger and Welser Museum for a guided tour with focus on Luther. Located in the extensively renovated Renaissance Wiesel house, the museum explores with the help of multimedia devices and interactive sections the influence of Augsburg patrician families of the 15th and 16th centuries on worldwide economic events as the Fuggers and the Welsers ran their businesses from the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, expanding their trade relations across Europe and financing popes, emperors and kings as well as trade missions to India, Africa and South America.

After a lively lunch at the innovative Die Tafeldecker restaurant offering contemporary small plates and outdoor communal seating, our group headed on a guided walking tour in the footsteps of Luther in Augsburg, a.k.a. The City of Reformation.

Church of St. Anna and the adjoining Carmelite monastery became the focal point of the Reformation when Luther stayed here in 1518 during his confrontation with Cardinal Cajetan. At the Christmas service of 1525, the Holy Communion was first observed “according to both rites.”

In 1530, the Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana) was read out in Augsburg, before Emperor Charles V.

At the Augsburg Cathedral, Mariae Heimsuchung, (“Visitation of the Holy Virgin”) Luther’s officially certified “Appeal regarding the ill-informed Pope and directed to the Pope who is in need of better information” was affixed to the Cathedral portal after the fruitless dispute with Cardinal Cajetan.

At the old gothic Town Hall in 1555 the Augsburg Contract of Religious Peace was proclaimed, which marked the end of confrontation and led to peaceful coexistence of different religious beliefs. It gave the followers of the Confessio Augustana the right to freely practice their religion.

After a lavish farewell dinner at Riegele Wirtshaus, when our group was heading to the hotel, we encountered a police-protected street demonstration emphasizing Luther’s adamant refusal to grant others the same religious freedom he proclaimed and insisted upon for his own followers. An effigy of Luther depicted as a flasher, and quoting his well-known insights, “Burn their synagogues, destroy their religious books,” etc. etc. was taken through the streets of Augsburg by a group of protesters, supported by some passersby – a great testament to the freedom of speech, alive and well in the City of Reformation.

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