Elector Frederick III of Ernestine Saxony (1463-1525, also known as Frederick the Wise, Friederich der Weise) became the first patron of the Protestant Reformation with his support and defence of Martin Luther. On the site of the original city castle, Frederick the Wise authorized in 1489-1490 a renaissance palace with the entire north wing occupied by the Castle Church. The church was consecrated and inaugurated in 1503 as the castle and university church “Allerheiligen” (All Saints); Martin Luther taught theology as professor at the neighbouring university. The first Protestant service at the Castle Church was held in 1524-1525.
A significant portion of the church including the original wooden doors was burned and destroyed in 1760 during Europe’s Seven Years’ War (1754-1763). The 1770 replacement church was subsequently destroyed in the conflict against France’s Napoleon which ended with the town under Prussian control in 1815. With support and backing by Emperor Wilhelm II, a full renovation of the church took place between 1885 and 1892 with the west tower taking the form and shape we see today (see also below). The graves for Martin Luther, contemporary colleague and fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon, and Frederick the Wise are inside the church. After three years of renovation and restoration work in time for the Reformation quincentenary in 2017, the Castle Church was reopened in the autumn of 2016.
Theses’ portal (Thesentür)
The church’s north portal or Theses’ Portal is the location where Martin Luther is believed to have pinned his “95 Theses”1 in opposition to Catholic Church practices (e.g., selling indulgences). The church’s original doors were burned and destroyed during the Seven Years’ War. In 1857, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia ordered a replacement portal door cast in bronze with Luther’s 95 theses engraved into the door; the door as memorial was unveiled in 1858. While there is no direct evidence supporting Luther having gone and actually pinned notes to the church doors2, he would have most certainly sent to local church authorities a letter expressing his concerns and his points of argument/discussion.
2 In 2006, Martin Treu from the Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt (Foundation for Luther Memorials in Saxony-Anhalt) visited the Thurigina University and State Library in Jena, and examined the 1540 copy of Luther’s German translation of the New Testament. Treu found on one of the final pages a handwritten note in Latin attributed to Georg Rörer, doctor of theology serving as Martin Luther’s secretary. The note roughly translates as: “On the evening before All Saints’ Day in the year of our Lord 1517, theses about letters of indulgence were nailed to the doors of the Wittenberg churches by Doctor Martin Luther.” It’s still not direct evidence because there are no written records about the act from witnesses or from Martin Luther himself, but it’s the closest anyone has seen which points to Luther having actually posted documents to the church doors.
• Sammlung Georg Rörer (in German), Thüringer Universitäts und Landesbibliothek, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.
• “Sensationsfund mit Streitwert: Historische Quelle zu Luthers Thesenanschlag entdeckt“, April 2007 in Uni-Journal Jena.
• “Neuer Beleg für Luthers Thesenanschlag” (in German), 1 February 2007 in Der Spiegel.
In the above closeup of the upper arch (lunette, tympanum) over the Theses’ Portal is the 1850-1851 encaustic mural painting by August von Kloeber “Christus am Kreuz mit Luther und Melanchthon.” On either side of Christ on the cross in the foreground, Luther (viewer left) holds his 1522 Greek-to-German translation of the New Testament, and Philipp Melanchthon (viewer right) holds his 1530 “Confessio Augustana” (Augsburg Confessional), another important document of the Lutheran Reformation. The background scene is of medieval Wittenberg as the viewer stands on the south bank of the Elbe river facing north to the Castle Church (far left) and St. Mary’s Town Church (Stadtkirche, centre-left).
Central nave to apse
Carved by Wittenberg sculptor Wilhelm Lober, the 19th-century wood pulpit is decorated with the coat-of-arms from towns associated with Luther, including Eisleben, Erfurt, Wittenberg and Worms. I attended at 8am the first service of Reformation Day (2016) which was held in English. Delivering the sermon was Dr. Robert G. Moore, ELCA Reformation500 Representative in Wittenberg and Leipzig.
Martin Luther’s grave
Under the staircase pulpit is the final resting place for Martin Luther (1483-1546). He died in Eisleben on 18 February 1546, and after several days on the road by foot from Eisleben via Halle, the funeral procession with Luther’s body arrived in Wittenberg. Philipp Melanchthon (see also below) delivered the eulogy at Luther’s funeral on 22 February 1546. A copy of the large plate over Luther’s grave hangs on an adjacent wall; the original bronze version is in Jena. A modest plate fixed to a raised sandstone base now marks the spot where Luther is buried a couple of metres below ground. The marker’s Latin inscription translates roughly as:
“Here lies the body of Martin Luther, Doctor of Divinity, who died at Eisleben, his birthplace, on the 12th of the Calends of March, in the year 1546, when he had lived 63 years, 2 months, and 10 days.” (Sacred Destinations)
Philipp Melanchthon’s grave
Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), born with the surname “Schwartzerdt” (black earth), became an expert in Greek, and changed his surname to the corresponding word in Greek: Melanchthon. He was called “Germany’s Teacher” (Praeceptor Germaniae) for his work in reforming the educational system. With his influential writings on theology and collaborations with Luther, Melanchthon was an important figure in the early stages of the Reformation. Melanchthon died in 1560 and was buried a few metres from Luther’s grave. The Latin inscription of the plate over Melanchthon’s grave translates roughly as:
“Here rests the body of the most commendable Philipp Melanchthon, who died on 19 April 1560, in this town after he had lived for 63 years, 2 months, and 2 days.” (Sacred Destinations)
“Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, ein gute Wehr und Waffen” is the first verse from one of Martin Luther’s best-known hymns written between 1527 and 1529. The verse encircles the tower as a one-metre tall frieze made with over 100-thousand individual pieces of porcelain. The massive 88-metre (290-feet) high Neogothic spire dominates the skyline as one of Wittenberg’s landmarks.