For anybody strolling around a German town, a natural point of visual gravity is the spire associated with the town’s cathedral. That’s no different in the town of Worms on the Rhine river between Mainz and Mannheim. What is different in a walk through the gardens next to the cathedral is that “Martin Luther was here” and that events here put his life in danger.
2021 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s trial at the Imperial Parliament (Diet) in Worms.
Story Leading to Trial
After becoming Pope in 1513, Leo the Tenth (Leo X) continued projects to beautify the Vatican including construction of St. Peter’s Basilica began by Pope Julius the Second in 1506. To raise the enormous sums required, the commercialized practice of indulgences with a growing offshoot industry of “indulgence brokers” was used to funnel money to Rome. This and other practices made some uneasy and others furious at the abuse of power. In Wittenberg, a monk produced a set of arguments (his 95 theses), questioning the Church’s practices and questioning whether the Church belonged to the people or to its leaders. Whether Martin Luther actually posted his theses onto a church door as an act of provocation or privately sent them to his superior in deference to his boss remains an open question. What is not in question is that Luther’s inquiry and discussion would cause a movement, rebellion, and secession from the Catholic Church.
Leo X issued a papal bull in 1520 to Luther demanding the latter recant (a majority) of his theses; Luther declined. In January 1521, Leo X issued a papal bull formally excommunicating Luther from the Catholic Church. Upon receipt of the papal bull, Luther promptly burned the letter at one of Wittenberg’s city gates where a large commemorative oak tree (Luther-Eiche) now stands.
Shortly after his excommunication, Martin Luther was ordered to appear in front of Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fifth (Charles V) during the Diet (Imperial Parliament) convening in Worms, where Luther would answer charges of heresy. A devout Catholic, Charles V had inherited large portions of Europe and dreamed of creating a united empire. Although he opposed Luther’s stance and underestimated the discontent among his subjects, Charles and other regional rulers understood the flow of money to Rome had to be stopped and the undermining of church and Papal power would help achieve Charles’ goal of uniting his inherited lands.
In Worms at the Bishop’s Palace behind St. Peter’s Cathedral, the confrontation between Martin Luther and Emperor Charles V occurred on 17 and 18 April 1521. Once again, Luther was pressured to recant his theses and teachings, and Luther steadfastly refused. Following Luther’s failure to recant, Charles V’s Imperial Edict declared Luther as heretic and outlaw which meant the latter could be eliminated without penalty. Luther was aware of an earlier predecessor, Czech reformer Jan Hus, and throughout the process in Worms, Luther would have recognized close (if not, eerie) similarity with events for Hus one hundred years earlier: from Hus’ excommunication, a summons for Hus to answer charges of heresy in Constance, and finally to Hus’ summary arrest and execution. As Luther left Worms, he and others would have known his life was under serious threat. Luther’s benefactor Friedrich the Third arranged to have Luther “kidnapped” and taken safely to Wartburg Castle in Eisenach (1521-1522), where Luther would hide as “Junker Jörg” and began the process of translating the Bible.
Many labels apply to Luther: rebel, revolutionary, leader, pariah, even superstar. In the end, what people underestimated was the power of ideas expressed into words written by a defiant German monk, the deliberate use of German instead of Latin in both speech and print, and the power of the early printing press and subsequent widespread distribution of printed pamphlets. In the first half of the 16th-century, Martin Luther would have been the most published and most read of the early authors in Germany.
Location of Luther’s Trial
The Bishop’s Palace was destroyed by the French during the Nine Years’ War in 1689. A palace built in the baroque style in the 18th-century was destroyed in 1794. In the late 19th-century, the wealthy Heyl family bought the land and they converted the land to their residence with gardens (Heylshof). A plaque set into the ground marked the spot where Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms.
To mark the 450th anniversary of Luther’s trial in Worms, local artist Gustav Nonnenmacher was commissioned in 1971 to build a sculpture in Heylshof Garden. The sculpture stands at the approximate location where Luther stood in the presence of Emperor Charles V; the buildings along with the palace were for the Bishopric of Worms. A stylized “lightning bolt” halfway down the sculpture suggests the beginning of the church’s divide.
Courtesy of Worms’ city archive: 1971 bronze sculpture by Gustav Nonnenmacher with the title “Reformations-Gedenkrelief zum 450. Jahresgedenken des Wormser Reichstages, Luther vor Kaiser Karl V., “Kaiser und Bischofspfalz vor 1689″ (nördlicher Dombezirk 1521).” Dimensions: 148 cm high by 160 cm by 20 cm (4.9 ft high by 5.2 ft by 0.7 ft). Location: Heylshof Garden next to the Cathedral.
Completed in time for the Reformation’s quincentary in 2017, a recent addition to the memorial in Heylshof Garden includes a pair of grossly oversized bronze shoes by Constanze und Norbert Illig. Visitors can now “step into” Luther’s shoes as he would’ve himself almost 500 years ago when he arrived in Worms to defend himself against charges of heresy.
With regional trains, Worms is about 30 minutes from Mannheim and about 80 minutes from Frankfurt am Main (via Mainz or Mannheim). From Worms’ Hauptbahnhof (city’s main train station), it’s a short ten-minute walk to Heylshof Garden located between the Reformation Monument (Lutherdenkmal) and St. Peter’s Cathedral (Dom St. Peter). There is no admission charge to enter Heyslhof Garden, although the green space may be closed during the Nibelung festival.
Thanks to Tourist Information Worms for arrangements in the city and regional transport beyond, to Bettina Mauer for a guided tour of the city, and to Romantic Germany for their support in various cities along the Rhine river. I made the photos above on 21 and 22 November 2015. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins.com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-9MI.