Wittenberg UNESCO WHS: St. Mary’s Church
Above: West side illuminated by afternoon sun, 30 Oct 2016 (HL).
The Stadtkirche Sankt Marien (St. Mary’s Town and Parish Church) is the oldest building in Wittenberg, and is one of four sites in town as part of the town’sasx inscription as UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. Not only is this the location where Luther preached, the church also contains important relics by the Cranachs highlighting the young Reformation movement. The Cranach and Luther families were close, as well as contemporary colleagues.
The east chancel (near the main altar) was part of the original St. Mary’s chapel built around 1280. By the early 15th-century, the chapel was incorporated into a triple-naved structure with two towers in the late-Gothic style at the west end of the new church; the Gothic tops were removed and replaced by octagonal shapes by the mid-16th century. The original pulpit from which Luther delivered his sermons has survived the centuries, and is now located in Wittenberg’s Luther House (Lutherhaus).
St. Mary’s Church
The Reformation Altar
Completed by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1547 AD/CE, the Reformation Altar has stood in the church chancel for over 470 years. The four panels represented pillars of the Reformation, and included portraits of key Reformation figures and supporters in Wittenberg: Luther, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, Katharina von Bora (Luther’s wife), and Cranach. The altar was “repainted”, redone, and retouched in 1928.
Along the chancel wall surrounding the main altar are epitaph paintings by the Cranach family. The paintings not only honoured the specific person and family, but also highlighted visuals to support the Reformation message.
“Christ’s Baptism in Jordan”, epitaph painting for Johannes Bugenhausen and his family, attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger; signed and dated on baptism water jug, about 1560.
Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558) was a theologian, priest, and a significant contributor to widening and spread of the Reformation. Confessor and advisor to Martin Luther, he performed the marriage ceremony for Luther and Katharina von Bora, and he also baptized their children. The image of Christ’s baptism refers to Bugenhagen’s own given baptism name. Above Christ and John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is connected with God above with a line of Scripture whose Latin inscription means: “This is my dear Son who brings me joy.” To (viewer) left and right, respectively, are Bugenhagen and sons, and his wife Walpurga (+ 1563) and daughters. In the background at right-centre is the townscape for Wittenberg with the just-recognizable twin towers of the Town Church and the rounded “turret-like” tower of the Castle Church. The painting implies that events pictured on the Jordan river can be transferred to Wittenberg on the Elbe river.
“The Crucifixion,” epitaph painting for Sara Cracov (Johann Bugenhausen’s oldest daughter, died 1563), attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger and Peter Spitzer, completed after 1565.
The central scene is dominated by the three crosses and crucifixions on Mount Golgotha. Below are the kneeling members of the family of Georg Cracov (centre-left) and Sara Cracov (below right); Sara was Johannes Bugenhagen’s eldest daughter. Most of the family is wearing black, except for two children who died prematurely and shown wearing white robes with black crosses. Georg and Sara’s youngest, John, did not survive birth, and Sara also died shortly thereafter. Clearly visible are the castle in the background, as well as the inclusion of a housefly on the leg of the crucified thief gazing skywards. The framing shown dates back to the 1920s which combines the painting and an original Latin inscription.
“Christ’s Resurrection and The Harrowing of Hell”, epitaph painting for Nicholas of Seidlitz and attributed to Augustin Cranach; signed “HL75”. About 1582.
Working as teacher in Wittenberg, Silesian nobleman Nikolas von Seidlitz died at the age of 30 in 1582. He was subsequently buried in the Town Church. von Seidlitz is shown awake and kneeling at lower-left in a scene representing Christ’s Resurrection, a popular pictorial subject for epitaphs in the 16th-century. To the upper-left in the background is Christ in limbo pulling a woman out by the arm. Above limbo are four animal-like demons. This medieval theological theme of “The Harrowing of Hell” (Christ’s death and descent into hell defeats evil and releases hell’s victims) was repeatedly requested and ordered in the Cranach workshop, regardless of the denomination affiliation of the client.
“The Vineyard of the Lord”, epitaph painting for Paul Eber by Lucas Cranach the Younger; about 1569.
Paul Eber was professor of theology at Wittenberg University and, later, parish priest at the Town Church. The epitaph image by Cranch the Younger is at best a colourful allegory of the growing Reformation movement, and at worst a scathing piece of propaganda against Rome’s authority. In the scene of the Lord’s vineyard are two groups: Catholics at left are ripping up vines, destroying the land through negligence, and getting drunk with wine; whereas the Reformers at right are carefully tending to the vines and grapes with key figures Luther, Bugenhagen, and Melanchthon at work in the field. At bottom right are the kneeling members of Paul Eber’s family dressed in black; the five figures in white are his children who died. At bottom left is a group of clerics led by the Pope who appear to be negotiating (unsuccessfully) with Christ and his Apostles.
More from Wittenberg
• 13 highlights in the Old Town
• Castle Church, where Luther apparently posted his 95 Theses
Except for the last image, I made all remaining photos on 29 and 30 October 2016. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins.com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-9eN.
Thanks to IMG- and Sachsen-Anhalt-Tourismus, the city of the city of Wittenberg for their support, and the Luther Hotel for the warm hospitality. IMG- and Sachsen-Anhalt-Tourismus supported my visit to the German federal state of Saxony-Anhalt from 25 October to 3 November 2016 inclusive. I also received assistance from the cities of Eisleben, Mansfeld, Dessau, Wittenberg, and Halle (Saale).
8 Responses to “Wittenberg UNESCO WHS: St. Mary’s Church”
Such a beautiful church Henry. I love the art above the alter. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for your comment, Lorelle! If you liked the church altar, please check out the Cranachs (Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Younger) who were Martin Luther’s contemporaries and friends with the Luther family.
LikeLiked by 1 person
[…] St. Mary’s Town Church, where Luther delivered his sermons (link, […]
[…] Castle Church (Schlosskirche) • St. Mary’s Town and Parish Church (Stadt- und Pfarrenkirche St. Marien) • More historical highlights in the […]
[…] full posts: ONE and […]
[…] illuminated Stadt- und Pfarrirche St. Marien (St. Mary’s Town and Parish Church) is 1 of 4 locations for the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Wittenberg. The town is in a big buzz […]
[…] With the original St. Mary’s chapel built around 1280 AD/CE, the church is the town’s oldest building which houses the altar designed and built by both Cranach the Elder and Cranach the Younger. At a time when church services were conveyed only in Latin, the first mass delivered entirely in German is thought to have taken place in this church. I featured landmark in a separate post here. […]