High above the city of Eisenach, Germany, in the mountains of the Thuringian forest, stands an 11th-century castle that has witnessed some of the most significant events in German history. Take the steep climb with me to visit the Wartburg!
The Wartburg was founded by Ludwig the Leaper, a German count who earned his nickname when he escaped from imprisonment by jumping into a river. While hunting one day, Ludwig rested on the rock on which the castle now stands. He was so taken with the location’s beautiful surroundings and strategic importance that he is said to have called out, “Wait, hill (Wart, Berg), I will make you into a castle!,” giving the Wartburg its name.
The Wartburg’s legendary Minnesingers’ Contest, or War of the Singers, dates to 1206. Six famous singers and poets gathered at the castle a competition where the singer with the poorest song would be killed. The competition became famous through Richard Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser. It is depicted in a 19th-century fresco by a late Romantic painter named Moritz von Schwind in the Wartburg’s Singers’ Hall, where the medieval singers were thought to have performed their songs.
Between 1211 and 1228, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, wife of the Thuringian landgrave, Ludwig IV, lived at the Wartburg. In the Elizabeth Gallery, six frescoes by von Schwind depict the arrival in 1211 of the four-year-old princess at the Wartburg for her betrothal to Ludwig, whom she married when she was 14; her husband’s departure for the Crusades in 1227; her leaving the castle after her husband’s burial, after which she lived a simple life as a Franciscan nun, feeding and caring for the poor and sick; her death; her relics being raised one year after her death in 1231, when she was canonized as a Catholic saint; and the legend of the miracle of roses. According to this legend, Elizabeth carried bread from the Wartburg’s kitchen in her skirt so she could give it to hungry people in town. The bread is thought to have changed into roses.
The walls and vaulting of one of the castle’s rooms — known as the Elizabeth Bower — were decorated with beautiful mosaics depicting scenes from St. Elizabeth’s life. Between 1902 and 1906, over four million mosaic pieces accented by mother of pearl and gold leaf were installed here.
From May 1521 to March 1522, the Wartburg was a place of refuge for Martin Luther after he was excommunicated. For ten weeks, Luther sat in this room and translated the New Testament from the original Greek to an understandable German language which he created out of 18 different dialects. The large object on the floor is a whale vertebra that was given to Luther. It is the last original piece that furnished the room when Luther lived there.
Luther is said to have had an encounter with the devil during his stay at the castle. Luther hurled his ink pot at the devil, who disappeared, but the inkwell crashed against the wall and left a huge ink stain next to the stove. The stain became a popular attraction for tourists, who constantly chipped away at it for souvenirs, so it had to keep being refreshed. A crater behind the stove marks the spot.
Because of its significance to the Protestant Reformation, the Wartburg has been a pilgrimage site since the 16th century. A visit to the Wartburg prompted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to suggest that a museum there should display German traditions in art and culture. Today, the collection includes a Bible containing Luther’s handwritten notes; Luther’s folding traveling spoon, illustrated with Bible verses and fitted with a square piece of horn from a unicorn that was supposed to offer protection against poisoning; and portraits of Luther and his contemporaries, including Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portraits of Luther’s parents, among other treasures.
Reading “The World of Luther,” an article by Merle Severy, with photographs by James L. Amos, in the October 1983 issue of National Geographic, prepared us well for some other stops on our Martin Luther pilgrimage. In Wittenberg, we saw the bronze doors of All Saints’ Church, which commemorate the original wooden doors to which Luther nailed his 95 theses on October 31, 1517 and began the Protestant Reformation. To prepare for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the theses, extensive renovation projects are under way at the church and other buildings and monuments related to the Reformation. For more information on Luther 2008-2017: 500 Years of Reformation, click here.
The Luther House in Wittenberg, originally built as an Augustinian monastery in 1504, was Luther’s home, both when he was a monk and later when he was a husband and father. Since 1883, it has been the world’s largest museum for Reformation history. There, you can walk through the wood-paneled sitting room and see a large wooden table that commemorates the famous Table Talks that Luther delivered in the company of his students and friends. You can also see a chalk inscription over the door to the eastern vestibule of the room that records the name “Peter” in Cyrillic letters; it was reportedly made by Czar Peter the Great during his 1712 visit to the Luther House.
About 1,000 original objects in the museum present details about Luther’s life and work, including his monk’s habit, marginalia that he wrote in red ink on a document, the pulpit from Wittenberg’s parish church from which he spoke in 1514, and a portrait that Lucas Cranach the Elder painted of Luther to commemorate his wedding to Katharina von Bora in 1525.
Cranach, a Wittenberg native whom Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony appointed to be his court painter in 1505, is known for his portraits and religious paintings, as well as his success as a businessman. Cranach witnessed the Luthers’ wedding and was godfather to their first child. At the castle museum in Weimar, we saw Cranach’s famous 1546 portrait of Martin Luther, as well as portraits of Luther and his wife that he painted in 1528. Cranach died in this house, which still stands in Weimar’s marketplace.
Cranach’s youngest son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, was also an artist. To mark his 500th birthday, several events — including the world’s first exhibition dedicated to his life and work, including significant paintings in their original settings — will take place throughout Thuringia in 2015. Click here and here for more information.
Celebrate Martin Luther’s 531st birthday on November 10 by making a batch of Weckmänner or Martinsbrötchen. Germans celebrate Luther’s birthday – as well as the feast day of St. Martin of Tours – because Luther was baptized the day after his birth, on the saint’s feast day. Following tradition, Luther’s parents christened their son Martin in honor of the saint.