Martin Luther's influence told through 95 treasures and 95 people


Piety cut in wood

A tour of the "Luther! 95 treasures - 95 people" show in Wittenberg begins with exhibits depicting piety in Luther's day and age, including this 14th century sculpture of the madonna. Back then, being Catholic meant living in a world ruled by Mary and the saints, expected to protect and stand by believers. Luther, on the other hand, said there is only Christ, and you turn to him directly.


16th century laptop

Probes have revealed that this mobile box with drawers that contained quills and ink, a knife, wax and a seal most probably belonged to Martin Luther. About two and a half thousand letters written by Luther survived the centuries, but it is unclear how many he penned at his "wooden laptop."


Defender of the Faith

Luther and England's King Henry VIII were at each other's throats with various argumentative papers for years The pope granted the King the title "Defender of the Faith"- and likely regretted it later, when Henry led the country into the English Reformation. British monarchs still bear the title today, however.


Melanchton's watch

This timekeeper, called a Nuremberg Egg, is one of the show's most valuable historical exhibits. It belonged to Philipp Melanchton, one of Luther's best friends. The theologist and humanist was also known as "Praeceptor Germaniae," teacher of Germany. Dated 1530, the above watch, small enough to fit in your hand, is the oldest pocket watch in the world.


Ancient piggy bank

Everyday objects from the late Middle Ages are also on display, like this piggy bank that was found in an archeological dig in Saxony. It ties in with Luther's background: his dad was a well-to-do entrepreneur in the local copper mines.


A Swedish king's leather shroud

Sweden's King Gustav II Adolf wore this elk hide coat in the Battle of Lützen in 1632 when he was fatally injured - note the slash and bullet hole that are still visible. The Swedish King's involvement in the Thirty Years' War prevented a Habsburg victory, and indirectly secured the existence of Protestantism in Germany.


Swedish storyteller

Much-beloved children's book author Astrid Lindgren grew up in a parsonage. Whenever one of her fictive characters, a boy by the name of Karlsson on the Roof, didn't agree with something, he would say, like Martin Luther: "That is a secular business." The Protestant culture of helping others is evident in another character, young Emil of Lönneberga.


German political activist

Sophie Scholl was active in a non-violent anti-Nazi resistance group. Caught handing out leaflets, the Protestant student was sentenced to death. The exhibit displays a document she wrote in her prison cell on which she wrote the word 'freedom' on the back. A free Christian human being is one of the strongest images from Luther's life.


The other Martin Luther

Michael King - that was Martin Luther King's legal given name. But his father added the 'Luther' to honor the great German reformer. In 1966, the famous US Baptist minister and civil rights activist taped his list of demands to the door of Chicago's City Hall, denouncing mortgage and loan discrimination, urging tenants rights, quality education and job access.


The performance principle

Steve Jobs was adopted and raised in a reformed family. Co-founder and longtime head of Apple, Jobs is one of the most well-known personalities in the computer business. He saw himself as part of the Protestant work ethic tradition, which upheld productivity, diligence and determination - enough to add Jobs to the Wittenberg exhibition.


The Golden Age

The above painting, "The Golden Age" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, shows couples and pairs of animals, frolicking in a kind of paradise - not really a Christian motif. The sovereign who commissioned the painting expected the Reformation to be the start of a new era. The painting is the last exhibit in the show that runs through November 13, 2017.

To celebrate 500 years of the Reformation, an unusual show in Wittenberg, the heart of Martin Luther's activities, showcases historical treasures celebrating his life and people who have been influenced by his 95 Theses.

All good things come in threes, the saying goes.

In fact, Germany has put on three excellent exhibitions this year commemorating 500 years of the Reformation. In Berlin, "The Luther Effect" takes a look at international Protestantism. A special national exhibition at Wartburg Castle entitled "Luther and the Germans" examines the reformers' relations with his fellow countrymen. And now "Luther! 95 treasures - 95 people" has opened in Wittenberg, the main center of Luther's activity.

Historic venue

The exhibition is being held at the Wittenberg Augusteum, the epicenter of revolutionary change half a millennium ago, the place where the reformer taught, lived, suffered and loved.

"The Augusteum is in the front of the Luther house. It's a university building that dates back to the 1850s," said Stefan Rhein, director of the Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt and the show's curator.

The exhibition spreads out over 1,200 square meters in one of Germany's best maintained university buildings. With it, Rhein hopes "young people accompany Martin Luther on the path towards Reformation."

What did Luther's childhood and adolescence look like? Which religious ideas and fears influenced him? Which thoughts was he wrestling with? And then, too: "How did it come to be that a boy from Mansfeld, from the Luther family, began to call himself Martin Luther on October 31, 1517. On that day, his theses not only broke with world history but also served as a biographical break," Stefan Rhein told DW.

An exhibition of great meaning

Deutschland Ausstellung LUTHER! 95 SCHÄTZE – 95 MENSCHEN |

A look inside the exhibition

The exhibition's implementation didn't come easily, admits the curator, citing the Reformation as an occasion - a "text event." Yet much of Luther's work and its influence is impressively portrayed in the pictures from the late medieval period. And so the exhibit also includes a so-called paddleboard which would have been used to chastise pupils in Mansfeld. Perhaps it led to Luther's later alignment with open pedagogy, Rhein speculates.

Rhein is especially proud of two shiny objects made of paper. One provides an answer to the question as to if Luther's theses are historical or a work of fiction. "We are presenting a note from George Rörer, an employee of Luther's with whom he was quite close. On the end leaf of a Bible he writes: 'On the evening ahead of All Saint's Day, Martin Luther's theses were nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church.'"

A letter written by Luther on that same day - October 31, 1517 - is the absolute highlight of the show for curator Rhein. Not usually open to public viewing, the letter is on loan from an archive in Stockholm. "It is the birth certificate of the Reformer Martin Luther. Luther writes to Archbishop Albrecht, the most important representative of the Catholic church in Germany. In it, he criticizes the sale of indulgences and lists 95 theses against the practice."

95 characters

The 95 historical treasures are only half of the exhibition. No less exciting is the other half, which presents 95 people, who over the last five centuries have been influenced by Luther. "The story of Luther's effect will be counted in epochs. We wanted to take another path and have a look at how Luther is enmeshed in dialogue with other people."

Related Subjects

As such, Luther's impact on 95 people from around the world is featured in the exhibition. "We have created something of a summit meeting with Luther and these others on subjects such as work, service, freedom or community," the curator explained.

Deutschland Ausstellung LUTHER! 95 SCHÄTZE – 95 MENSCHEN | Plakat zur Ausstellung Reiner Haseloff

Even Saxony-Anhalt's president Reiner Haseloff campaigns for the show

Among them are people one might expect to see affiliated with Luther: the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, the song writer Paul Gerhardt or the theologian and resistance fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But, Stefan Rhein asks, "Who would know about the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who wrote 'Lettere luterane,' as a rebel in Luther's tradition? … We show the image of Luther that the media mogul Axel Springer had hanging in his office because he felt so connected to Luther."

It's not only those who viewed Luther with wonderment that are included. "We are not conducting hero-worship here," said Rhein. "There are critical voices as well."

These critics include author Thomas Mann, who said the Reformer shared responsibility for the German catastrophe of World War II. "Or - and this is especially bad - people who instrumentalized Luther, such as the Nazi politician Julius Streicher who said, during the Nuremberg Trials: 'Actually it shouldn't be me sitting here on the defendant's seat, rather Luther.' Streicher meant he could excuse his anti-Semitism with Luther's anti-Judaism."

Visitors from around the world

Deutschland Dr. Stefan Rhein betrachtet die Kreideinschrift von Zar Peter I. Sachsen Anhalt

Curator Stefan Rhein with one of the exhibits, a chalk writing by Tsar Peter I

To some, Wittenberg was the center of the universe 500 years ago. For a few years, it was the showplace of exciting events marking the transition from the Middle Ages to contemporary society. The national exhibition, "Luther! 95 treasures - 95 people" grabs at the heart of those events and aims to show what's become of them. The 319 exhibits in the show are on loan from 145 places in 21 countries.

While the number of visitors expected is not something curator Stefan Rhein will guess at, he is certain that from now through November 5, 2017, there will be large numbers of US Americans and South Koreans in addition to Germans who travel to the epicenter of the Reformation. Those are the nations where evangelical Christianity has a strong foothold and whose citizens are travel-friendly.