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

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

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.”

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.

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

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.

Topics: Martin Luther

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