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Martin Luther III: A Man Faces His Destiny in Wittenberg


In Wittenberg, Germany, Martin Luther came into his own, hammering his 95 Theses into the door of the church. It's also the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach and forensic anthropology.

Photography by the authors

Luther had come to Wittenberg in 1508 to lecture and study at the university, so he was no stranger to the city when he was sent back there by the Church to finish his education. He received his doctorate of theology in 1512 and assumed the chair of Bible Studies at Wittenberg University shortly afterwards.

The corruption Luther had noticed on his visit to Rome and the Vatican in 1510 had appalled him. His frustration continued. He noticed that church members buying “indulgencies” — which would get them into heaven — were less conscientious thereafter about attending church — and didn’t seem to understand that the money they paid was going into the coffers of the bishop-princes who had bought their exalted and lucrative bishoprics from Rome.

There are, our German guides have told us, misconceptions about Luther’s 95 Theses. The Theses do not list a variety of objections Luther had about the doctrines of his Church. All 95 deal with only one issue: the sale of indulgencies. It has also been said that this simple soul, a naive priest was not complaining about the pope, he was innocently telling the pope what others were doing dishonorably under his name.

Luther, however, possessed a brilliant mind and had received a particularly profound education. We have to believe he knew exactly what he was doing.

“Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved.

“man who say that ‘so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out’ [of purgatory].”

Thesis 21 shows his dismay over indulgencies: ” And Thesis 27 demonstrates his disagreement with the practice:

"Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?"

Nevertheless, when he comes to Thesis 86 and asks the question that is still asked today: he is really tempting fate — his own — and his dancing on the head of a pin becomes more obvious.

TIME Magazine


on Feb 22, 2009 wrote that indulgencies are making a comeback today and tried to explain them as “the equivalent of a get-out-of-purgatory-free card. indulgences simply shorten your stay.” The New York Times’ take in Feb 9, 2009 was that they remind Catholics of “the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.”

Luther might be startled to find the subject coming up again 500 years after his angst when both intellectually as a priest and later as a professor of bible studies he gave a sermon in the Town Church against indulgencies and posted the specifics on the Castle Church door. The paintings at Castle Wartburg show those events and illustrate Luther’s next act of defiance: on December 20, 1520 he burned the papal bull, his letter of excommunication from the Pope.

Luther was summoned to appear before the Council of Worms, a city in Western Germany to answer the Church’s charges of heresy. His response was, “I neither can nor will recant.” And legends have added: “Here I stand, I can do no other.

His benefactor, the powerful Frederick the Wise found out Luther was going to be murdered on his journey home. He arranged for Luther to be ostensibly kidnapped and brought to his summer castle in Wartburg for safety in 1521. There are of course two sides to any story, and in the story of Martin Luther there is the Catholic Church’s version and the Protestant Reformation’s.

The Wise

Historians say the 10 weeks Luther was able to spend protected in Castle Wartburg were due to the kindness and prescient thoughts of a duke who, after all, bore the name . However, some cynics believe Frederick supported Luther so the church money from his territory would come to him rather than draining to Rome.

Tourists wishing to visit Castle Wartburg usually take the train to Eisenach, then a 15-minute cab or bus ride to the castle. Eisenach has an extra attraction for visitors to Germany. This is the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685), and the town has a magnificent museum to that great musician.

Of interest to physicians is the fact that during improvements to the Leipzig church where Bach was buried, a body was exhumed in 1894 and questions arose about its identity. The Bach Haus has an exhibit dealing with all this — apparently the “first medical facial reconstruction of all time” — and from it a new statue to Bach was created and a new science, forensic anthropology was born.

Junker Joerg

In 1521 when Luther was brought from Eisenach, he was thinking of faces, too. His own and how to make himself, now an enemy of the Church, less obvious. What must he have thought about having to grow a beard and change his name to (Squire George) to protect his identity? We don’t know that, but we do know what he did in this idyllic spot: He settled into a work room in the castle.

From his room in the castle he translated the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek versions that rural Germans would never read into their own language. The castle is full of tapestries and paintings and rooms of armor and statues of St. George killing the dragon. This was a place where good would triumph over evil.

The Luther Chamber deep in the heart of Wartburg Castle reveals itself as a stark but functional room, its contents no longer authentic except for a whale vertebra that was there in Luther’s time. The wooden paneling is the original, but over the ages visitors have left their mark, their autograph, their equivalent of “Kilroy was here!” And they’ve scratched a few splinters from the walls to take home in ironical defiance of the disappointment Luther always showed to those who worshipped religious relics.

More than his attack on indulgencies, which got him excommunicated and might have got him burned at the stake, Luther’s huge contribution to the Reformation and the birth of the Protestant Church took place in this small room. He translated something from a lofty distant language to the simple speech of his uneducated country people. He took breaks from his work to walk to nearby village markets to hear the speech patterns of uncomplicated people. This helped him with his final choice of language.

Here, clearly, you are in a mystical place. A tour guide in Wartburg Castle has said, “I have seen visitors kneel when they enter Luther’s chamber. The atmosphere is so special.”

The base of the statue downtown in nearby Eisenach shows Luther wearing the beard he grew to hide his appearance.

Lucas Cranach, one of a famous artist family who knew Luther well sketched him with his beard so we know what he looked like while he was at Wartburg. We see his rose emblem with the cross in many places in Luther Country, on the ceilings and wall of churches, on pendants and here, where it was photographed as an insert in the sidewalk.

Martin Luther’s fame spread and with that his life became safer. No opponent would now have dared to harm so popular a public figure. It was safe for him at last to shave off his beard, resume his identity and return to Wittenburg, where he would live for the last 24 years of his life.

So let us now return with him to his university city for our final exploration of this complicated man and the convoluted life and history he left behind.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called

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