Tracing the Footsteps of Martin Luther

A travel report

Anna Schütz, translated by Jessica Schewel
  • Im Museum (© Anna Schütz)
  • Vor dem Martin Luther Denkmal in Eisleben Taufbecken Martin Luther (©Anna Schütz)
  • Taufbecken Martin Luther (©Anna Schütz)
  • Hörstation ©Anna Schütz
  • Martin Luther Comic (© Anna Schütz)

At present, in the run-up to the big anniversary celebrations in 2017, Martin Luther is everywhere you look: on advertising columns, in newspapers and in event programmes. I therefore decided to test my children's knowledge by asking them: “Do you know who that man on the poster is?” “Nope! But he's really fat”, responds my nine-year-old with a cheeky, yet true statement. I pass the question on to his brother, who is two years older: “And what about you? What do you know about Luther?” “Isn't he the guy who translated the Bible from Latin into German so that uneducated people could read it too?” he asks. “Not bad,” I think, “at least he's got the right idea”. I then correct him, explaining: “Well kind of: he translated it from the original Greek and Hebrew text.” By doing so, he was able to avoid translation areas that already existed and use German that was easier to understand. “But Luther was much more than just a translator! He lived back in the Middle Ages and didn't agree with many of the things going on in the Church. Nearly 500 years ago, he therefore decided to use a hammer to nail a paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, where he worked as a professor. This paper went on to shock the entire world...”

I begin to tell the story and am surprised at how attentive my children are as they listen and ask me to tell them more. The story of the monk from the town of Eisleben who wanted to transform the Church and whose protest rapidly attracted enthusiastic supporters seems to be fascinating to them. “The Pope and the Church leaders were, of course, appalled by Luther's ideas. After all, his main point of criticism was the fact that the Church expected people to pay money for their sins to be forgiven. They excluded him from the Church and declared him an outlaw, meaning that anyone was allowed to kill him without being punished. They couldn't, however, prevent his ideas from being spread all over the world.” “And did anyone manage to kill him?” ask my two children. “No, Luther was lucky: he was able to hide in Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, disguised as 'Junker Jörg' (Squire George). That's where he started to translate the Bible into German.”

“If they're so interested, I need to show them more”, I think, so we spontaneously head to Luther's place of birth and death, the town of Eisleben, which is home to a number of Luther memorials that were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1996. The town extends into the valleys of the Talbach and Wipper rivers in the area in which the Lower Harz region borders the eastern Harz foreland. Once we arrive, we follow the advice of the town's museum education officer and set off on a digital treasure hunt, which helps us to discover some of the authentic sites that played a key role in the life and work of the Reformer. We're particularly impressed by the St. Peter and Paul Church, where Martin Luther was baptised. We're welcomed by a simple room flooded with natural light and as we approach the font in which Luther was baptised on 11th November 1483, one day after his birth, we suddenly see a large baptismal font full of gently flowing water in which a person can be immersed. “I would have loved to be baptised in that”, whispers my older son, mirroring my thoughts. To continue our treasure hunt, we have to leave the church so that we can draw its floor plan and guess the height of its tower. The hunt also, of course, features tasks involving a bit more action such as an inkpot-throwing contest, as well as questions on the life of Luther. We explore the small town and discover its Luther roses in many different locations, visit the freshly restored Luther statue and hear wise statements made by the famous Eisleben resident in a whispering garden. In the garden, a bridge system leads you through eared willow plants (salix aurita). Every hour on the hour, special periscopes installed among the plants whisper texts and quotations spoken and written by the Reformer to visitors. We cross a bridge with rails that have been 'yarn bombed' with colourful crocheted fibre and end up back at the house in which Luther was born, which marks the end of our tour.

The house is home to the exhibition “That's Where I'm From – Martin Luther and Eisleben”, which provides an insight into the everyday history of the period around the year 1500. The building, which the people of Eisleben have preserved as a museum for many centuries, also demonstrates the piety and spirituality of the Late Middle Ages that had a strong impact on Luther's childhood and adolescent years. For children in the present day, the museum offers a number of special programmes that enable them to have fun while finding out more about life 500 years ago: Younger children (aged between 5 and 7) can dress up and explore the home of the Luder family, as they were called at the time. 7 to 12-year-olds can choose from a variety of different workshop offers, for example using a quill and ink to write a medieval-style letter, using stamps to create a medieval mining town or delving into Luther's world of legends. The museum even caters to teenagers, who can explore the topics of the Reformation in more detail and consider how they were revolutionary in religious, political, cultural and social terms. They can closely examine Luther's programmatic writings, design a button in the form of a Luther rose or go on a photo tour through Luther's home town.

The “Luther's Death House” museum is located close to his place of birth. For many years, people believed that it was the building in which Martin Luther actually spent the last few days of his life. Nowadays, however, it's known that Luther didn't die in the building at Andreaskirchplatz 7, but at Markt 56, which is now home to a hotel. Given that the town of Eisleben purchased the 'wrong' building back in 1862 in order to use it as a memorial, the decision was made to keep the museum there anyway. The exhibition awaiting us in the museum bears the title “Luther's Final Journey”. It tells us about the last trip made by the Reformer, as well as generally focusing on exploring the concept of life and death. The highlight of the exhibition is its so-called “death rooms”, the bedroom and the room in which Luther died, which still contain the historical furnishings designed back in the 19th century. The most important exhibit is the pall that was used to cover Luther's coffin in 1546. This museum also features a range of educational museum activities that explore existential questions such as: What is the meaning of life? What comes after death? How can you nurture the soul? The museum additionally offers activities for 5 to 10-year-olds, for example the workshop activity in which a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, which is designed to make the religious meaning of Easter more accessible for children. “Why are you in the world?” encourages participants to consider the meaning of life and death, using a collage to express their own personal thoughts on the matter. Young people aged between 10 and 14 can then go one step further and explore how different cultures approach the possibility of life after death. The activity encourages them to think about paradise and consider how the moral concepts arising from the Garden of Eden still inspire and influence us in the present day.

As we sit in the car on the way home, everyone is silent, even the boys, who are sitting next to each other peacefully, engrossed in a comic all about Luther...

Tourist information

Lutherstadt Eisleben & Stadt Mansfeld e. V.
Hallesche Straße 4-6
06295 Lutherstadt Eisleben
phone: 0049 3475 602142

Further information