Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/29 posted by hidden europe on

Europe's Protestant reformers were not, on the whole, men who took kindly to statues. Indeed, thousands of statues in Catholic churches across Europe were smashed to pieces during the Reformation. So it's hard to fathom what Martin Luther would have made of the rather ostentatious statue of himself that stands in the middle of the Rhineland city of Worms.

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Dear fellow travellers

Europe's Protestant reformers were not, on the whole, men who took kindly to statues. Indeed, thousands of statues in Catholic churches across Europe were smashed to pieces during the Reformation. So it's hard to fathom what Martin Luther would have made of the rather ostentatious statue of himself that stands in the middle of the Rhineland city of Worms. Luther's statue is flanked by those of German nobles who gave political backing to Luther's denunciation of the Pope, and the ensemble includes other men of cloth who paved the way for the Reformation. John Wycliffe and Jan Hus are of course among them.

Shift to Switzerland, and the Mur des Réformateurs in Geneva gives another account of Protestant history. Luther no longer has pride of place. Instead we find Calvin and Knox stealing the sculptural limelight. This impressive wall, set in the grounds of the University of Geneva, is embellished with the motto 'post tenebras lux' - 'after darkness, light'. That was the motto of the entire Reformation, and it also serves as the motto today of the city of Geneva. Thus does Geneva steal a march on rivals by establishing its credentials as a quintessentially Protestant city.

Perhaps it was a fear of a renaissance of iconoclasm that prompted some cities to memorialise Protestant leaders without recourse to statues. Lutherstadt Wittenberg and Lutherstadt Eisleben are both towns in eastern Germany that have extended their names to remind the world that they have historic links with the reforming theologian.

Another cunning way of recalling Luther without building a monument is by planting trees. Luther himself is said to have planted oak trees here and there as he travelled around Germany, and in the 1883 celebrations of 400 years since Luther's birth, there was a positive greening of Protestant communities around Germany as oaks were planted in Luther's honour. Not quite everywhere of course. Largely Catholic Bavaria used other pretexts to plant oak trees. Indeed, the only Luther oak we know of in Bavaria recently succumbed to some pest (though local Catholics were not implicated in any devious plot to kill the tree).

But some places have found a yet more intriguing way of memorialising Luther - one that needs neither statues nor trees. That is by taking a holiday on Reformation Day, which falls on 31 October each year. Slovenia does this in some style, although many of the country's largely Catholic population might be hard pushed to give any good account of Reformation history. And five of Germany's six eastern states also mark Reformationstag as a public holiday. Whether folk gather in country churches to meditate on Luther's contribution to history we cannot say. We see these things only from a Berlin perspective. For Berliners, 31 October is a perfectly ordinary working day. But schoolchildren and workers in Brandenburg, the state that entirely surrounds Berlin, have a free day. Families flock into Berlin and pack the shops. Berlin traders give thanks to Martin Luther for this seasonal boost to trade. This annual shopping spree was not, we assume, quite what Luther anticipated as the endgame when he first pinned his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.