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Worms Luther Monument

The Luther Monument in Worms, photo: Rudolf Uhrig 
The Luther Monument in Worms, photo: Rudolf Uhrig

The world's largest monument to the Reformation, inaugurated in 1868. Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress is our God", hewn in stone, frames the bronze statues.

Martin Luther rises above earlier reformers, the 'proto-reformers', surrounded by lords, scholars and personifications of important cities from the immediate and subsequent history of the Reformation. Bronze reliefs depicting scenes from the Reformation adorn the inner plinth of the monument.

The most important sites commemorating the reformer are found on Lutherplatz. Here, visitors stand before the world's largest memorial to the Reformation.

Martin Luther, the central figure in the Luther Monument, photo: Rudolf Uhrig 
Martin Luther, the central figure in the Luther Monument, photo: Rudolf Uhrig
Unveiling of the Luther Monument on 25 June 1868, Worms City Archive 
Unveiling of the Luther Monument on 25 June 1868, Worms City Archive
Ernst Rietschel's workshop, around 1867, Wikimedia Commons 
Ernst Rietschel's workshop, around 1867, Wikimedia Commons

The effects of Luther's refusal to recant at the 1521 Diet of Worms have left clearly visible traces in the past and the present. None of the buildings that Luther visited have remained preserved, so only a few signs in the city help to remember Luther's great stand.

The most important of these commemorative sites is the world's largest monument to the Reformation on Lutherplatz. A few steps lead up to this huge, walk-in monument.

It took twelve years to complete, from the initial idea by the grammar school teacher Dr Friedrich Eich and the dean Eduard Franz Keim, to the foundation of a monument society in 1856, and finally the inauguration of the finished work on 25 June 1868 in a ceremony attended by the Prussian King and subsequent Kaiser Wilhelm I, as well as by numerous honorary guests and throngs of common people.

The monument was designed by Ernst Rietschel, an artist from Dresden. But Rietschel passed away in 1861 after completing two of the statues (Luther and Wyclif), so the other personages were created by his students Adolf von Donndorf, Gustav Kietz and Johannes Schilling, based on Rietschel's plans.

At the heart of the complex we see Luther, upright on a tall plinth. He wears a professor's cloak, although he certainly dressed in his monk's habit during his 1521 sojourn in Worms. The artist placed greater stock in the message than in historical veracity, moving him to show the biblical scholar with a curled right fist planted on the Bible he grasps in his left hand: sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) is the message that was to play such a pivotal role at the Diet of Worms.

Four figures from the early Reformation sit at Luther's feet, symbolising the European dimension of the Reformation. Petrus Waldus (around 1180; France), John Wyclif (ca. 1320–1384; England), Jan Hus (ca. 1369–1415; Bohemia/Czech Republic) and Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498); Italy). The figures, sometimes known as proto-reformers, appear like roots upon which the tall figure of Luther grows.

Here, John Wycliff and Jan Hus, burned at the stake in 1415 in Constance, can most accurately be described as forerunners to Luther based on their interpretations of the Bible. The monument is  enclosed within battlements that symbolise Luther's most famous hymn: A Mighty Fortress is our God.

The statues on the four corner pedestals symbolise secular dominion and the power of the spirit: Elector Frederick the Wise (1463-1525) and Philipp, Landgrave of Hesse (1504 – 1567) stand like guards on either side of the monument. Each of them carries a sword to symbolise their secular power.

Frederick had refused to accept the imperial crown after the death of Emperor Maximilian, which is why it lies at his feet. Proud of his young and aspiring university in Wittenberg, one of his most promising professors, Martin Luther, had been beneficiary of his protection since nailing his theses to the door of All Saint's Church in 1517.

He thwarted any attempt to make short thrift with Luther and ensured that he would be heard before the Diet of Worms. After the Edict of Worms, he arranged for Luther to be kidnapped on his homeward journey and taken to Wartburg Castle. The Reformation would have been doomed without his patronage. But Luther never actually met Frederick, unlike the other secular leader and personage of the Reformation presented here, Philipp of Hesse. Philipp was 20 years old when he attended the Diet of Worms.

His youthfulness is striking if one compares his sculpture in the monument with that of Frederick the Wise. He was a crucial figure in how the Reformation progressed, joining with other potentates in 1529 to protest the enforcement of the Edict of Worms in Speyer. The same year he invited Luther and Zwingli to Marburg to discuss issues of the Eucharist, although this particular encounter failed to produce any result.

In 1526 he introduced the first church constitution for his territories in Homberg. On the one hand he was a secular patron of the Reformation and a leading figure in the Schmalkaldic League, which formed to protect the Protestant movement. But as landgrave he was equally considerate of his responsibility to keep the church affairs in order. Unfortunately he weakened his position by marrying Margarethe von der Saale in 1540, as this was a bigamous union.

The humanist and linguist Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) and Luther's closest friend and associate Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) are presented on the pedestals at the back. In his research into Hebrew and his publications on Hebrew grammar, Reuchlin laid the foundation for philological work on the Bible.

But he did not join the Reformation. Melanchthon, whom Luther called 'the little Greek', penned the confessio augustana. It represented the first systematic compilation of Protestant dogma, and was proclaimed at the 1530 Diet of Augsburg. An extraordinarily erudite scholar of ancient languages and a humanist, Melanchthon was Luther's most important associate in translating the Bible.

Three statues of women are shown seated on slightly lower plinths, one each at the centre of the sides enclosing the monument, between the two outermost figures. They symbolise important cities in the history of the Reformation. At the back we see Protesting Speyer.

It commemorates the 1529 Diet of Speyer and the protestation by reformed princes against the decision of the Imperial Diet to enforce the Edict of Worms.  The Peace of Augsburg is positioned between Frederick the Wise and Reuchlin.

This female figure, recognised by the palm frond she carries, commemorates the accord of 1555, sealed in Augsburg and based on the maxim cuius regio eius religio (whose realm, his religion), that created temporary peace between Lutherans and Catholics. More precisely, it stated that Protestant faith as defined in the Augsburg Confession would be recognised under imperial law until a permanent solution had been found.

But this peace proved merely a temporary cessation of hostilities. The Thirty Years' War broke out in 1618. Imperial troops laid siege to Magdeburg in 1631 as the war progressed. 20,000 people died. 

The sculpture of Mourning Magdeburg commemorates the city's suffering. Her downcast head is half covered, and her attitude of mourning is immediately apparent. Therefore, the Luther Monument in Worms is more than just a piece of Reformation history, as it also presents the consequences. The relief plates on the main plinth depict scenes from Luther's life.

Portrait medallions arranged above show other associates and patrons of the Reformation. The relief on the front recreates the scene at the Imperial Diet. The top right-hand corner shows Ernst Rietschel, the artist. In front of him are the two initiators, the grammar school teacher Dr Friedrich Eich and dean Eduard Franz Keim.

The left-hand side of the image portrays the imperial potentates, as well the King and the Archbishop Dr Johannes von der Ecken. Above them are portraits of John the Steadfast, brother and successor of Frederick the Wise, as well as John Frederick the Magnanimous, the son and successor of John.

Below the portraits of Ulrich von Hutten and Franz von Sickingens, there is a relief showing Luther presenting his ninety-five theses, while under the portraits of Zwingli and Calvin there is a double relief on The Two Forms of the Eucharist and Priestly Marriage. Finally, below the portraits of Justus Jonas and Johann Bugenhagen, there is a double relief depicting Bible Translation and Ministry.