Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach and the City Church in Wittenberg

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation will be celebrated throughout the entire year of 2017. It would be very interesting to know what Martin Luther would have to say to a visitor in the City Church (St. Mary’s Church) about the Reformer’s presence and his role in this historic place. What could he report as a friend of Lucas Cranach the Elder, the artist and former mayor of Wittenberg?

500 Years of Reformation

Many things happened in the Church in those days that disturbed the thoughtful monk and professor. To start with, there was the sale of indulgences. In those days the people were afraid of the fires of Purgatory to which all baptized persons were consigned following their death in order to pay the penalty for their sins against the Church. Letters of indulgences were available at certain prices which released the dead from these penalties. The forgiveness of sins in exchange for money was rigorously opposed by Luther. Also disturbing was the exclusive use of Latin in the church’s liturgy, separating the priests from the people who generally were unschooled in the language.

There were other issues that bothered Martin Luther, and he wrote out his opinions about those things that should be changed. Luther not only criticized Church practice, he also recommended improvements. The most famous example of this are the Ninety-five Theses. He formulated the theses in order to guide the discussion with prominent Church leaders.

Luther allegedly posted the Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church on October 31, 1517. Church doors were commonly used as “bulletin boards” in those days. He wrote long letters both to his bishop and to Rom. His letter to Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg was also dated October 31, 1517. For these reasons, October 31, the Eve of All Saints Day became the signal date for the beginning of the Reformation 500 years ago. For this reason, the entire year from October 31, 2016 until October 31, 2017 will be filled with deliberations, disputations, and celebrations of the dramatic and lasting changes which Luther initiated.


Martin Luther was responsible for many of the changes brought about by the Reformation. He promoted literacy so that the people could read the Bible for themselves and better understand the gospel. For this reason, Luther translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek texts into fresh and broadly understandable language that led to the formation of a more unified German language. He then challenged the city councils and government officials to establish schools, so that men and women could learn to read and write. Martin Luther’s work initiated an educational movement.

These important changes affected worship life. Up until the Reformation only Latin was spoken in worship. Martin Luther wanted to address the people directly and, therefore, conducted services in German. He brought music and song in the church, composed music, and wrote many hymns, which are sung to this very day. Further reforms affected Holy Communion. Both bread and wine were distributed to the people. Wine had until that time not been offered to the laity.