The Castle Church, a long basilica with an eastern apse, is a typical example of a hall church of the late Gothic period. It houses the tombs, intact to this day, of the two reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, and of the Electors Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast. The ‘Door of the Theses’ is held in high regard as the symbolic point of departure for the Reformation. Its architecture and fittings make it one of the most significant palace chapels of its day. As such, it bears outstanding witness to the architectural and spiritual setting of the Reformation.
At the western end of the mediaeval city centre of Wittenberg, rising majestically above the flat meadows that line the banks of the Elbe, stands the three-winged complex of the Castle. The slender tower of the Castle Church stands watch over the fortress-like complex, at the same time marking the northwest corner of the castle itself. The church is built right into the castle as its north wing. Its north side is aligned with Schlossstraße, with two portals that open onto the city.
As the church of the residential palace of the dukes of Saxe-Wittenberg, the church also served the university in Wittenberg. It served as the burial place for dukes of Saxe-Wittenberg and for the main protagonists of the Reformation: Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. Above all, though, it was here, at the portals to the church, that the world-famous nailing of Luther’s theses took place.
In the year 1485, Elector Frederick III elevated Wittenberg to his residence. Demolition of the old Ascanian Castle began three years later, followed by the construction of one of the most imposing Renaissance castles in Central Germany. In the place of the old All Saints Chapel, he built a late Gothic aisleless church that served as a castle chapel at the same time. Dedicated in 1503, from 1507 it was the church of the University of Wittenberg.
This was the site of the event, on 31 October 1517, that even today is regarded as the beginning of the Reformation: Luther’s nailing of the theses to the door of the church. Luther’s 95 theses articulated a theological critique of the practice of indulgences that constituted a summons to scholarly disputation. As a symbolic date, the nailing of the theses to the church door is hotly contested: Some doubt that the event ever took place, and many believe that Luther’s theses were not meant to be read as fundamental criticism of the church at all. However, the theses certainly contain approaches of the Reformation doctrine subsequently elaborated by Luther. In many respects, sources recently identified suggest that Luther in fact did have the theses nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. At any rate, Luther’s theses are considered to have triggered the Reformation. After his death on 18 February 1546, Luther was buried in the Castle Church.
Since the 19th century the Castle Church has been considered the central monument to the Reformation, and Schinkel was commissioned to prepare a corresponding structural design. He proposed restoring the Church to its late Gothic form. Although his proposal was not accepted, his report is important, as here he announced the concept of ‘preserving all the monuments and antiquities of our country’ – a notion considered a milestone in the field of historic preservation. In 1883, a large-scale reconstruction and restoration began under the supervision of architect Friedrich Adler. This effort involved considerable renovation work along with a complete redesign of the interior, with the stated aim of creating a monument for the entire Reformation. In its harmony, the Castle Church is a symbol of state veneration of Luther in the second half of 19th-century Wilhelmine Prussia.
As the place where the theses were posted, the Castle Church is the most important place of remembrance for Protestant Christians. Apart from the historical and symbolic significance of the posting of the theses, the idea that, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed the ‘95 Theses Against Indulgences’ to the north portal of the Castle Church, has become deeply embedded in collective memory; in light of this, and in light of the fact that he – along with Philipp Melanchthon – lies buried here, the Castle Church is considered to be one of the central ‘stages in the life of Martin Luther’. Through the memorial cult that rose up around it, the posting of the theses came to be considered the actual beginning of the Reformation, at the end of which a Protestant Church stood alongside the Roman Catholic Church.
Castle Church Visitors’ Centre
06886 Lutherstadt Wittenberg