Begun in 1504, the Luther House was originally built as an Augustinian monastery. It was to be the scene of his most important acts for 35 years. He lived here as a monk upon his arrival in Wittenberg in September 1508, and he continued to live here with his growing family from 1525. It was here that he had his theological breakthrough, here that he offered lectures to students from all over Europe, and here that he wrote his treatises that changed the world. Luther House has been open to visitors as a museum since 1883; today, it is the world’s largest museum for the history of the Reformation.
Luther House forms the rear part of a complex of buildings on the eastern edge of the mediaeval city centre of Wittenberg. Together with the front building – the Collegium Augusteum – a side wing and a connecting building installed in 2015, Luther House surrounds an atmospheric farmstead with a Gothicised fountain and a monument to Katharina von Bora.
The basic substance of the stately, three-story building rests on the monastery building that dates to the early 16th century. It includes the remains of a city wall and of the Holy Spirit Hospital that was formerly located here. As a museum, today it is home to the world’s largest collection dedicated to the history of the Reformation.
‘Black Monastery’, ‘rear building the Augusteum’, ‘Luther Hall’ and finally ‘Luther House’ – these various names tell the eventful story of more than 500 years of architecture and usage of the Luther House in Wittenberg. Construction work on what was known as the ‘Black Monastery’ began in 1504. Its dimensions essentially correspond to those of the present-day Luther House. The name alludes to the colour of the Augustinian monks’ robes. Luther took up residence here as a monk beginning in 1508. With the Reformation, the monastery was dissolved. Luther initially continued to live alone in the house, where from 1525 he was joined by his wife and his family. The house transferred over to him in 1532. Use of the building as a home for the Luther family involved extensive rebuilding and expansion. Katharina von Bora gave her husband the Katharinenportal for his 57th birthday.
After Luther’s death, the university took over the building, converting it into a residence hall for the recipients of scholarships from the prince electors. The western wing and the front building were built in the mid-1580s. In honour of the patron of the University, Augustus I of Saxony, the front building near the street was named the ‘Augusteum’.
Friedrich August Stüler was commissioned with refurbishment of the building in 1844. The building was extensively renovated for four decades in accordance with his plans. The western end of the ground floor housed a Luther School from 1834 until 1937. Some of the rooms on the first floor with the ‘Lutherstube’ (Martin Luther’s living room) were converted into a museum on the history of the Reformation, opened to the general public, in 1883. Successively larger areas of the House were devoted to museum purposes beginning in 1911. This was followed by a thorough revamping in 1983, to commemorate the Luther Jubilee and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the museum known as ‘Luther Hall’.
Most recently, Luther House was comprehensively renovated in 2001 and 2002 and extended through addition of a modern entrance building. This building work testifies to a respectful approach to World Cultural Heritage, on the one hand, and a confident sequel to the story in a modern language of form on the other. With the redesign of the building and of the permanent exhibition, the museum was renamed to ‘Luther House’ from the misleading ‘Luther Hall’. This more effectively expresses what this unique place is about: it is about Martin Luther, the man and his work. If not for Luther House, both would be inconceivable.
As a cloister for the monks of the Order of Saint Augustine and, later on, the home of Martin Luther, the Luther House is a central material witness to the architectural, economic, social, scientific and spiritual milieu in which the Reformation emerged and developed. Special weight here is attributed to the Lutherstube and the Kaharinenportal as important testimonies to the architecture typical of the era: having retained their form nearly unchanged down to the present, they provide a reliable impression of the lives of the former inhabitants. The building contains an extensive collection relating to the history of the Reformation and includes manuscripts, incunabula, books, paintings, coins and medals.
Luther House is the authentic place where, for more than thirty years, Luther lived, worked and communicated with students and the other theological and secular protagonists of the Reformation. This is where central and very important intellectual and spiritual foundations were developed; moreover, it is the venue of many memorable discussions – the famous ‘Table Talks’ in particular.
In the 19th century, it was expanded and staged as a memorial site and a museum for the history of the Reformation: as a memorial cult rose up considerably earlier, the Lutherstube survived virtually unchanged. The continued use of the building as an institution of (theological) education was part of the tradition of, and in commemoration of, Martin Luther and his work. Finally, in the 19th century it was presented as a place of remembrance and a museum, with this most distinctive memory manifesting itself in this building.