The pulpit where Martin Luther preached his final sermon. His writing desk and beer mug. Clay marbles he may have played with as a child. Even an early copy of his historic “95 Theses” that inspired the religious faith now embraced by an estimated 1 million Minnesotans.
For 500 years, these items and many other personal possessions had never left his homeland in Germany, but beginning Sunday, they will be showcased at a Minneapolis Institute of Art exhibit. German officials say it is the most significant collection of art and artifacts ever assembled that illuminate the famed (and infamous) theologian’s life and times.
“If you want to know about Martin Luther, there’s only one place to come — Minneapolis,” said Gunnar Schellenberger, secretary of state for Culture in Saxony-Anhalt, one of a dozen German officials at an exhibit preview last week.
Three years in the making, the exhibit opens on the eve of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Protestant Reformation and a worldwide celebration of a religious denomination that has shaped the culture of Minnesota.
“This is an examination of a time and place when one man’s opinion shredded the social fabric of Europe,” said Tom Rassieur, exhibit curator at the MIA.
The exhibit weaves together an array of paintings, personal items and recent archaeological finds from across Germany that bring to life Luther’s pivotal role in the turning point of history known as the Protestant Reformation. It is the first — and likely only — time the collection will be displayed.
Minnesota wound up as host because of its Lutheran population — the largest in the nation — and because it is home to the MIA, an influential museum that German cultural leaders were eager to work with.
“This is a unique combination of objects that will probably never be seen again,” said Tomoko Emmerling, project coordinator for the German State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology, Saxony-Anhalt. “They follow Martin Luther throughout his life from his childhood to monk, to theology professor, to bestselling author, to his death in Eisleben.”
A quick history lesson: Martin Luther was a Catholic monk who emerged as an outspoken critic of the practice of selling “indulgences” — the pardoning of people’s sins so they could have a faster track to heaven. In 1517, he nailed his famous 95 Theses questioning the concept to church doors in the town of Wittenberg.
Luther wasn’t the first to openly criticize Catholic dogma, but his timing and temperament were ideal. Printing presses had become available, and the indefatigable Luther distributed his arguments in hundreds of pamphlets across Germany and beyond. Excommunicated from the Catholic church, he openly challenged many of its tenets, including papal authority, the worship of saints and the prohibition of marriage for priests.
Dozens of these writings are under glass at the MIA.
“There’s the earliest surviving copy of the hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God,’ ” explained Rassieur, “the first complete edition of his German Bible, a printed copy of the 95 Theses and a number of manuscripts from Luther’s hand, including correspondence about getting accurate translations from the Bible.”
An example of the box that played a starring role in Luther lore is on display: a thick metal “indulgence chest” with a coin slot on top.
The exhibit also debunks myths about Luther, said Harold Meller, director of the State Museum of Prehistory Halle. Walking through the displays last week, he explained that Luther has been depicted as a poor miner’s son. It turns out that Luther didn’t toil in the pits because his father probably owned the mine, he said.
A 2003 archaeological dig below Luther’s parents’ house in Mansfeld showed that the home was much larger than it now appears, he said. It contained silver coins, brass ornaments and Venetian glass. Several of the household items, buried for five centuries, are on display, including glass, dress ornaments, a three-legged pot for cooking and a bird-shaped whistle.
“We have real things that were touched by Martin Luther,” said Meller.
Rassieur said the collection is unlike any he has been involved with. It includes a “wild array of media and types of art,” he said, from German children’s toys to 16th-century artwork to major public monuments.
Luther’s pulpit from his church in Eisleben, for example, has been a destination for pilgrimages for centuries, he said.
The exhibit reflects people’s desire “to have a tangible connection to their faith,” Rassieur said. “This show is about ideas we still contend with, namely our relationship to a deity and our understanding of other people’s faiths,” Rassieur said, adding, “And it has the ability to anger everyone.”
Martin Luther was a religious liberator to many Christians, but he became hostile to Jews and saw Islam as the enemy, said Rassieur. To sensitively present the jarring views in some of his pamphlets, the MIA assembled an interfaith council to share their insights.
Council members met with the MIA docents leading the exhibit tours and even lent their voices to audio tours.
Council member Rabbi Norman Cohen, for example, was recorded discussing Luther’s pamphlet titled, “On The Jews And Their Lies,” that called for burning synagogues, exiling Jews and banning rabbis from preaching. It was among Luther writings that shaped Germans’ attitudes toward Jews for centuries, including those of the Nazis, scholars say.
Acknowledging Luther’s darker side doesn’t deny his contributions “toward questioning and challenging authority that many religions encourage today,” said Cohen, rabbi emeritus at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka. In fact, the hatred Luther expressed has helped motivate interfaith understanding.
“The exhibit is proof that Luther’s negative legacy has now become a positive incentive to be open and honest about the past,” Cohen said.
The exhibit’s legacy also will be long lived, organizers hope.
The collection is accompanied by two 500-page books — one describing each item on display in detail and another with 100 essays about Luther’s life and legacy.
The exhibit is already attracting significant interest. The two museum lectures scheduled this week are sold out, said Rassieur, and the public has even tracked down the curator seeking ticket information. Thrivent Financial, the major local sponsor, is offering free and discounted tickets to 2.3 million members.
Carol Throntveit, adult education coordinator at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis — the largest Lutheran church in America — said hundreds of church members already have bought tickets and are eager to see things they’ve only read about in books.
“I’ve had about 50, 60 phone calls asking where to get tickets,” said Throntveit. “There’s a real buzz around here.”
To see a monk’s robe like the one Luther would have worn, Luther’s own handwriting on letters and Bibles, his 500-year-old pulpit — it brings Luther and his legacy to life, she said.
“It’s not only about history, it’s a historical event,” said Throntveit, “and Minneapolis is the place chosen for it to take place.”