Motherland of the Reformation

Motherland of the Reformation


Wet-nurse of the Reformation

Torgau’s proximity to Wittenberg benefited the emergence of Reformation thought in the town. 1519 had already seen the first German-language baptism in St Nicholas’ Church. A year later, the first Protestant sermon was held. In 1522 the population welcomed the Reformation and Luther preached in the city. In all, he visited Torgau more than 40 times. In 1526, the League of Torgau was founded, an interest group of Protestant rulers. The building in which Luther and his colleagues developed the Torgau Articles in preparation for the Diet of Augsburg is still standing. The text became Articles 22 to 28 of the Augsburg Confession of 1530. In October 1544 Luther officially opened Torgau’s Castle Church, the very first new Protestant church. After the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547, the Saxon capital shifted to Dresden. But in 1576, Torgau once again rendered outstanding services to the Reformation when the Torgau Book was written, one of the precursors of the Formula of Concord of 1577, the last “symbolic” publication of the Lutheran Church.

A grand residence

It was Elector Frederick the Wise who began the expansion of Torgau’s Hartenfels Castle, which became the political center of the Reformation. Elector John Frederick the Magnanimous completed the impressive building, including the Great Wendelstein, the “incredible staircase” erected between 1533 and 1536, which is still something of a mystery for architects. It soars like a spindle without support over two stories. At the upper portal is the first graphic representation of Luther in a medal. In 1544 the castle church was consecrated as the first Protestant church to be built since the Reformation. When the seat of government was shifted to Dresden in 1547, Hartenfels Castle became less important. Thus, it presents itself as a perfectly preserved example of early Renaissance architecture. While some of its many rooms are used for exhibitions today, the castle church is still used for church services and concerts. A popular attraction of Hartenfels Castle is the moat where bears have been kept for many centuries.

The woman at Luther’s side

In the spring of 1523 twelve nuns fled the Cistercian convent Marienthron in Nimbschen near Grimma, which still exists today in the form of picturesque ruins, in a covered wagon belonging to Torgau councilor Leonhard Koppe. One of the nuns was Katharina von Bora, who hailed from a family of impoverished landed gentry. Martin Luther first considered her “proud and arrogant” but surprisingly married her on 13 June 1525 in Wittenberg. Her wedding ring, a gift from the King of Denmark, is now in Leipzig’s Museum of City History. Katharina, whom her husband respectfully nicknamed “Mr. Kate”, turned out to be an unusually capable housewife and housekeeper. Because of the plague and crop failure, she fled Wittenberg in the autumn of 1552. Just outside Torgau she had an accident, breaking her pelvis. Three weeks later she died in a small house in the center of the town which now houses the Katharina Luther Museum. It commemorates Mrs. Luther using contemporary pictures and objects of everyday life. She is buried in St Mary’s Church, Torgau, where her epitaph can also be seen.

Fair Renaissance

When the Saxon Electorate was transferred to the Albertine line in 1547, Torgau, together with Wittenberg and other Ernestine areas, became part of Albertine Saxony. Because the “wet-nurse of the Reformation” quickly became less important after this, 500 buildings from the Renaissance are still standing today. It was Martin Luther, who declared that the buildings in Torgau were more beautiful than any from ancient times, noting that even King Solomon's temple was only made of wood. Most impressive, apart from Hartenfels Castle, is the town hall with its mighty bay window which dominates the market square. On the walls and ceilings of the Mayor Ringenhain House, with its understated yet imposing façade, are paintings from the late 16th and early 17th century. It is one of the most important Renaissance town houses in Germany. The last residence of Martin Luther’s wife Katharina is also a fine example of Renaissance architecture. The Torgau Museum Path connects some of the most important buildings in town, including many important sites of the Reformation.

Russians and Americans

When Reformation had succeeded, Torgau became less and less important. Napoleon later turned the town into a fortress. After his defeat at the Battle of Leipzig aka Battle of the Nations, Saxony’s rival Prussia annexed large parts of its territory, including Torgau. The town made it to the headlines again when Russian and American troops established contact on April 25, 1945, at the tail end of World War II, now known as “Elbe Day”. They swore to do everything to prevent further wars. The famous picture on the destroyed bridge over the Elbe River was reenacted for the press a day later. Parts of the bridge are still in existence. The nearby Monument of the Meeting was erected by an architect from Kiev. One of the American soldiers who had taken part in the historic meeting, Joe Polowsky, whose family had migrated to the United States from the same city, became a well-known peace activist. He is buried on a Torgau cemetery and a school in town has been named in his honor.