City Center, Wittenberg, Germany
Five hundred and three years ago today, in his All Hallows’ Eve lecture in the German town of Wittenberg the preacher Martin Luther criticized the pope and his own patron, Frederick the Wise, ruler of Electoral Saxony. While that was remarkable in itself, more remarkable still was the system Martin Luther was criticizing, the system of indulgences in place in the church in the year 1516.
Each year on All Saint’s Day, 1 November, Wittenberg received pilgrims who came to see Frederick’s collection of over 19,000 relics, “including a twig from Moses’s burning bush, four hairs of the Virgin Mary, five particles of her milk, a piece of Jesus’s swaddling clothes, two pieces of hay from the manger, five pieces of the table from the Last Supper, and eight thorns from Jesus’s crown.”
Along with each relic came an indulgence, whereby a parishioner’s cash payment to the church lessened “the penalties associated with sin and so reduced the time the sinner had to spend in Purgatory. The Castle Church (in Wittenberg) was one of many churches in Europe authorized by the pope to offer an indulgence once or twice a year…. Added together, the relics in Frederick’s collection could bring about a reduction of precisely 1,902,202 years and 270 days in Purgatory.”
Sounds like a racket to me. Apparently it sounded that way to Martin Luther, too.
– Quotes from Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing.
Evidence of a Wedding, Church Steps in Wittenberg.