Saturday, June 11, 2011

Wartburg Castle: A Thousand Years of German History (Eisenach, Germany)

The unrelenting climb up the forested slopes outside Eisenach (whether by foot, donkey or shuttlebus) past the towering plain walls highlights the imposing location of Wartburg Castle. Shaped like a cigar (click layout to enlarge) with one narrow gated entrance and with such natural defences, Wartburg Castle has played a significant role in German history and is a powerful symbol of the Reformation. Almost a thousand years old, the castle is a pot-pourri of building styles and architecture and has played witness to some of the most significant aspects of German history.

A tour of the castle focuses on the historic Palace (or Palas), built in the 1100s. On the ground floor are the cavernous Knight’s Hall and Dining Room along with the unusual Elizabeth’s Bower. The room was encrusted with glistening mosaics last century in memory of Saint Elizabeth who in a remarkable but short life married Wartburg’s owner in the early 1200s, donated to the poor her entire life, reputed had bread taken from the castle for the poor miraculously turn to roses, died at age 24 and was canonised by the church only four years later. An entire passage way details her life in a sequence of murals.

The first floor includes the chapel and the Hall of Minstrels where a famous singing competition (a kind of 13th century American Idol) were conducted resulting in a Wagner opera (Tannhäuser) centuries later and a beautifully painted room with excerpts from medieval. Six of the finest voices competed, with the poorest effort to be punishable by death (which would focus the practice sessions to say the least!!). The top floor is a grand festival hall that continues to be used and which leads to an excellent museum.

The highlight of Wartburg is undoubtedly the Bailiff’s Lodge and Luther’s Room. It includes a modest wood-panelled room where Martin Luther in 1521, excommunicated from the Church (after nailing his demands to a Wittenberg church), hid as the Knight George or Junker Jörg (as the portrait behind the desk shows) and translated the bible into German (in a frenzied ten weeks). Sadly the furniture isn’t original but it is a moving location, and a pilgrimage site to many. Witness and feel how a man in disguise changed German and Christian history and culture, a change that continues to affect the world today.

Luther bought commonality to the German language, a new branch to Christianity (Lutherians) improved methods in translation and bought the words of the most powerful book in Christendom to the common people. Two centuries later Goethe, the father of German language, worked at Wartburg bringing a more modern Bible translation.

In 1817 as detailed by a beautiful woodblock painting, Wartburg Castle was the central rallying site for students protesting for German unity (Burschenschaften). Having hidden Luther and having recently defeated Napoleon, Wartburg was an ideal symbol for German nationality and was the source of the black, red and yellow tricolour that became the German flag a century later.

Enjoy the grounds and the various buildings before taking a final walk up the South Tower, which offers a superb view of the tiny township of Eisenach, the castle grounds and the Thuringian Forest. Wartburg Castle is UNESCO World Heritage Listed and one of Germany’s finest travel wonders. View a thousand years of architecture and history where a saint lived her short life, Martin Luther made his dramatic impact on Christianity and students protests led to the eventual unification of Germany.

Note: The Wartburg Castle website gives a good history and tour of the castle.

Note: The woodblock painting is in the public domain. Plan courtesy of CarneyCastle.


Heather Dugan ("Footsteps") said...

Terrific account, Mark. What an interesting history the castle holds!

Mark H said...

@heather: Thank you. The castle seems to be a microcosm of Germany and far more interesting (though less glitzy and ornate) than the famous Ludwig castles.

Barbara Weibel said...

I am currently in Scotland and have just visited my first ever castle and I have to say I was completely astounded. But it was a mere shadow of Wartburg Castle and I think the castles of Germany may be what finally convinces me to visit this country.

Mark H said...

@barbara: I hope you travel there. Like much of Europe, Germany has some fine castles. Along with mad Ludwig's castles, Wernigerode is a cultural gem, Heidelberg is really photogenic and the Rhine is dotted with pictureseque small castles from the days when the Rhine was so key to life.

Heather on her travels said...

The location and thick walls remind me of the Hohensalzburg Fortress that I recently visited with a position that dominates the town. By the way St Elizabeth is the patron saint of my family's parish church and we have a mural there of her with all the roses

Mark H said...

@heather: It is a little bit similar with its imposing defensive position. I love these "real" castles (not ornate but functional) that have so much treasured history within their walls.

Ray said...

This kinda castle leaves an awesome history

Mark H said...

@ray: I love the history in these old castles. They have seen so much and tend to be at the heart of much of the politics and intrigue of the day.

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