A man of conscience: Luther’s Reformation

historical, family


In 1517 Martin Luther, a thirty-four-year old professor at the University of Wittenberg, wished to reform the Catholic Church. He embarked on his mission as a “poor, miserable, contemptible friar” going against the majesty of the Pope. His certainty about the truth of his beliefs laid the foundation for a new church and the Protestant Reformation.

This project is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office on the occasion of 500 years since the Reformation (1517-2017).

10 points

included in this tour

51 stories

for you to discover


Smoked herring

Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483 in the small town of Eisleben. His parents were devout Catholics of humble origins. His father’s successful business enterprises enabled him to provide his son with a good education. Luther’s childhood was marked by strict discipline. His mother whipped him until blood flew for stealing a nut. In 1505 he took a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. As a monk he visited Rome and his love for his parents was so strong that he wished they were dead so he could redeem them from purgatory with a Mass. The large crowds prevented him from getting in the church so he “ate a smoked herring.”


A race of witches

In August 1562 a destructive hailstorm affected the south-western German city of Wiesensteig. Count Ulrich von Helfenstein, the region’s ruler, had no doubts as to the culprit. He ordered and carried out a witch-hunt that destroyed more than sixty witches for causing the storm, robbing children of their baptism and infanticide. Witch trials occurred throughout Reformation Europe and had the support of Luther and Calvin. The worst hunts were in areas suffering from the plague but most accusations involved the cursing of agricultural implements and livestock, arson, love magic, the discovery of stolen objects and the brewing of deadly storms.


The incombustible swan

Τhe Reformation was a period when differences were often solved with a fiery burning of books and opponents. And yet, among all these ashes, there was story after story of miraculous incombustible Luthers. His images, his cell, his bunk, his bed and his Bibles were said to have remained intact despite the flames that consumed the buildings that contained them. In 1601 a conflagration destroyed 235 houses in Luther’s hometown; the house where he was born, the church where he was baptised and the house where he died survived, even though nearby apples were roasted and the lead in the windows melted. After all, according to a popular prophecy, Luther was the swan that would not burn.

Image credits

The digital exhibition is supported by visual material from European and American museums and libraries, accessible through the online database www.europeana.eu. The image credits are as follows:

  • Cover image
    Martin Luther, Öl auf Holz, Kunstsammlungen Der Veste Coburg,
    Europeana and Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach d.ä., Nationalmuseum, Sweden, Europeana
  • Germany on the eve of the Reformation
    Germany at the Accession of Charles V., Map 12, “The Cambridge Modern History Atlas” edited by Sir Adolphus William Ward, G.W. Prothero, Sir Stanley Mordaunt Leathes and E.A. Benians. Cambridge University Press; London. 1912., The University of Texas at Austin
    , https://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/ward_1912.html
  • The Catholic Church
    Wynkyn de Worde Papal Indulgence, Westminster, 1498, University Of Edinburgh,
  • Martin Luther
    Martin Luther: 95 Thesen, 1517, Österreichisches Staatsarchiv,
  • A revolutionary technology
    Gutemberg d’Alsace, Mi-corps, National Library Of France,
  • Reformation women
    Catharina von Bora, wife of Martin Luther, Nationalmuseum of Sweden,
  • The Great Peasants Revolt
    Der Herzog von Savoyen und die fünf Orte verlassen Genf, Central Library Of Zurich
    , Europeana
  • Leading Reformers
    Bildnis des Melanthon und Lvthervs, Diricks van Campen, Jan, Kunstsammlungen der Veste Coburg / Digitaler Portraitindex
    , Europeana
  • New art for new ideas
    The Fountain of Youth and Der Jungbrunnen, Lucas Cranach, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
    , Europeana
  • An international movement
    Vier Verräter wurden am 4. Mai 1582 in Genf mit dem Schwert gerichtet, Central Library Of Zurich
    , Europeana
  • Post-Reformation Germany
    De boom der religie, 1570, Rijksmuseum,

A man of conscience: Luther’s Reformation by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Athens & Clio Muse PC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Creative Commons License

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