Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Chapter 36: Worms--City of Luther and the Niebelungenlied

On Saturday, we took off on the train for a two hour ride to Worms (the W pronounced like an English V). Lawna and I had already visited imperial cathedrals in Mainz and Speyer, and the similar looking cathedral in Worms finished the architectural trinity. All were imperial Doms, erected during the period of the Holy Roman Empire, and the edifice at Worms is particularly well known as the site where Martin Luther had to defend himself against charges of heresy. Worms is the cradle of the Protestant Reformation.

Worms Cathedral (Dom)

If you look back over my blog entries, you will see that the three churches in Mainz, Speyer and Worms have similar Romanesque features, both inside and out. Speyer's is the most extensively restored, but all three are in good shape today, despite the ravages of history. Along with Trier, Worms is one of the oldest cities in Germany, and the area has been a source for many ancient Neolithic and Roman artifacts. The famed medieval epic, Niebelungenlied, partly takes place in Worms and reflects a remote medieval culture. This epic was the basis for Richard Wagner's monumental operatic Ring trilogy and, more recently, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Obviously, Middle Earth isn't Germany, but the medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien borrowed many features of both Wagner's rendition (the ring itself) and the original epic. If you have never read the Niebelungenlied, you may find you know more about it than you realize because of its influence on popular culture through comic books and fantasy films and literature.

St Sebastian in the Dom

Altar at Worms Dom

Tree of Life

old wall fresco

imperial tombs under the sanctuary

modern pipe organ

The following site contains pictures of places in Worms that we did not see, including the tower bridge:

We didn't see any Rhine maidens or people donning cloaks of invisibility, and actually found a city that is quite modern with less of an old town middle than many other German cities we have visited. Like Trier, the historical sites are somewhat spread out and difficult to take in by foot. Worms is famous for its medieval tower bridge over the Rhine, which we missed because it's not close to the train station. We did visit the imperial cathedral and took in the city historical museum. Apparently, Worms also has a Niebelungenlied museum, and performs a drama based on the epic. The historical associations are complicated for several reasons:
1. Worms was long a great cultural center for the Ashkenazy Jews, whose numbers were decimated by the holocaust.
2. The Niebelungenlied was adapted into the Ring opera cycle by Richard Wagner, well known for his anti-semitism.
3. The romantic imagery of the Niebelungenlied was used by the Nazis to glorify the doctrine of Arian supremacy.

Of course, it's absurd to blame the 20th century holocaust on an anonymously composed 13th century epic. Racist propaganda can be adapted from any source, including the Bible, if you spin it obscenely enough. It is the cultural dilemma for modern day Germans. They have a long rich past to be proud of. Unfortunately, some of that past was distorted for cruel and disastrous purposes by a gang of thugs that controlled the country for a relatively short period of time. The enormity of their crimes has tainted a rich cultural heritage to this day. Nearly any display of national pride carries this undercurrent.

Roman stone work
City Museum
City Museum court yard
The city museum contains plenty of old Roman artifacts, some of the heavy monuments standing in the courtyard, spotted with the everpresent German moss. Inside the converted church, visitors may view old Neolithic and Roman clothing, pottery and adornments, most retrieved from ancient burial sites. Spiral stairs lead to other periods of history, including the age of Luther. Luther's German translation of the Bible is on display with some of his own handwriting. Based on the radical Protestant notion that Christians should actually read the Bible, Martin Luther translated the Latin Vulgate edition of Saint Jerome to German, and his Bible is the German equivalent to the English King James translation. Both brought the scriptures to the people. When English speakers quote the Bible, it is usually the King James version. For Germans, it is Luther's Bible. It was incredible to see that old book. Only a few books in this world can truly be said to have changed the course of history. Luther's Bible is one of them, along with Gutenberg's first printing of the Latin Bible. These were the books that allowed moderately literate Christians to start thinking for themselves rather than just obeying Papal doctrine from distant Rome. Now I've seen them both. Modern scholars have better sources to work from and can make more accurate translations than could Luther, but this was the book (predating the King James Bible) that pried open the gates to modern skepticism. Scriptural text, not the Pope, became the spiritual authority, and the ensuing careful studies of the text slowly evolved into the basic tools of modern critical analysis. Martin Luther was nowhere near as skeptical as modern analysts, but his emphasis on the primacy of the text struck the spark. God now spoke directly to individuals, not through ecclesiastical intermediaries.
Martin Luther
Luther Bible

Worms is not the most picturesque city in Germany. From the train station, visitors are beckoned to stroll through a pretty plain looking shopping district, full of souvenir shops, bakeries and doner cafes. Most all German cities have that, but often nested in quaint old architecture. Worms's shopping district is made up of pretty generic store fronts until you get to the cathedral which rises out of the cluttered modern architecture and fully dominates the square. If you want to visit a really pretty old city, go to Rothenburg or Bamberg, but for richness of history Worms is hard to beat. In our region, Mainz is definitely on the historical hit parade, too. Europe is full of marvelous history no matter where you travel, but some cities do stand out. It all depends on what you are looking for.

setting up stands for the annual Christmas market
a Worms mansion

Inside St Peter's Dom, Worms.

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