Hartenfels Castle in Torgau is the residence of the Saxon electors and the political and administrative centre of the early- modern territorial state that, like no other, made the reformers’ ideas the basis of its self-conception and the basis of that of its sovereign. This is demonstrated in a unique form, in the building’s architecture and its decorative features. The castle chapel was designed especially for Protestant worship services and was consecrated by Luther himself.
Hartenfels Castle consists of five unequal wings, four of them enclosing the large courtyard in the form of an irregular rectangle. The fifth wing, an addition dating to the 18th century, traverses the moat and extends towards the city. The high, for the most part three-storey buildings, in combination with eight towers, numerous gables and bay windows, lend the structure contours that are lively and yet monumental. Architectural highlights of the complex consist of the magnificent stone spiral staircase, the ‘Große Wendelstein’ in the main wing, the ‘Beautiful Bay Window’ in the electors’ former living quarters, the castle chapel and the tower known at the 'Hausmannsturm’. A representative gate from the late Renaissance provides access to the castle from the city. This is flanked by a slender bell tower.
The new castle chapel, a hall surrounded by two-storey lofts and located beneath a ribbed vault with net and star figures, was built as the first extravagant hall was constructed as the first sacral building destined exclusively for Protestant worship services. With it, the Saxon Elector John Frederick professed his commitment to the teachings of Luther and underscored his leadership role in the Protestant alliance. Luther consecrated the chapel himself in 1544, in an act of state of great political significance that was precisely planned by the elector. In keeping with the central role of preaching in Protestant worship services, the pulpit moved to the centre of the space, here at the northern long side, clearly visible from all sides.
The fortification that already stood on the banks of the Elbe during the Slavic period developed into a castle, and in the mid-10th century it became the centre of a German castle wards and the nucleus of civil town that took shape later on. In the late 15th century, the castle in Torgau evolved, step by step, into an early modern castle that – together with Albrechtsburg in Meißen, the late-Gothic castle in Dresden and the castle in Wittenberg – established the early castle-building tradition in Saxony and in the realm as a whole.
In 1485, Torgau fell to the Ernestine Electorate of Saxony, the focus of whose reign increasingly shifted to Torgau. From 1525, a time in which the Reformation began to prevail, Torgau became the most important residence, and hence the political centre, of the land that devoted itself most vehemently to the doctrine of Luther, establishing its state and manorial self-conception on this basis. The reformers and scholars of the University of Wittenberg often spent time here, assisting the elector and his counsellors in matters of theology and religious policy, but also in practical issues of church organisation. Luther alone is documented to have stayed in Torgau on roughly 60 occasions. This makes it the city he frequented most often. Not only does the castle chapel in particular represent an authentic place of activity by Luther, but it also is the place where the reformer provided a model definition of the requirements of Protestant worship services in terms of the architecture and furnishings involved.
There are additional, authentic Reformation sites in the immediate vicinity of and with a direct relationship to the castle: the Electoral Registry, the old Superintendency and the Town Church of St. Mary as the former court church, with the tombs of the Duchess Sophie of Mecklenburg – mother of John Frederick – and of Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife. Near the house in which she died, known today as the building housing the ‘Katharina Luther Room’, is also the priest’s house of Georg Spalatin.
The castle was damaged on several occasions, particularly in the Thirty Years War, and has been restored several times since the 1990s. Most recently, in 2014, the large stone spiral staircase, the ‘Wendelstein’ was returned to its original colour scheme, and the magnificent gallery of coats of arms was restored. The former electoral chambers with a direct spatial and historical relationship to the castle chapel, are currently undergoing restoration. In early 2017, these rooms will be made accessible to the public as part of a permanent exhibition.
Hartenfels Castle stands in an extraordinary way for the political side of the Reformation, but also for its close connection with the Reformation theology.
It was here that the events of the first half of the 16th century are reflected architecturally in a way that reveals the Reformation as a supporting conception of the state: the castle is an architectural manifesto of the Ernestine House of Wettin as patrons and promoters of the Reformation. Worth mentioning in this context is, first of all, the castle chapel, as the first Protestant new church construction in the world. It was designed for the most part by Luther himself, and finally consecrated by him, thus becoming a model for other churches.
The movement to renew the Catholic Church that was launched by Luther and the University of Wittenberg soon evolved into a process of political emancipation of Protestant estates waged against the Catholic Emperor. Activities on behalf of religious policy, extending throughout the empire and beyond, began in Torgau. The castle was the centre of exercises of territorial state powers as well as the place where imperial relations were initiated and cultivated. This is where a first alliance of Protestant states was concluded in 1526. It was here that the first preparations for the ‘Confessio Augustana’ were made in 1530, in the form of the ‘Torgau Articles’. Not least, there were significant performances of Protestant church music here, with its ‘original cantor’, Johann Walter.
The castle and castle chapel are intimately linked with the biography of Luther. The awareness of the importance of the castle in the Reformation period has never vanished, as can be seen in impressive ways, both materially – in a variety of repair measures undertaken to commemorate the reformer – and in the celebration of festivities to mark the history of the Reformation.