The Merseburg Experiment. Prince Georg III of Anhalt as Reformer und Protestant bishop (1544 – 1548)
20 Mai to 13 August 2017
The Reformation brought radical changes and raised a number of essential issues: how would it be possible to interconnect the new faith and social structures? Would this process be successful, or would radical breaks be unavoidable?
The special exhibition will transport you into a time of great tension. The main focus is on the specific situation in Merseburg and its most prominent player.
Georg III was appointed as a canon of Merseburg in 1518 aged only 11. After studies in ecclesiastical law in Leipzig, he was ordained as a priest in 1524 and shortly later as a dean at the cathedral of Magdeburg. Here he energetically combatted the beginnings of the Reformation. Due to a complex regulation of succession, he was also appointed as Prince of Anhalt-Dessau alongside his brothers in 1530.
In the meantime, the theologically well-educated prince became increasingly convinced of the justification of Lutheran reforms. After the death of his strictly Catholic mother, he officially announced his allegiance to the Protestant faith and introduced the Reformation within his principality.
This was by no means a purely ecclesiastical undertaking, as it brought with it a high political risk within the tense political situation. Both Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon were his personal friends.
Around the turn of the year 1543 / 44, the Bishop of Merseburg Sigismund von Lindenau lay on his deathbed. Who would then occupy the vacant bishop’s chair and how would the diocese be subsequently governed?
It was the Duke Moritz of Saxony who found an unorthodox solution. In the spring of 1544, an unprecedented experiment began: the previously “universal” episcopal power of governance was split in two.
The Duke appointed his brother August as the secular sovereign under the title “administrator”. The ecclesiastical sovereignty was conferred on Canon Georg III as the deputy of the administrator. On 2 August 1545, Martin Luther personally ordained Gorge as a Protestant bishop in the cathedral of Merseburg.
It was not long before the double-headed Merseburg Model encountered problems: the youthful and impetuous August with little political experience proved to be no match for the well-educated and sensitive Georg, creating a permanent and almost insurmountable atmosphere of tension.
The situation was exacerbated by the defeat of the Protestant princes in the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547. From this point onwards, the victorious Catholic Emperor Charles V called on the Merseburg experiment to be discontinued.
This came to pass in the autumn of 1548 when August married and was therefore forced to relinquish his position on 27 September. Georg followed suit and resigned on 7 November. From 1549 to 1561, Merseburg once more had a Catholic bishop, Michael Helding. Come and experience the interaction and intrigues of the Reformation period and become acquainted with the chief players and their backgrounds!
The academic Georg III of Anhalt possessed an important and priceless library. Against this background, the exhibition in Merseburg is interconnected with the presentation “Treasure trove of the Reformation – the UNESCO heritage of documents reflected in the book collection of Georg III of Anhalt” curated by the Anhalt Library in Dessau held in the castle Dessau/Johannbau from 8 April until 9 July 2017.
The well-known chronical written by the Merseburg Bishop Thietmar (1012 – 1018) is focused on history and religious beliefs. Become acquainted with the world of Thietmar in the Cultural and Historical Museum. Marvel at the episcopal coat of arms and the venerable figures of patron saints in and around the castle and the coats of arms of the cathedral chapter in the chamber tower. The exhibition also contains numerous excellent Baroque sculptures embodying the certainty of belief and concepts of the afterlife.
Significant churches dating from medieval times include the parish churches St Maximus und St Vitus, the Neumarkt church as a Romanesque jewel and earliest documented place of worship for St Thomas of Canterbury and the impressive cathedral. This edifice which still houses a Late Gothic pulpit in which Luther preached a sermon in 1545 subsequently became a court church during the Baroque period. In the south cloister of the cathedral, you will be confronted by an exceptional testimony of pagan faith in the form of the “Merseburg Incantations”.