Former Pleissenburg, now City Hall - Leipzig



    Pen and Ink Sketch - Erwin Weber - 1975


When a visitor to Leipzig, such as I set up an easel and begin to sketch some of the cultural monuments in this cosmopolitan city deep in the heart of the former German Democratic Republic, it attracts attention. One can expect to see artists in the picturesque medieval city of Eisenach or at the Wartburg Castle where Luther spent 300 lonely days high above the stillness of the Thuringian Forest. But Leipzig? According to the greatest German poet and thinker, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), "Leipzig does not remind one of the days gone by. Its buildings reflect a new productive era of business, accomplishments, prosperity and wealth." The statement holds true to this day, for the city is known for its great expositions that attract visitors from many countries throughout the world.

Leipzig, originally called "Lipzi" - the place where the Linden trees grow - had its beginning almost a thousand years ago as a fortified German village adjacent to a settlement of Slavic fishermen. The city received its charter in 1165 and became famous for its merchants and market squares. Soon after the turn of the 13th century, the Augustinian Order established a monastery in Leipzig and with it St. Thomas Church. The other churches in the city at the time, St. Peter and St. Nicholas, were incorporated within the jurisdiction of the Augustinian Order.

In the early sixteenth century, it seemed that all the abuses of the medieval church were present in Leipzig. The sale of indulgences blossomed. Especially brisk was the sale of the so-called "Butterbrief" which permitted the buyer to indulge in butter, milk and other dairy products normally prohibited on fasting days. During the Middle Ages, a great portion of the year consisted of fasting days. When Luther's 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences were published, he had to defend his statements on numerous occasions. In 1519, he came Leipzig to debate Dr. John Eck, the famous Catholic theologian from Ingolstadt University. In the debate, Eck was successful in forcing Luther to admit that among the articles of the Hussites, many were genuinely Christian and evangelical. This statement caused the Duke of Saxony, George, later called The Bearded, to become Luther's most bitter enemy, since the duke's mother had been the daughter of a converted Hussite.

For the opening ceremonies of the debate, the debaters, the representatives of the university and honored guests gathered in the Ritterstrasse on the morning of June 27, 1519, and ceremoniously marched for the opening religious services of the great debate. George Rhau, Cantor of St. Thomas Church school had composed a special twelve-part Mass for the occasion and the St. Thomas choir sang (active to this day) sang the Te Deum.

One result of the Leipzig debate which took place in the great hall of Pleissenburg Castle was that many students turned their backs on Leipzig University and went to the University of Wittenberg. Even the principal of St. Thomas school left Leipzig in 1519 and followed the reform movement. Since Leipzig was in the territory of Duke George, one of Luther's most bitter enemies, Leipzig did not become Protestant until the death of Duke George in 1539. Henry, a brother of Duke George, was the successor and a follower of Luther. He invited all who had left the city because of their belief to return to Leipzig, ending the city's two decades of Protestant persecution. They were given homes, and their citizenship was restored. When Luther stepped into the pulpit of St. Thomas Church on Whitsunday, 1539, the crowd was so large that the people raised ladders outside the church to look through broken windows in order to see and hear the great Reformer. Thus began the more than 400-year history of Lutheranism at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

Nearly two centuries later, Johann Sebastian Bach came to Leipzig to begin his 27-year stay at St. Thomas school as a teacher and cantor. As all cantors before and many after him, Bach had to "beat the organ" and direct the choir in both St. Thomas and St. Nicholas Churches on Sunday mornings and afternoons. In addition he had other commitments such as preparing music for special weekday services, holding classes regularly and composing music for dedication ceremonies, weddings, funerals, and other occasions. Bach's remains rest in front of the altar in St. Thomas Church. A bronze plate on the floor has the simple inscription "Johann Sebastian Bach".