The highly anticipated 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is coming up in 2017 and the epicenter of the Reformation, Wittenberg, Germany, has been preparing for years. Visitors from around the world are already trickling in to visit historical sites such as the Castle Church where Martin Luther is purported to have posted his 95 Theses condemning the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences.
However, St. Mary’s, or the Town Church, in Wittenberg, where Luther regularly preached, married his wife Katharina von Bora, and baptized their six children, is currently drawing greater attention because of a challenge to remove a 700-year-old anti-Semitic sculpture from its facade.
Perched 26 feet above the ground, on the exterior southeast corner of the Town Church, is a 14th-century sandstone sculpture of a pig with two people in identifiably medieval Jewish hats suckling at its teats and another holding a piglet’s ear. An additional Jewish person lifts the tail while looking into the sow’s rear. Written above the relief is an inscription with the words, “Rabini Shem Hamphoras.” This nonsensical reference to the Jewish appellation of God’s name, added after Luther’s time, quotes a derogatory comment in one of Luther’s writings.
This is not the only “Judensau” or “Jew pig” carving in Germany. As many as a couple hundred may have existed between the 13th and 18th centuries inside and outside of churches, as well as on homes, woodcuts, and broadsheets in German lands of the Holy Roman Empire. The Wittenberg sculpture has been cleaned up and restored as part of a 7.5-million-euro church restoration effort because of its 80,000 annual visitors and in anticipation of the 2017 festivities.
“The Judensau grieves people because our Lord is blasphemed,” said Lutheran Sister Joela Krüger, 74, who is at the forefront of a movement to remove the offensive artifact from the church. “And also the Jews and Israel are blasphemed by showing such a sculpture.”
Sister Joela belongs to the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, a Lutheran Christian group based in Darmstadt, Germany, which is not part of the official Evangelical Church in Germany, or EKD, which is akin to the mainline Protestant churches in the United States. With 116 sisters in Germany and 46 more throughout 11 nations, the Sisterhood’s main mission focuses on repentance, Christian reconciliation, and the education of Christians about the Jewish roots of their faith.
About 30 “Judensau” sculptures still exist on churches mostly throughout Germany, and the majority without explanatory plaques. Scholars do not know who first commissioned the pieces. According to Birgit Wiedl, a researcher at the Institute for Jewish History in Vienna, Austria, these sculptures could have been commissioned by rulers, bishops, or through private donors. The only known commissioner for a “Judensau” was the city council of Salzburg who set one up on its town hall in 1487. A bishop eventually removed it during the Enlightenment in the 18th century.
The meaning of the sculpture develops over time, according to the research of the late Israeli historian, Isaiah Shachar, who wrote a seminal book on the “Judensau.” What began as symbol of a particular vice such as gluttony, reluctance to repent, uncleanness, sinfulness, or heresy, later becomes a clearly defamatory representation of the Jewish people. While pigs are commonly portrayed in German religious sculptures, Jewish law views them as unclean animals, not appropriate for eating, and therefore the use of the pig deliberately escalates the offense of the image.