Austin’s Luther Statue Talks to Students – by Dr David Zersen

This article by David Zersen was originally published in Pomhaj Bóh, the Wendish language church newspaper in Lusatia.

Statues of and memorials to Martin Luther are well-known in Germany and in the United States, but none of them were erected before the mid-nineteenth century. The first statue of Luther was erected in Wittenberg in 1821, but the most famous one, designed by Ernest Rietschel, was the centerpiece of the memorial to the Reformers, erected in 1868 in Worms. Rietschel had died in 1861, but had already laid out the design for the memorial complex that would be finished by his three students, Donndorf, Kietz and Schilling. By 1884, a replica of this statue would be erected in Washington D.C. and in the years that followed, another ten replicas would be constructed throughout the United States. Typically, these statues were placed on the campuses of Lutheran universities and seminaries. Even more significantly, however, the heroic impression lent by the 14-foot tall Luther in Rietchel’s design, made a mid-nineteenth century statement with which Concordia University Texas did not want to identify.

In 1998 when Concordia’s statue was designed, the institution was an undergraduate school that granted only baccalaureate degrees. (Today it grants both Masters and Doctor’s degrees.) Its students entered the university at the age of eighteen and would complete their education by the time they were twenty-one. Concordia’s then president, Dr. David Zersen, had seen many of the Rietschel replicas on Lutheran campuses in which the Reformer demonstrated his “Here I stand” posture with his Bible. Zersen wanted something different for a university founded largely by descendants of Wendish immigrants in 1926 and which enrolled students who weren’t always sure what they wanted to study and who they wanted to become.

Conferring with Eloise Krabbenhoft, a local artist and sculptor, the two discussed possible portrayals. Mrs. Krabbenhoft explored the idea of having Luther sit on a bench so that students could sit next to him and, as it were, have a chat. Zersen, however, had learned something interesting in a 1998 communication from Martin Treu, curator of the Luther Museum in Wittenberg. It was discovered, Treu explained, when the Castle Church was renovated in 1892, that an examination of Luther’s skeleton proved that he was 5 feet 2 inches tall. Feeling that it would be important for students today to identify not with a heroic Luther on a prominent pedestal, but with someone they could cluster around, it was decided to have a standing statue.

Additionally, Krabbenhoft and Zersen wanted a Luther who looked like the students who entered Concordia University Texas at years of age. Realizing that Luther attended the University in Erfurt from 1501-1505, precisely when he was between 18 and 21, Krabbenhoft and Zersen wondered how to portray a Luther at that age. Knowing that the earliest depiction of Luther was Lucas Cranach’s engraved portrait of Luther as a monk at the age of 37, Krabbenhoft employed the technology used by detectives to identify presumed suspects. Working her way back from age 37 to 18 with forensic computer technology, Krabbenhoft created a face for Luther that had never been seen since 1501.

Furthermore, since the Bible was such an important symbol for Lutherans and because Concordia University was affiliated with the Lutheran church, the artist chose to give a special treatment to the book in Luther’s hands. When Friedrich Schorlemmer, at Concordia in 2001 to receive an honorary doctorate, saw the sculpture, he was stunned by the treatment of the student and said that it was the best of the Luther statues he had ever seen. Usually the Luther statues are 25 feet tall and show the Reformer heroically proclaiming, “I have found the truth.” “Here, however, is the eighteen year old student, perusing the Scriptures,” Schorlemmer said, “and seeking the truth. It is the perfect statue for a Lutheran university.”

Luther has moved from the old campus in downtown Austin to the new campus in the bordering hill country west of the city. However, he still has a prominent place at the entrance to the campus. And, as was originally intended, he is an approachable fellow student with whom the co-eds can have a chat. Sometimes, they place a Santa Claus hat on his head or a Palestinian scarf around his neck and ask what he might be thinking about current events or matters of faith. And Austin’s unique likeness of the Reformer, 500 years later, says what only Concordia’s students in Austin, Texas can be expected to hear.

David Zersen

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