Friedrich the Wise
- Date of Brass:
- Sachsen Anhalt
- Peter Vischer
Friedrich III and his brother Johann the Steadfast, both Prince-Electors, were from the Ernestine Line of the House of Wettin, as opposed to the Albertines, whose mausoleum is in Freiberg cathedral in Saxony. The Wettin dynasty divided in two at the Treaty of Leipzig in 1485 with the Ernestines the more prominent, and who played a key role in the Reformation.
The brothers are buried in a sealed crypt below their two brasses in front of the altar at the largely rebuilt Schlosskirche which Friedrich founded, and which was built between 1496 & 1509.1 This replaced the All Saints church of the previous Ascanian dynasty.2 Both the church and the original castle were demolished by Friedrich in 1489.
Both brothers have four memorials each in the Schlosskirche;
Floor brasses from the Vischers of Nürnberg comprising quadrangular
plates with large Achievements of Arms incorporating helms and crests of the Electoral dynasty, Latin text below in Renaissance Capitalis.3
Cast bronze relief memorials c. 4 metres high against the north & south walls in the vicinity of the altar, showing the Electors brandishing swords and standing on plinths in canopied recesses, flanked by the coats of arms of the Electoral territories, with its composite arms above, all clearly denoting lineage. Friedrich’s memorial is considered one of the finest Vischer products. It has the makers’ inscriptions in the bottom corners, “OPVS▪ M(AGISTRI) / PETRI / FISCHERS / NORMBER /GENSIS /AN(N)O 1527”. The work is now attributed to Peter Vischer the Younger. His brother Hans’ initials “HV” appear at the foot of Johann’s memorial.4
Encomium bronze plates comprising Latin inscriptions in raised
Renaissance Capitalis, situated against the north and south walls in the
vicinity of the above memorials, eulogising the deceased’s lives and
extolling their virtues.
Again in the vicinity of the above memorials, kneeling alabaster figures facing the altar, c. 1519-20 from an unknown sculptor, probably based on drawings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Court painter to the Ernestines.5
The details of Friedrich’s brass are as follows:
1. The original four plates have overall dimensions of 2325 x 1410 mm. An extra Latin inscription was added in 1770, principally to enable the brass to match the size of Johann’s. The photo of the complete rubbing in this article omits the 1770 addition.
2. The 16-line Latin text below the Achievement of Arms reads;
HAEC QVICVNQVE VIDES OCVLO PROPERANTE VIATOR
AD SACRA NE PIGEAT SISTERE BVSTA PEDEM
ILLE EGO FREDRICVS DVCE QVO SAXONIA FOELIX
ARDVA SACRATVM TOLLIT AD ASTRA CAPVT
QVI QVAMVIS TOTA ARDERET GERMANIA BELLIS
EFFECI PACEM GENTIBVS ESSE MEIS
AT SENIO TANDEM LONGIS CONFECTVS AB ANNIS
HIC TEGOR EXIGVO CONDITVUS IN TVMVLO.
VIRTVTVM LAVDES ET FAMAM LONGA MEARVM
POSTERITAS SEMPER SIT MODO GRATA FERET.
DECESSIT ANNO CHRISTI. M.D.XXV
DIE V MAII.
VI-XIT ANNOS LXII.
HORAS FERE III.6
3. Blazon of the Achievement – helms & crests.
a) Heraldic right, Landgraviate of Thüringen – A pair of horns Argent,
edged with rods Or, spangled with linden leaves Argent.
b) Centre, Duchy of Sachsen – A pair of horns per fess Sable & Argent
edged with pennons Gules. Tall conical column topped by a small
crown and plume of peacock feathers, column charged with barry of
10 Sable & Or with a Rautenkranz Vert in bend overall.
c) Heraldic left, Margraviate of Meissen – Torso of a bearded man clad
in a robe striped Argent & Gules with a pointed cap of the same,
topped with a plume of peacock feathers.
4. The Escutcheon - from heraldic right to left from the top downwards.
Line 1 a) – c); Line 2 b)- d); Line 3 e) – g); Line 4 h) – j). Line 5 k).
a) Duchy of Sachsen – Barry of 10 Sable & Or with a Rautenkranz Vert in
b) Landgraviate of Thüringen - Azure a lion rampant barry of 8 Gules &
Argent, crowned and armed Or.
c) Margraviate of Meissen – Or a lion rampant Sable, armed and
d) Palatinate of Sachsen – Azure a crowned eagle Or
e) County of Landsberg – Or 2 pales Argent.
f) County of Brehna – Argent 3 waterlily leaves 2&1 Gules.
g) Palatinate of Thüringen – Sable an eagle Or.
h) District of Orlamünde – This should blazon Or with 10 hearts Gules, a
lion rampant Sable armed and langued Gules, as shown on Friedrich’s
brother’s brass. Instead the hearts are missing and the lion is
i) County of Altenburg – Argent a rose Gules with pistil Or and sepals
j) County of Pleissen - This should blazon Azure a lion rampant Or
above Argent, armed and langued Gules as shown on Johann’s brass.
The division between the upper part of the Lion (Or) and its lower
part (Argent) on that brass is clearly marked by a line which is missing
on this one.
k) A regalia shield. A symbol of sovereignty of the Holy Roman Empire –
5. The Inescutcheon – Erzmarschallamt – (Office of Archmarshallship of the
Holy Roman Empire conferred on the Electors). Party per fess Sable &
Argent with 2 swords saltire-wise Gules.
6. The 4 corner coats of arms
a) Top heraldic right Bayern- München – Quarterly 1&3 fusilly in bends
Argent and Azure, 2&4 Sable a lion rampant Or, crowned langued and
b) Top left Austria – Gules a fess Argent.
c) Bottom heraldic right the Principality of Braunschweig - Gules two
lions Or passant guardant sinister.
d) Bottom left Principality of Henneberg – Or a hen Sable with caruncles
and feet Gules, standing on 3 mountains Vert.
Friedrich was born on 17th January 1463 at Hartenfels Castle, Torgau, to Ernst Prince Elector of Sachsen and Thüringen, and Elisabeth of Bayern- München. Friedrich was Elector from 26th August 1486 until his death on 5th May 1525 at his hunting lodge in Lochau near Annaburg. He never married.
He had a strong affinity with the Renaissance, and was a patron of the arts and science. During his reign there was peace and prosperity within the electoral territories. In 1502 he founded the University of Wittenberg which soon attracted numerous students and professors. The church he founded, with its considerable income, was put at the disposal of the University, for lectures and services. In 1508 Martin Luther, a graduate from the Augustinian friary in Erfurt, was sent to Wittenberg to teach moral philosophy, and in 1512 was appointed as Doctor of Theology at the University. The humanist Philipp Melanchthon was appointed Professor of Greek at the University in 1518 and was to become Luther’s closest colleague.
It has been held until recently that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Schlosskirche door on 31st October 1517, protesting against the sale of indulgencies by the Catholic church, so as to invite academic debate.7 Luther also wrote a letter of protest to Albert of Brandenburg who had become Archbishop of Mainz in 1514. This was forwarded to the Curia in Rome, by which time the theses had been printed and published and were in the public domain. This set off a chain of events with Friedrich becoming involved.
Friedrich was Pope Leo X’s candidate for Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 but he turned it down, instead securing the appointment of Charles V on condition of debt repayment to Saxony. He was able to use his considerable influence to secure Luther a hearing at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The subsequent Edict had Luther excommunicated. So as to protect Luther from the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich arranged a kidnap and Luther was taken to the safety of Wartburg castle. It was there that he translated the Bible into German. Friedrich managed to secure exemption for Saxony from the Edict, which was never enforced in Germany.
It is unclear why Friedrich was protective towards Luther. It seems that one reason was he simply wanted to see fair play to his subjects. He was a Catholic for all of his life until on his deathbed he is known to have received the Protestant communion. He also possessed an extensive Reliquary with people paying to venerate the relics and so escape years in purgatory from the granting of indulgencies, which Luther frowned upon. It seems there was no direct communication between the two of them but rather via either Friedrich’s court preacher Georg Spalatin or his treasurer Degenhart Pfaffinger.
Luther also criticised the practice of private masses in the Schlosskirche which Spalatin assessed as 10,000 per annum at the 20 altars. Whilst Friedrich took exception to this he did not confront the reformer or the citizenry since there was a clear momentum towards reformatory change. After Friedrich’s death his brother Johann became Elector until his death on 16th August 1532. He was a fervent supporter of Luther, organising state and administrative support for Protestantism and obtaining the backing of other Protestant princes against attempts by the Holy Roman Emperor to secure reconversion. He was a key figure in the formation of the Schmalkaldic League, to protect Protestant
interests. By the time of his death Saxony was the leading Protestant state in Germany.
Bronze plaques with raised lettering to Luther and Melanchthon are situated in the choir of the Schlosskirche where they are buried. Wittenberg contains the Lutherhaus, a monastery and a home for Luther’s entourage. The Stadtkirche of St Marien in Wittenberg is where Luther first preached c. 1512. When he returned to Wittenberg from Wartburg castle on 6th March 1522 – against Friedrich’s wishes- he delivered 8 significant “invocative” sermons in that church, instrumental in steering the young Reformation away from any form of iconoclasm.
Other brasses to the Ernestines are found at the Marienkirche in Torgau, to Johann’s wife Sophie of Mecklenburg who died in childbirth on 12th July 1503, a fine example from the workshop of Peter Vischer the Elder, on a par with the brasses to Amalia von Bayern 1502 and Sidonia von Sachsen from the same workshop in Meissen cathedral. Also to Friedrich’s sister, Margarete von Braunschweig 1528, from the Herderkirche in Weimar, workshop unknown.8
My thanks to the Pastor Rev. Friedrich Kramer & the Custor for facilitating rubbings of both Friedrich the Wise & Johann the Steadfast.
© Kevin Herring Sept. 2019
1. Gruhl, Bernhard & Bunz, Achim; “Wittenberg Castle Church –
Reformation Memorial Church”. Schnell & Steiner No.224. First English
Edition 2016. ISBN 978-3-7954-3198-3.
2. Steinwachs, Albrecht & Block, Johannes; “The Evangelical City and
Parish Church St. Mary of Lutherstadt – Wittenberg ”Akanthus. Ed. J.M.
3. Hauschke, Sven “Die Grabdenkmäler der Nürnberger Vischer Werkstatt
1453-1544”. Michael Imhof Verlag 2006. ISBN 3-86568-015-1.
1 The Schlosskirche was extensively damaged in 1760 during the Seven Years War and again in 1813 during the Napoleonic
Wars .Initially a new “Theses Door” was inaugurated in 1858 on the north side and the whole church reconstructed
between 1885-1892, under the supervision of the Architect, Friedrich Adler. Few alterations were made to the exterior but
the roof was replaced with a new stone ceiling vault.
2 The Ascanians were rulers of the smaller Duchy of Sachsen- Wittenberg from 1180-1422. In 1356 Rudolph1 received
confirmation from Emperor Charles IV in the Golden Bull of that year that the House of Ascania and its successors could
cast votes in the election of the German king as one of 7 Prince Electors. At the west end of the Schlosskirche on the wall
are the canopied stone effigies of Rudolph 11 (1370) and his wife Elizabeth and their daughter Duchess Elizabeth (1353).
3 Considered to be the work of Peter Vischer the Elder.
4 Originally considered to be the work of Peter Vischer the Elder.
5 The Cranach workshop still exists in Wittenberg. As well as fine paintings, many of which are in St Marien’s church in
Wittenberg, the workshop produced woodcuts and had printing facilities.
6 This translates as “"Whoever thou art that looks on this, wanderer, with your own eyes, hasting towards these burial
places, let it not gall you to stay your foot. It is I, Friedrich, by whose means Saxony, from difficulties lifted her head to the
stars, who, although all Germany was burning in wars, have effected peace for my peoples.
But having been attained for long years by the weakness of old age, here I now lie covered in a narrow tomb.
Long may posterity thankfully bear in mind the praise and fame of my good actions. He died in the year of Christ 1525 on
5th May and lived 62 years, 3 months, 19 days and 4 hours.”
7 It was suggested by Hans Volz in 1959, and Erwin Iserloh in 1961 that this is a legend spread by Melanchthon who was
not in Wittenberg at the time and couldn’t have witnessed it. Luther’s autobiography states he only informed the
Archbishop of Mainz of his intention who cautioned him against it. Posters then appeared on the outside of various
churches simply inviting debate. So rather than a brazen act it could have been an unintentional start to the Reformation
at that stage. The debate continues.
8 MBS “Bulletin” 135 June 2017 Herring pp. 694-696.
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