Nuremberg During the Reformation: A Model of Religious Tolerance

Last summer, the Religious Freedom Project offered dissertation fellowships for students exploring the sources, development, and consequences of religious freedom. The project supported five fellows in exploring the relationship between religious liberty and other fundamental freedoms; its importance for democracy; and/or its role in social and economic development, international diplomacy, and countering violent religious extremism. Cornerstone asks the fellowship winners to share about their research and findings. 

By: Katya Mouris

During the early years of the Reformation, from 1524-1528, Caritas Pirckheimer, a Poor Clare nun who lived in Nuremburg, kept a sort of diary of letters and conversations known as the Denkwürdigkeiten (“memorable items”). In these, Caritas recorded her struggle to prevent the Lutheran city council from closing her Catholic convent, since the new tide of Protestants believed monasticism was not in keeping with biblical values.

Nuremberg flourished during the Renaissance, a fact that is reflected in its contemporary monuments, including one to the artist Albrecht Dürer and one to Caritas’s brother, the humanist Willibald Pirckheimer. But Caritas, perhaps the city’s most illustrious daughter, goes for the most part unnoticed. Germans today who do know of Caritas often think of her as an ecumenical symbol, but it would be highly anachronistic to claim that Caritas was an ecumenist avant la lettre. She did not believe that Lutheranism and Catholicism were co-equal paths to God, nor did she hold the modern idea that truth cannot definitively be known. Her 1526 meeting with the Lutheran theologian Philipp Melanchthon, however, demonstrated that goodwill could bridge the confessional divide.   

It could also change history: Melanchthon ordered the city council to respect Caritas’s freedom of conscience and allow her to remain a cloistered nun. In an era when freedom of religion was all too often absent, this instance of heeding the conscience of another was remarkable. Even though it did not mean the complete reconciliation of the two sides, there was a modicum of concord between Caritas and Melanchthon, both of whom were simultaneously irenic and steadfast in their respective faiths. Their example is a corrective to numerous ideas: that nuns had no agency or voice; that religious difference always resulted in acrimony (or worse, bloodshed); and that genuine tolerance and charity were nowhere to be found in the Reformation era.   

Nuremberg today, thanks to the re-contouring of borders over the centuries, holds the odd position of being a mainly Lutheran city located in Catholic Bavaria. The peculiarity extends to its largest parish church, the Lorenzkirche. Besides Dürer, sixteenth-century Nuremberg was home to a variety of notable artisans, including Veit Stoss and Adam Kraft. Stoss was the sculptor of a large scene of the Annunciation, encircled by a string of rosary beads, which hangs over the main altar. Kraft, also a sculptor, was responsible for creating the Sacrament House (i.e. the tabernacle, where the consecrated Eucharist was stored), a Gothic structure which towers several meters in the air. The structure is all the more interesting as Kraft included himself in it, bent over and carrying his chisel, supporting the weight of the tabernacle on his back.   

The peculiarity is this: One would expect to see such artistic renderings retained in a Catholic church, but St. Lorenz became Lutheran in 1525. Even then, it seems, there was sufficient accord among the citizenry (and respect for the work of their artisans) that church iconoclasm did not occur, or at least not to the damaging extent it did elsewhere. The rosary was not adopted as part of Lutheran prayer, and the Lutherans had very different ideas about communion than Catholics. Nevertheless, the two sculptures were allowed to survive as works of art, if not as images of piety—a compromise in keeping with the agreement regarding Caritas’s convent. Instead of the total eradication of Catholic presence, elements of it were permitted to remain: the beginnings, if not the final consummation, of religious freedom.   

A more modern example of the same trend in the appreciation of the religious “other” came after the Second World War. The convent church of St. Klara, where Caritas and her sisters had lived, was bombed to ruination. Within a few years, however, it was rebuilt, retaining the original form of the architecture. What might have been written off as an unimportant feature of the city’s late medieval Catholic heritage today stands in its original milieu near the Frauentor, a gateway to the walled city center (Altstadt).   

In summary, there are a number of apparent contradictions in my project: a strident yet cloistered nun; a Lutheran reformer allowing Catholics to practice their faith; a church furnished with art not in keeping with its own religious tradition. Yet these seeming anomalies are the very warp and woof of history—there is always more than meets the eye.   

I count myself very fortunate not only to have been able to do my research abroad, but that I was able to be in situ and experience something of Caritas’s life: the chiming bells of St. Lorenz, the busyness of the market square, the timbered medieval buildings. Having read so much about Caritas and her life and times, it was quite exciting to be able to behold the “real thing” in person.

Katya Mouris is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the Catholic University of America and was a summer 2015 doctoral fellow with the Religious Freedom Project.

This piece was originally authored on January 11, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.