Occasioned by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, the new permanent exhibition in Dresden’s Residenzschloss (Royal Palace) presents the princely and ecclesiastical protagonists of the Reformation period in Saxony. Visitors do not need to be experts in history because it is told through objects, each of which is noted for its erstwhile owner. Among the exhibits is Moritz von Sachsen’s blood-stained sash, for instance, which he wore when he died in the Battle of Sievershausen. Then there is the lavishly decorated suit of armour which protected the body of August of Saxony on 27 April 1547 in the Battle of Mühlberg.

How did certain rulers become electors? Why was this status so desirable? How did the House of Wettin engage in representation? How did they educate themselves? How did they spend their “leisure time”? Answers to these questions take the form of ornate weapons, textiles, riding gear and portraits of princes of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The weapons include masterpieces by southern German armourers and goldsmiths as well as by Italian masters. The exhibition retraces the path taken by the House of Wettin, tells of religious wars and tensions between the pope, the emperor and the empire, of the bestowal of the Saxon electoral title to Frederick I, the Belligerent, by the emperor in 1423 and of the acquisition of electoral power for the Albertine branch of the Wettins by the duke Maurice of Saxony and his brother August in 1547. Simply looking at his personal weapons gives a striking impression of the pictorial politics of the time: Biblical and ancient representations show clearly the Protestant-influenced state and governing programme of the elector and at the same time attest to the burgeoning economy and artistic activity in the royal seat of Dresden.

In 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his theses to the castle church in Wittenberg. Even if this story is disputed by historians, one thing is clear: Luther left his mark on Saxony. In 1485 it had been divided into the Ernestine electorate with Wittenberg on the one hand and the Albertine Duchy with Dresden on the other. Yet it was not until the Reformation that the Wettins, who had been united up to that time, became polarized, and for the Ernestines, who defended the Lutheran church, this ultimately meant the loss of their electorate: They now were no longer able to cast their vote in the election of an emperor for the Holy Roman Empire, and they lost their dominion.