The Divided Heaven

Reformation and religious diversity in the Rhine and Ruhr region

The special exhibition “The Divided Heaven” in the Ruhr Museum in Essen presents – on time for the anniversary of the Reformation – the relation and the coexistence of the different religions and confessions in the Rhine and Ruhr region. The Christian confessions and Judaism have existed here side by side over centuries. Particularly in the 19th and 20th century, there were shifts in the denominational proportions. The reasons for this were migration flows during the industrialization and after the Second World War. Of course, the newcomers brought with them their religious practice, with the result that today chimneys and church towers share the sky with synagogues, mosques and other religious sites. 

Overall, more than 800 items are displayed in the exposition. They come from 250 lenders – numerous museums, archives and libraries, but also religious communities and private individuals provided display items. The spectrum of the exhibits is large, from the point of view of both the time period and the cultural, as well as the genres. Thus, besides paintings and sculptures, sacred vessels, furniture, textiles, graphics and books are shown in the exhibition. 




View of the exhibition (Photo: © Ruhr Museum/Deimel + Wittmar)

Ten Chapters on the Religious History of the Ruhr Area

The exhibition tells chronologically in ten chapters the religious history of North Rhine-Westfalia from the Reformation till today.

It starts with the chapter “Salvation. Piety in the Late Middle Ages”. The system of remembrance of the death developed in the late Mittdle Ages was not only the origin for rich ecclesiastical fittings, but also the economic basis of the clergy. The purchase of letters of indulgence was a visual expression of the concern for the hereafter. This in particular provoked Luther’s 95 theses. In “”Upheavals. The new teachings” begins the time of the divided Heaven. In 1517, Luther published his theses, in which he turned against the grievances in the Church. At first he strived for reforms within the church, but what began was the schism. 

Portrait of Martin Luther, copper engraving by Heinrich Alegrever, 1540. (Photo: City of Soest/Burghofmuseum)

Armed Conflicts on the European Level

The chapter “Reformations. Trajectories and expressions”, shows how the ideas of the Reformation fell on a fertile soil in the Rhine and Ruhr region. Here emerged different religiously mixed situations in cities and territories. They were characterised by tensions and compromises, by also by peaceful coexistence. The following chapter “Interdependences. Sovereignty and religious policy” addresses the armed conflicts in the Rhine and Ruhr region in the 16th and 17th century. Because of the political constellation of the time, these conflicts took on a European dimension. Wether the Guelders War, the Dutch War of independence, the War of Cologne, the War of Jülich Succession or finally the Thirty Years War: The religious affiliation of the warring parties always played a great role. Only the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 stabilised the situation and led to the implementation of the provisions of the Religious Peace of Augsburg of 1555. 

This bloody chapter is followed by “Individualisation. Faith and Reason.” The appreciation of the individual in the 18th century led to new pietistic currents, the Enlightenment also to an increasingly secular world view. Thus a deeper individual conception of piety developed, which extended to the entire life practice of the people. The French occupation of the Rhineland and the secularisation, which involved the dissolution of the monasteries and the end of the clerical territories, led to a lot of changes. 

Gold medal on the unification of the Evangelical Church in Prussia. Henri François Brandt according to Karl Friedrich Schinkel. (Photo: © Ruhr Museum/Rainer Rothenberg)

“Control. Church and state” is the name of the next chapter. In 1815, territories with a high percentage of Catholics on the Rhine and the Ruhr became part of the Protestant kingdom of Prussia. This made religious conflicts inevitable. The greatest conflict developed between the Catholic church and the Prussian government led by Bismarck. The domestic policy of Wilhelmine Prussia was marked by cultural Protestantism, based upon a close connection of the state and the Protestant Church. Therefore the Catholics rather distanced themselves from the state, while the king was the head of the Evangelical regional churches. The Protestant Church lost its role as the state church with the end of the German Empire in 1918: The Weimar Republic put all the religious communities on the same legal footing. During the National Socialist regime, both National Churches failed, they did not oppose the Terror enough. 

Social Changes in the 19th Century

The chapters “Care. Charitable commitment” and “Community. Religious milieus in the industrial society” deal with the changes in the social welfare and the segregation of the religious communities in the Ruhr area. Up to the 19th century, welfare was an act of Christian charity. As a reaction to the social impoverishment of the industrial era, the Churches took over large parts of the social welfare – on the Protestant side the deaconesses and on the Catholic side the nuns in particular. The social services and the education system were then strictly segregated on confessional lines and this division also continued in everyday life. The Ruhr area emerged by the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Catholic, as well as Protestant workers. Businessmen often hired them according to their own denominational affiliation. The young workers were generally not influenced by politics, but by religion. They grew up in confessional milieus, which existed separately from each other.

The chapter “Impulses. New challenges” is about the recruitment of workers in the postwar period. While at first people from Southern Europe arrived, who were of Catholic or Orthodox faith, the recruitment of workforce from Turkey launched the influx of Muslims, which continues today with the flows of refugees from Arab countries. In the 1990s, the Jewish communities also experienced a new growth, mainly due to the immigration of states of the former Soviet Union. 

The last chapter “Perspectives. Religious diversity today” shows the current status quo of the religions in the Rhine and Ruhr region. The Ruhr area is one of the most religiously mixed regions in Germany, if not in Europe. The numerous migration flows into the Ruhr area, but also the well-rehearsed tolerance have led to the creation of the religious diversity with more than 250 religious communities, which in principle live peaceful with or at least next to each other. They represent not only a religious, but also a cultural enrichment. This is the result of an evolution which started 500 years ago with the division of the Christian Church, united until then. 

Oil Paintings, the First Printed Koran and Communion Vessels

Particular highlights among the exhibits never presented before are large-size oil paintings from the Early Modern Period from Bonn and Utrecht, the pulpit of a Muslim-Arabic community in Bochum, the first printed Koran or exhibits from temples and synagogues of the Ruhr area. But also precious communion vessels, precious manuscripts like a colourfully illustrated pilgrim’s book, early printed documents, a circumcision table, icons as well as statues from the Essen Cathedral treasure are presented in the exhibition.

The exhibition “The Divided Sky. Reformation and religious diversity in the Rhine and Ruhr region” is part of the project of the same name of the Ruhr Museum together with the Essen Forum Kreuzeskirche and the Martin Luther Forum Ruhr in Gladbeck, which has worked out a year-round program for the Anniversary of the Reformation. The exhibition takes place within the framework of Luther 2017 and Refo500.




View of the exhibition. (Photo: Ruhr Museum/Deimel + Wittmar)

Religious Communities in Comparison

In the side galleries next to the main stations, the exhibition presents central themes of the different religious communities. They range from the Holy Scriptures over pilgrimages and piety to the beliefs of the hereafter in the different religions.

The first of these side galleries deals with “Holy Scriptures”. Written texts play an important role in many religions. The texts known as Holy Scriptures are for the believers of divine origin, because they have been dictated or given inspiration to people chosen by God himself. The scriptures are often the basis of the religious socialisation, are also interpreted intensively and diversely. Despite all the differences, the texts of the monotheistic religions Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Tora, Koran and Bible, refer to the Five Books of Moses. But there are Holy Scriptures not only in monotheistic religions, but also in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Piety and life stages

Statuette of Lakshmi. (Photo: Hindu Shankarar Sri Kamadchi Ampal Tempel e.V., Hamm/Rainer Rothenberg)

The next station is about piety. Those who live in accordance with a certain religion and orient their actions to its teachings are considered pious. Guidelines for orientation are Holy Scriptures, religious instructions, prayer books or magical objects. Prayer or meditation plays a role in all religions, often preceded by a ritual purification. At home, prayers take place in the„corner of Lord“, at family altars and prayer corners. When it comes to the prayer chains, surprising similarities can be found from the rosary to the Buddhist mala. In some religions, dress codes and dietary rules are an expression of piety. In every denomination there are signs which embody divine protection and can be worn as jeweleries or amulets on the body. 

In every religious community, important stations in life are accompanied by rituals. As decisive points in the life of the believers, they give them a meaning and structure the religious biography. Rites mark the transitions to new stages of life. Thus, ceremonies and events take place, which integrate the believers in the community. The baptism in Christianity is for example a ritual expressing the visible admission into the religious community. By ceremonial events, young people become full members of their communities. Marriage rituals differ in every religion, but they always confer a new social status. 

Dying, death and pilgrimages


All people are affected by death. Dying, funeral, mourning and remembrance are linked to emotions. For this reason, burials and funeral rituals say a lot about a society and its attitudes. Even though the funeral rituals in the different religions are subject to certain rules, they are also subject to changes. This is illustrated by the layout of cemeteries and tombs. Here we can draw conclusions about the religious orientation. The different religions have different ideas about what happens after death. The sky can be conceived specifically or metaphorically, but also as a state in a different reality of the existence. 

Hymn book of the March of Brandenburg. Ernst Friedrich Voigt, Hagen, 1769. (Photo: Steeler Archiv e.V., Essen/Rainer Rothenberg)

In many religions, the believers feel the need to visit holy places. They believe that their prayers will be better heard there. Christianity knows particularly pilgrimages to the shrines of saints, where time again miracles have been reported. The Catholics of the Rhine and Ruhr region often visited the treasures of relics in Aachen, Cologne, Trier and Essen. For Protestants the visit of holy sites is proscribed since the abolition of the veneration of the saints. In Islam, pilgrimage plays an important role. A devout Muslim should once in his life go for the Hajj to the pilgrimage site which has been erected by Abraham and his son Ishmael.

Festivities, rituals and houses of prayer  

Religious celebrations and rituals structure the year and everyday life. Over time, the orders, which they follow, can change. Sometimes there are regional variations. For practicing believers in Judaism, Christianity and Islam it is customary to visit a prayer room every week. Holidays are celebrated in the community and they create community. In a diaspora situation, celebrations and rituals are particularly important for not losing cultural references and ties. In the monotheistic religions, a time of fasting forms part of the most important celebrations.

In the Reformation era, only few new churches were built, because existing buildings continued to be used. With new furnishings they were adapted to the changing liturgical needs. Only the immigration of labor forces at the end of the 19th century led to a massive construction of new churches.  Representative synagogues also date from this time. Often new materials and construction elements from the industrial architecture were used. After the Second World War, in the late 1950s, there was plenty of construction of new churches; they were planned by the most important German architects. Today, Christian communities are affected by church closures, but Jewish and Islamic communities build new. The construction of a  Hindu temple in Hamm is also the expression of migration history. 

Propaganda, schools and soundscapes 

“The Temptation of Christ” with Martin Luther as the devil. Painting by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, Cologne, 1547, from the Carmelite Monastery in Cologne. (Photo: LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn/Jürgen Vogel)

Luther's criticism of the church launched a large debate in society. The invention of book printing stimulated the production of pamphlets and catchy images. They became instruments of propaganda between Lutherans, Catholics and Calvinists. Comparisons with the devil were popular on both sides. Defamatory depictions of Jews existed since the Middle Ages, but also after the Enlightenment. Anticlerical pictures of German satirical magazines around 1900 were directed against the connection of Church and Capital as well as the hypocritical sexual morals. Today's caricaturists address the same ecclesiastical grievances, because religion is always measured by its own self-imposed morals. Lately, the Muhammad cartoons and the attack on Charlie Hebdo provoked new discussions on religious caricatures. 

The Reformation also completely transformed the school system. Education was highly valued, everyone had to be able to read the Bible and other books by himself. The division of the Churches determined later the school policy. Over centuries, the schools remained confessionally separated and subordinated to the church authorities. In the big cities of the Ruhr area, humanistic secondary schools were created for the training of priests and civil servants. Pietism and Enlightenment led to the enforcement of compulsory schooling and the establishment of public education. To this day, the religious communities transmit the fundamental ethical values of their denomination through their own schools. 

 The Reformation also laid the foundation for a new musical culture. The first common singing of German songs in a worship service is often considered to be the beginning of the Reformation in one place. Some of the most famous hymnbook songs were composed in the Rhine and Ruhr region. The common singing is also an important part of the liturgy of Catholic communities. Music touches the soul and is used in all religions as a message between the sacred and the earthly. This connection however is linked to the culture. “Foreign” music at first increases the distance, but offers also the chance of a rapprochement between the cultures. Religious diversity is reflected in a plenitude of new tones and sounds. In the centres of the different religions spiritual music is played in the form of a choir, mantra, recitation, organ music, tolling of bells, muezzin calls and gospel. 


Panoramic View of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Nordenfan, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Exhibition Venue

The Ruhr Museum is located in the Zollverein Mine’s coal washing plant, which since 2001 is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a “cathedral of industrial culture” it shows the history of the region in all its various aspects, especially in its permanent exhibition, opened in 2010, but also in its different special exhibitions. After the great medieval exhibition “Gold in front of black” in 2008/2009 and the exhibition on the Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages “Beginings of the Ruhr Region in 2015, the exhibition “The Divided Heaven” in the windowless bunker of the 12m level shows the subsequent epoch from the Reformation to this day.