Painting Protestantism And Iconoclasm

Ordinary people encountered the medieval Catholic church not so much in the form of its abstract ideas but through its practices and images. The liturgy of the church, especially the mass, enacted the theology of the church, setting out dramatically a visual "grand narrative" of human history and experience. The church's ritual observances and symbolic gestures shaped the congregation's perception of the world and their own location within it. It offered spectacle and instruction, theater and dogma, in a form that reaffirmed the medieval worldview and the necessary place of the institutional church as an instrument and vehicle of salvation.1 Outside that church, there was no salvation.

The drama of the liturgy was supplemented by images, often images of gospel scenes—painted on church walls, illustrating gospel scenes for the benefit of those who could not read—or images of saints, especially Mary, whose intercessory powers were affirmed and proclaimed by the church. Saints were mediators of divine grace who would hear and mediate the prayers of ordinary people.2 In churches throughout western Europe, the cult of the saints was represented iconically—through paintings, altar-pieces, and statues.3 These images expressed and transmitted a theology, but one that Protestantism regarded as fundamentally misguided.

The rise of Protestantism represented a break with the past. The nature and extent of that rupture was understood in different ways within the movement. For radical reformers, a Promethean reconstruction of the church from ground zero was required; for Luther and Calvin, the church was capable of being reformed and purged of its defects. Yet in every case a break with the past was presupposed. So how could that rupture be defended and explained?

Protestants moved swiftly to neutralize the imaginative power of the Catholic church by abolishing the mass and destroying its images. The theological break with the past necessitated an imaginative counterpart in order to bring home to ordinary people—Luther talked about "Herr Omnes," or "everyman"—that something radical had taken place. The old actions and images would disappear and be replaced by their Protestant alternatives. Statues of saints were smashed, relics destroyed, altars overturned, paintings defaced or eventually whitewashed, and clerical vestments ripped apart.

The early Protestant hostility toward religious imagery around the year 1500 is thus to be understood primarily—but not exclusively—as a reaction against the theology that this imagery mediated. For deep within the Protestant psyche, a deeper sense of anxiety had emerged— that the new importance attached to the Ten Commandments negated the use of images altogether. Whereas Luther believed that one could identify the principle of the Old Testament prohibition against the use of "graven images" (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8), and retain the practice with appropriate safeguards, Zwingli and Calvin believed this was a compromise. Images had to be abolished altogether. Underlying the Reformation reaction against images was a new theology that demanded the resignification of the sacred.4

This led to a fundamental iconic divergence between Lutheranism and the versions of Protestantism associated with Zwingli and Calvin—usually referred to as "Reformed." Lutheranism chose to retain religious imagery while redirecting its subject. Recognizing the imaginative and pedagogical power of images, Lutheranism used them extensively in churches, as noted earlier. Reformed churches were notable for the absence of any form of imagery in them. One entered the building and walked into a whitewashed space where daylight entered unmodulated through clear rather than stained glass. The imagery was that of illumination, simplicity, and purification. ("The unfolding of your words gives light"; Psalm 119:130.)

Some have argued that this hostility toward the visual image is not to be seen as a Protestant distinction, still less as an affectation. Until recently, it was a commonplace to suggest that Christianity itself was opposed to the use of images in sacred contexts, particularly worship.5 Yet the view that early Christianity represented "a fundamentally and irrevocably aniconic form of religiosity" rests on a superficial engagement with primary sources, and can no longer be defended. In any case, the iconoclastic elements within early Protestantism did not undertake detailed research into primary Christian sources in developing their views. These emerged immediately, from a reading of the Ten Commandments and an inspection of what they regarded as idolatrous material in the churches of their day. The remedy, it seemed to them, was straightforward and thoroughly practical. And so the destruction of the images began.

One fundamental question emerges from this historical analysis: was this hostility toward images specific to this era tactical rather than strategic? Once the break with the past had been made, physically and iconically, would a different attitude emerge as medieval Catholicism became a memory, not a living threat? On the basis of the evidence available, the best answer that can be given is that, within Reformed Protestantism—but not in other forms of the movement—this hostility was ultimately seen as grounded in theology, not the contingencies of a specific historical moment.

Lutheranism and Anglicanism went on to make extensive use of religious imagery, particularly as they moved away from their historical origins and the needs of the moment became of more pressing impor tance. Images had power—indeed, images might even, in some situations, have greater power than words.6 The simple fact was that no Protestant writer could ignore the power of images. Images simplified and reified: they expressed complex ideas in simple, memorable ways, and they represented complex, abstract principles in concrete, personalized form. In 1545 Luther sponsored the production of a crude and vivid series of ten woodcuts entitled The True Depiction of the Papacy.7 The first of these depicted the "Pope-Ass," an image created in 1520 by Lukas Cranach the Elder, which represented the pope as a monstrous ass in human form.

The complex issues of the emergence of Protestantism were here drastically reduced to a simplistic struggle—freedom rather than oppression, good rather than evil, and God rather than Satan. Luther's own theological works do not legitimate such simplistic reductions, yet the propaganda issued on his behalf went far beyond his cautious statements, apparently representing a gross distortion rather than a popular simplification of his ideas. Was the use of such crude imagery a tacit admission that theology had failed to deliver? That its complex, abstract ideas had not been grasped? That images were needed where arguments had failed?

Although Reformed Protestantism would not allow images in church, it had no doubt of their power. We have already noted the importance of the Geneva Bible (1560), which added marginal notes to help its readers understand what it euphemistically termed "the hard places." Yet this Bible went even further by adding illustrations to help the reader make more visual sense of some difficult passages (such as the vision of Ezekiel) or to depict scenes from biblical narratives (such as the "garments of the high priest," described in Exodus 28). Those who created the Geneva Bible had clearly absorbed Calvin's famous theological principle of divine accommodation. If God "accommodated himself to human capacity" in communicating with humanity—for example, by using visual images, such as "God as shepherd"—why should not the Bible follow this excellent precedent?

Images of any kind would be rigorously excluded from Reformed churches. However, the Reformed hostility to pictorial representations of God was fundamentally theological in its foundation and did not extend to other subject matters. No significant restrictions were placed upon the activities of Reformed artists outside the specific sphere of ecclesiastical ornamentation. John Calvin was perfectly clear on this matter: painting and sculpture were perfectly permissible—he even called them "gifts of God"—provided that the objects represented were "visible to our eyes." Calvinist painters might thus well find themselves having serious theological misgivings about representing God in their paintings; they had no such difficulties with the enterprise of painting itself. After all, artists were among the earliest supporters of the Protestant Reformation in the Lowlands.8 Other possibilities lay wide open to them as the emerging interest in landscapes, townscapes, domestic scenes, and portraits characteristic of seventeenth-century Flemish art makes clear.

Yet alongside the absence of prohibition of such natural objects, another force of significance must be noted.9 Market forces were becoming increasingly important in predominantly Reformed parts of Europe by 1600.10 Protestantism turned out to have unleashed forces that it could not ultimately control. Indeed, the growing wealth of Reformed communities, not totally unconnected with their association with capitalism, led to the emergence of patterns of artistic patronage similar to those associated with the Italian Renaissance. The wealthy Calvinist burghers of Flanders appear to have been just as aware of the importance of decorating buildings and homes as their Renaissance predecessors.

As the epicenter of English Protestantism gradually shifted from Luther's Wittenberg to Calvin's Geneva, hostility toward images deepened. Puritanism maintained the prohibition against any visual aids to worship, while extending it to personal devotional aids. The period of the Puritan Commonwealth witnessed an outbreak of iconoclasm on a scale exceeding anything seen at the time of the Reformation. A Puritan raid on the chapel of Clare College, Cambridge, yielded more than one thousand religious "superstitious" images, including images of God the father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit "like a dove with wings."11 The same severe attitudes were characteristic of American Puritanism throughout the seventeenth century.

Yet lying alongside this uniform hostility toward religious imagery within Reformed Protestantism—and raising questions about its long-term viability—are discernible tensions, anxieties, and even inconsis tencies. One is a simple fact of human psychology—the need to visualize the abstract, and above all the divine. Attention is often drawn to a fascinating feature of Emmanuel de Witte's picture of the south aisle of the Oude Kerk (1660) in Amsterdam, which was purged of its images in 1566 when the wave of iconoclasm in the southern Netherlands swept north. At the center of the painting, Witte placed an icon of the Holy Face—a cultic representation of the face of Christ.12 Was this an act of memory or of protest?

Puritan preachers and pastors might well be iconophobic; they were also, however, human beings who could not ignore the imaginative capacity and needs of their minds. A leading feature of Puritan spirituality was the longing ultimately to see God, when at present God could not be seen. Many Puritan sermons preached on Psalm 27:8—"Your face, Lord, do I seek!"—urged their congregations to "see" (that is, form a mental image of) the face of God, and prescribed a number of spiritual disciplines that might assist in doing so.13 As many recent scholarly studies of Puritan attitudes toward images have stressed, the movement found itself in the ambivalent position of both needing images and needing to deny them.14

This ambivalence remains a potent element in contemporary Reformed reflection on the arts. Many mainline Protestant leaders now have no difficulty in valuing art in itself as a human activity directed toward the praise of God and filling an invaluable role in fostering an imaginative encounter with God.15 Public worship, private devotion, and the public communication of faith are all enriched by the sensitive and judicious use of imagery. Yet within the Reformed tradition, attitudes remain ambivalent toward visual art, which is viewed as something that can mislead as much as it can serve as an aid to piety.16

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