The Reformation and art  

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This page The Reformation and art is a part of the protestantism series.  Illustration: The image breakers, c.1566 –1568 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder
This page The Reformation and art is a part of the protestantism series.
Illustration: The image breakers, c.15661568 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
art and politics, art and religion

The Protestant Reformation during the 16th century in Europe, ushered in a new artistic tradition that embraced the Protestant agenda and diverged drastically from the southern European tradition and the humanist art produced during the high Renaissance. In turn the Catholic Counter-reformation both reacted against and responded to Protestant criticisms of Art in Roman Catholicism to produce a more stringent style of Catholic art. Protestant religious art both embraced Protestant values and assisted in the proliferation of Protestantism, but the amount of religious art produced in Protestant countries was hugely reduced. Artists in Protestant countries diversified into secular forms of art like history painting, landscape painting, portrait painting and still life. The Protestant Reformation induced a wave of iconoclasm, or the destruction of religious imagery.


Art and the Reformation

The Reformation was a religious movement that occurred in Western Europe during the 16th century that resulted in a divide in Christianity between Roman Catholics and Protestants. This movement “created a North-South split in Europe, where generally Northern countries become Protestant, while Southern countries remain Catholic.”(New Advent)

The Reformation produced two main branches of Protestantism; one was the Evangelical churches, which followed the teachings of Martin Luther, and the other the reformed churches, which followed the ideas of John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. Out of these branches grew four main sects, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist, and Anglican, which caused even more fragmentation within the Christian tradition.

Protestant theology centered on the individual relationship between the worshipper and the divine. The movement’s focus on the individual’s personal relationship with God was reflected in the number of common people and day-to-day scenes that were depicted in art. Protestantism taught that since God created man in his own image, humanity is perfection. Art that did seek to portray religious figures or scenes followed Protestant theology by seeking to portray people and stories that emphasized salvation through divine grace and not through personal deeds or by intervention of church bureaucracy. In terms of subject matter, iconic images of Christ and scenes from the Passion became less frequent, as did portrayals of the saints and clergy. Narrative scenes from the Bible, and, later, moralistic depictions of modern life were preferred. Some scenes showed sinners accepted by Christ, in accordance with the Protestant view that salvation comes only through the grace of God.

The Protestant Reformation induced a wave of iconoclasm, or the destruction of religious imagery. All forms of Protestantism showed a degree of hostility to religious images, as idolatry, especially sculpture and large paintings. Book illustrations and prints were more acceptable, because they were smaller and more private. Protestant leaders, especially Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, actively eliminated imagery from churches within the control of their followers, and regarded the great majority of religious images as idolaterous. Martin Luther, in Germany, initially more hostile, finally allowed, indeed encouraged, the display of a restricted range of religious imagery in churches so long as viewers were reminded that images are symbolic of the divine, and are not holy in themselves (in fact the Catholic position also). For a few years Lutheran altarpieces were produced in Germany, especially by Luther's friend Lucas Cranach, to replace Catholic ones, often containing portraits of leading reformers as the apostles or other protagonists, but retaining the traditional depiction of Jesus.

Subjects prominent in Catholic art other than Jesus and events in the bible, such as Mary and saints were given much less emphasis or disapproved of in Protestant theology. As a result in much of northern Europe, the church virtually ceased to commission figurative art, placing the dictation of content entirely in the hands of the artists and lay consumers.

After a few decades Lutheran commissions for new altarpieces effectively ceased, and Lutherans often had to struggle to defend their existing art from a new wave of Calvinist-on-Lutheran iconoclasm in the second half of the century, as Calvinist rulers or city authorities attempted to impose their will on Lutheran populations in the "Second Reformation" of about 1560-1619. Similar patterns were seen in England in the English Civil War and English Commonwealth in the next century, when more damage was done to art in medieval parish churches than during the English Reformation.

A major theological difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is the question of transubstantiation, or the literal transformation of the Communion wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Protestant churches that were not participating in the iconoclasm often selected as altarpieces scenes depicting the Last Supper. This helped the worshippers to recall the symbolic meaning behind the Eucharist, as opposed to Catholic churches, which often chose crucifixion scenes for their altarpieces to remind the worshippers of the literal transformation of the Eucharist.

The Protestant Reformation also capitalized on the popularity of printmaking in northern Europe. Printmaking allowed images to be mass produced and widely available to the public at low cost. This allowed for the widespread availably of visually persuasive imagery. The Protestant church was therefore able, as the Catholic church had been doing since the early 15th century, to bring their theology to the people, and religious education was brought from the church into the homes of the common people, thereby forming a direct link between the worshippers and the divine.

There was also a violent propaganda war fought partly with popular prints by both sides; these were often highly scurrilous caricatures of the other side and their doctrines. On the Protestant side, portraits of the leading reformers were popular, and the likenesses were sometimes shown as Apostles and other figures in Biblical scenes such as the Last Supper.

Genre and landscape

After the early years of the reformation artists in Protestant areas painted far fewer religious subjects for public display, although there was a conscious effort to develop a Protestant iconography of Bible illustration in book illustrations and prints. In the early Reformation artists, especially both Cranachs, and Holbein made paintings for churches showing the leaders of the reformation in ways very similar to Catholic saints. Later Protestant taste turned from the display in churches of religious scenes, although some continued to be displayed in homes. There was also a reaction against large images from classical mythology, the other manifestation of high style at the time. This brought about a style that was more directly related to accurately portraying the present times. The traditions of landscapes and genre paintings that would fully flower in the 17th century began during this period.

Bruegel (1525-1569) of Flanders is the great genre painter of his time, who worked for both Catholic and Protestant patrons. In most of his paintings, even when depicting religious scenes, most space is given to landscape or peasant life in 16th century Flanders. Bruegel’s Wedding Feast, portrays a Flemish-peasant wedding dinner in a barn, which makes no reference to any religious, historical or classical events, and merely gives insight into the everyday life of the Flemish peasant. Another great painter of his age, Lucas van Leyden (1489-1533), is known mostly for his engravings, such as The Milkmaid, which depicts peasants with milk cows. This engraving, from 1510, well before the Reformation, contains no reference to religion or classicism, although much of his other work features both.

Bruegel was also an accomplished landscape painter. Frequently Bruegel painted agricultural landscapes, such as Summer from his famous set of the seasons, where he shows peasants harvesting wheat in the country, with a few workers taking a lunch break under a nearby tree. This type of landscape painting, apparently void of religious or classical connotations, gave birth to a long line of northern European landscape artists, such as Jacob van Ruisdael.

With the great development of the engraving and printmaking market in Antwerp in the 16th century, the public was provided with accessible and affordable images. Many artists provided drawings to book and print publishers, including Bruegel. In 1555 Bruegel began working for The Four Winds, a publishing house owned by Hieronymus Cock. The Four Winds provided the public with almost a thousand etchings and engravings over two decades. Between 1555 and 1563 Bruegel supplied Cock with almost 40 drawings, which were engraved for the Flemish public.

The courtly style of Northern Mannerism in the second half of the century has been seen as partly motivated by the desire of rulers in both the Holy Roman Empire and France to find a style of art that could appeal to members of the courtly elite on both sides of the religious divide. Thus religious controversy had the rather ironic effect of encouraging classical mythology in art, since though they might disapprove, even the most stern Calvinists could not credibly claim that 16th century mythological art really represented idolatry.

Council of Trent

Italian painting after 1520, with the notable exception of the art of Venice, developed into Mannerism, a highly sophisticated style, striving for effect, that concerned many churchman as lacking appeal for the mass of the population. Church pressure to restrain religious imagery affected art from the 1530s and resulted in the decrees of the final session of the Council of Trent in 1563 including short and rather inexplicit passages concerning religious images, which were to have great impact on the development of Catholic art. Previous Catholic Church councils had rarely felt the need to pronounce on these matters, unlike Orthodox ones which have often ruled on specific types of images.

The decree confirmed the traditional doctrine that images only represented the person depicted, and that veneration to them was paid to the person themself, not the image, and further instructed that:
...every superstition shall be removed ... all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust... there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God. And that these things may be the more faithfully observed, the holy Synod ordains, that no one be allowed to place, or cause to be placed, any unusual image, in any place, or church, howsoever exempted, except that image have been approved of by the bishop ...

Ten years after the decree Paolo Veronese was summoned by the Inquisition to explain why his Last Supper, a huge canvas for the refectory of a monastery, contained, in the words of the Inquisition: "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities" as well as extravagant costumes and settings, in what is indeed a fantasy version of a Venetian patrician feast. Veronese was told that he must change his painting within a three month period - in fact he just changed the title to The Feast in the House of Levi, still an episode from the Gospels, but a less doctrinally central one, and no more was said. But the number of such decorative treatments of religious subjects declined sharply, as did "unbecomingly or confusedly arranged" Mannerist pieces, as a number of books, notably by the Flemish theologian Molanus, Saint Charles Borromeo and Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, and instructions by local bishops, amplified the decrees, often going into minute detail on what was acceptable. Many traditional iconographies considered without adequate scriptural foundation were in effect prohibited, as was any inclusion of classical pagan elements in religious art, and almost all nudity, including that of the infant Jesus. According to the great medievalist Émile Mâle, this was "the death of medieval art".

Art and the Counter-Reformation

During the time of the Reformation a great divergence arose between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers of the north regarding the content and style of art work. The Catholic Church viewed Protestantism and its iconoclasm as a threat to the church and in response came together at the Council of Trent to institute some of their own reforms. The church felt that much religious art in Catholic countries (especially Italy) had lost its focus on the religious subject-matter, and became too interested in decorative qualities. The council came together periodically between 1545 and 1563. “The decrees of the Council of Trent stipulated that art was to be direct and compelling in its narrative presentation, that is was to provide an accurate presentation of the biblical narrative or saint’s life, rather than adding incidental and imaginary moments, and that it was to encourage piety." The reforms that resulted from this council are what set the basis for what is known as the Counter-Reformation.

When looking at the reforms of Catholic art instituted during the Counter-Reformation it can be seen how greatly Catholic religious art differed from Protestant. While the Protestants largely removed public art from religion and Protestant societies moved towards a more “secular” style of art which embraced the concept of glorifying God through the portrayal of the “natural beauty of His creation and by depicting people who were created in His image,” (Nosotro, Rit.) the Church of the Counter-Reformation continued to promote art with “sacred” or religious content. Art for the church was strictly to be religious art for the purpose of glorifying God and Catholic traditions, including the sacraments and the saints. “The Holy Council prohibits placing in churches any image inspired by false doctrine that might mislead the simple… To eliminate all lures of impurity and lasciviousness, images must not be decked in shameless beauty… To enforce this decision the Holy Council prohibits setting up in any place or church, no matter what its exemptions, any irregular image unless authorized by the bishop." (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Scipione Pulzone's (1550-1598) painting of the Lamentation which was commissioned for the Gesu Church in 1589 is a work that gives a clear demonstration of what the holy council was striving for in the new style of religious art. With the focus of the painting giving direct attention to the crucifixion of Christ, it complies with the religious content of the council and shows the story of the passion while keeping Christ in the image of the ideal human.

On the other hand when looking at Paolo Veronese's (1528 - 1588) painting first called the Last Supper, and subsequently renamed as the less doctrinally-central Feast in the House of Levi, one can see what the Council regarded as inappropriate. Veronese was summoned before the Inquisition on the basis that his composition, for the refectory of a monastery, was indecorous. It does indeed show a fantasy version of a Venetian patrician feast, with, in the words of the Inquisition: "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities" as well as, extravagant costumes and settings, and a great crowd of people at the Last Supper. Veronese was told that he must change his painting within a three month period - in fact he just changed the title to The Feast in the House of Levi. No doubt any Protestant authorities would have been equally disapproving. The pre-existing decline in "donor portraits" (those who had paid for an altarpiece or other painting being placed within the painting) was also accelerated; these become rare after the Council. [[File:Las lagrimas de san Pedro El Greco 1580.jpg|thumb|240px|Repentence of Peter by El Greco, 1580-1586.]]

Some subjects were given increased prominence to reflect Counter-Reformation emphases. The Repentence of Peter, showing the end of the episode of the Denial of Peter, was not often seen before the Counter-Reformation, when it became popular as an assertion of the sacrament of Confession against Protestant attacks. This followed an influential book by the Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). The image typically shows Peter in tears, as a half-length portrait with no other figures, often with hands clasped as at right, and sometimes the cock in the background; it was often coupled with a repentant Mary Magdalen, another exemplar from Bellarmine's book.

As the Counter-Reformation grew stronger and the Catholic Church felt less threat from the Protestant Reformation, Rome once again began to assert its universality to other nations around the world. The religious order of the Jesuits or the Society of Jesus, sent missionaries to the Americas, parts of Africa, India and eastern Asia and used the arts as an effective means of articulating their message of the Catholic Church's dominance over the Christian faith. The Jesuits' impact was so profound during their missions of the time that today very similar styles of art from the Counter-Reformation period in Catholic Churches are found all over the world.

Despite the differences in approaches to religious art, stylistic developments passed about as quickly across religious divisions as within the two "blocs". Artistically Rome remained in closer touch with the Netherlands than with Spain.

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