In a sense, Protestant iconoclasm gave sacred significance to “secular” subjects and experience. It made the whole of life religious, not merely church life. Conversely, it also “secularized” art, that is, it brought art out of the parameters of religious cult objects and transferred it into the domain of aesthetic beauty apart from ecclesiastical use. It was the theological foundation of the liberation of the arts.
Yet, in spite of this artistic liberation, there is nevertheless a lack of visual and dramatic tradition in Protestantism.1 To be sure, not all the arts had been so effected, music being a prime example, and the Dutch Golden Age of painters including such giants as Rembrandt and Dürer are examples of Reformed influence on the arts.2 But these examples are extremely limited because the suspicion of images soon broke out of its ecclesiastical focus and bled into the prevailing Protestant secular culture to include many forms of imagination and creativity. As Dyrness notes, “all attempts at using imagery, drama, even cultural festivities, in the service of the communication of Christian truth appeared to be given up by around 1580.”3 It was a pendulum swing, from one extreme to another, that would ultimately leave lasting negative impact on Protestant involvement in the arts for years to come.4
As already mentioned, the Reformers did not discourage artistic invention, but they also did not spend much time or effort in encouraging it either. Of the millions of pages written by such titans of the word as Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Bucer and others, there was a significant amount written about the wrong use of images, but comparatively little on the right use of the arts. Such references are relegated to occasional and scattered sidebars or tangents as they relate to a particular Scripture. But almost nothing of significant theological development.5 The net effect of this virtual ignoring of the theological value of art is the implicit devaluing of it. To say, as Calvin did, that “All the arts come from God and are to be respected as divine inventions,”6 is laudable, but to do so without substantial explication of their importance, as he did with so many other doctrines, is to give with one hand and to take away with another.7 As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and a systematic theology without a developed aesthetic is an implicit sign of an underlying belief that beauty is not an essential part of theology.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Calvin accorded “respect” for the arts, but not exaltation was because he viewed much art as some uninformed Christians still do, either as didactic propaganda or as entertainment for pleasure, rather than a necessary part of our human existence. In one of the only places where he writes more than a passing comment about art, Calvin refers to musical instruments, and by extension the other arts as well, as being able to “minister to our pleasure, rather than to our necessity, still it is not to be thought altogether superfluous; much less does it deserve, in itself, to be condemned.” Though he does not condemn art, the essence of art is pleasure and this pleasure is not necessary to our existence. But hey, it’s not altogether superfluous – only partially superfluous by implication. Calvin’s prejudice was clearly didacticism, an elevation of utility and doctrinal teaching as the supreme form of communication. Thus, his tendency was to favor representational art of historical events used to “admonish” or “teach” over other imagery that was more decorative or abstract because they had “no value for teaching.”8
Another way in which Calvin and others like Karlstadt and Bucer unwittingly devalued art was in their appeal to divert the money for church decoration to the poor.9 While this is also a laudable attempt to take the commands of God to love the poor seriously, it ends up in another unbiblical either/or dichotomy between art and human need. Excess can be waste, but splendor and beauty are not intrinsically excess. God gave commands to love the poor (Deut. 15) and collected massive amounts of money to build the rather splendorous spectacular tabernacle, a model reflected in Cathedrals and their ornamentation (Ex. 36). Both beauty and charity are important to God and both are necessary.
There is an analogy between Matthew 26 and this view of beauty as wasteful compared to giving to the poor. When a woman pours expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, the disciples complain with a similar refrain to that of Luther and Calvin. “Why this waste? For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor” (v. 8-9). Jesus puts them in their place by saying that she has done a good thing, not a wasteful thing, in symbolic preparation for his burial. Perfume was used to mask the smell of death with an attractive aroma, a symbol of eternal life (Luke 23:56). Beauty is not waste. Christians, in their zeal for theology, often neglect the necessity for aesthetic beauty in their worldview.10
It could be said that the various Reformed strains of art that did survive the iconoclasm controversy did so in spite of the dominant voices of iconoclasts. Calvinists like Rembrandt would paint pictures of Christ despite the accusation by many that this was a violation of the Second Commandment. Calvinist Print Publisher, Claes Jansz Visscher, published Bibles heavily illustrated with engravings in an attempt to help people understand the stories better, as well as political prints against the iconoclasts.11 The famous engraver, Albrecht Dürer, a Lutheran, was praised by many Calvinists, yet, his view was in some ways unlike Calvin’s. Where Calvin considered the ear to be superior to the eye as a means of receiving God’s word,12 Dürer was more balanced in his Lutheran view that both are necessary to our reality and relationship with God. Dürer wrote:
The art of painting is made for the eyes, for sight is the noblest sense… A thing you behold is easier of belief than [one] that you hear; but whatever is both heard and seen we grasp more firmly and lay hold on more securely. I will therefore continue the word with the work and thus I may be the better understood.13
Dürer had it right. Both word and image were necessary. Perhaps what Calvin missed in his reactionary logocentrism was that the ear was just as much a sense organ as the eye.14 Hearing the word was just as much a sensate experience as seeing it. The ear is no more transcendent than the eye. Both ear and eye are a God-ordained sensate part of how we interact with Him. After all, one must use their eyes to read the Bible just as surely as they use them to read a painting. A preacher preaching his sermon of God’s Word with all its visual communication through body language, expression, verbal tone and other homiletical rhetoric, is simply a one-man play or dramatic performance, in so many words, a work of art.15
This false separation of the senses leads to a matter/spirit dualism in some Reformed theology that reflects the very secular/sacred dichotomy that Reformers debunked. In his application of the Second Commandment against veneration of images, Calvin, says, “‘God should be adored in spirit’ and not through material things.”16 For Calvin and others, spirituality was defined in internal invisible terms (transcendence) and worldliness or immaturity was defined in external visual terms (immanence). Thus transcendence and immanence were at odds with one another just as the eye and ear were. And most of the Reformers went with transcendence.
The Bible affirms both the transcendence and immanence of God as equally ultimate, many times in the very same passage. For instance, Paul, when preaching to the pagans on Mars Hill says, at the same time, “God does not dwell in temples made with hands” (transcendence) and “in Him we live and move and exist” (immanence) (Acts 17:24, 28). In the Old Testament Jeremiah 23:23 asks rhetorically, “Am I a God who is near” (immanence), declares the LORD, and not a God far off?” (transcendence). Col. 1:16-17 says that all things were created “by him, through him, for him” (transcendence) – “and in him all things hold together” (immanence). So a theology, including an aesthetic, should maintain an equal ultimacy between transcendence and immanence or it is not true to the Scriptures, even if it is true to the Institutes of the Christian Faith.
- Michalski, The Reformation and the Visual Arts, p. 40. ↩
- The Hudson River School of painters in the 19th Century is another movement that was influenced by some Reformed thinking. See Gene Edward Veith’s Painters of Faith for an excellent exploration of that rich tradition and its profound impact on landscape painting. ↩
- Dyrness, Reformed Theology, p. 124. Also, Philip Benedict, “Calvinism as a Culture?” in Paul Corby Finney, Seeing Beyond the Word, p. 31. ↩
- Paul Corby Finney, Seeing Beyond the Word, p. 8. ↩
- Ibid, 79. ↩
- John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, Exodus 31. (Albany, OR: Ages Software, Version 1.0, 1998). ↩
- M.Ramsay, Calvin and Art: Considered in Relation to Scotland (Edinburgh, England, The Moray Press, 1938), p. 13. ↩
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1:11:12 (AGES Software • Albany, OR USA Version 1.0 © 1998). ↩
- Michalski, The Reformation and the Visual Arts, p. 69; and Philip Benedict, “Calvinism as a Culture?” in Paul Corby Finney, Seeing Beyond the Word, p. 28. ↩
- See Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art (United Kingdom, Piquant Press 2000), pp. 1-5. ↩
- Ilja M. Veldman, “Protestantism and the Arts: Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Netherlands,” in Paul Corby Finney, Seeing Beyond the Word, p. 417. ↩
- Michalski, The Reformation and the Visual Arts, p. 65. ↩
- As quoted in Margaret R. Miles, Image as Insight, p. 116. ↩
- Dyrness, Reformed Theology, p. 69. ↩
- Ibid,, p. 121. ↩
- Michalski, The Reformation and the Visual Arts, p. 65. ↩