Ever since the beginning of the Reformation, Protestants have had an uneasy relationship with art. Some would describe the relationship as downright antagonistic. Fueled by the purest of all motivators, righteous indignation, Protestants have typically turned up their noses at what they saw as the decadent, indecent, and at its worst, idolatrous art of the Catholic Church.
One particular group of extremely righteously indignant sixteenth century Calvinists (my people), sought to actually destroy the famous Ghent Altarpiece, which they deemed to have broken the Second Commandment. Channeling Moses’ wrath in pulverizing the golden calf, they stormed St. Bavo’s Cathedral multiple times, finally breaching the doors with a battering ram. Luckily, the priests had disassembled the altarpiece and hidden the panels in one of the towers. The bloodthirsty Calvinists apparently had to settle for smashing a few minor works of art here and there, and eventually departed without the satisfaction of destroying their own golden calf.
While this episode in the long history of iconoclasm makes for a good story, thankfully it is not indicative of early Protestantism’s view of art and its potential as a tool to promote this radical new strain of Christianity. One of the best examples of Protestants actually embracing fine art is the originator of the Protestant Reformation himself, Martin Luther. Luther was good friends with the acclaimed artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was employed at the time by Frederick the Wise—the man who protected Luther from the Pope after the Diet of Worms. Though Luther had clearly turned his back on the teachings of the Catholic Church, he still understood the power of images and frequently commissioned both paintings and woodcuts from his friend Cranach. Woodcuts dovetailed especially well with Luther’s desire to spread Protestantism, since his followers could reproduce them along with pamphlets and other texts using the (relatively recent) invention of the printing press.
Allegory of Law and Grace
One work of art that is quintessential to the Protestant Reformation is a woodcut version of a painting that Cranach completed in 1529, called Allegory of Law and Grace. The work is split half down the middle by a tree, dead on the left side, flourishing on the right, creating two separate scenes.
In the scene on the left, we see the main character, a naked man. This is the representation of the generic sinner. His nudity is symbolic of his sinfulness, differentiating it sharply from the sumptuous, humanistic, and often confusingly erotic nudes that Italian artists had been producing for the previous hundred years. He is being driven into the flames of Hell by a flaming skeleton (Death) and a horned, clawed creature one can only assume to be the Devil. In the background, we see a depiction of Adam and Eve, the ones who got him into this mess in the first place. Moses stands to the right, pointing at the Ten Commandments as if to say, “You broke this one, and this one a bunch of times, and remember that one time you broke all three of these at once…” At the top Christ sits in glory, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, who appear to be pleading the sinner’s case. Unfortunately for the sinner, Christ appears unmoved. The message is clear: if all we have is the Law, we’re damned. We have all failed to follow God’s Law perfectly, and therefore we all deserve condemnation.
The right side of the composition provides a much-needed pick-me-up. Our generic sinner is back again, standing next to John the Baptist, who is showing Mr. Everysinner the good news. He directs our attention to the images of salvation: the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. At the very top we can see the pre-incarnate baby Jesus, carrying his cross and gliding down rays of sunlight toward a waiting Virgin Mary standing atop the hill. Just below and to the left of baby Jesus, we see the angel proclaiming Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Working our way down the hill, we see the Crucifixion, Christ’s blood pouring out from his side and showering our sinner, and the Holy Spirit—seen in the familiar form of a dove—transmuting it into the water of baptism. Finally, at the base of the hill is the Resurrected Christ, standing in victory over Death and the Devil. There is also a depiction of the Old Testament scene of the Bronze Serpent in the background, seen as a precursor to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. The result: we are saved by grace through faith, not by any good works.
A Shift in Thinking
The art that the Catholic Church had been commissioning for the previous century was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, which largely sought to marry Christianity with ancient Greek humanism. This style reflected the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic faith, the awe-inspiring, miraculous relics, and the heroic actions of the saints and martyrs. It conveyed meaning through illusionistic, three-dimensional scenes, sumptuous colors, and the expressiveness of the human form. In general, it was designed to elicit emotional responses and transcendent experiences. Luther’s Reformation rendered all of this meaningless. He rejected the traditional experiential engagement with the Divine and moved toward a much more intellectual approach to understanding the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and how we fit in it all.
One can easily see this theological shift in Allegory of Law and Grace. Pathos has left the building. This work of art is all about logos. It conveys meaning not through soul-stirring drama or gut-wrenching realism, but through clearly articulated scenes that support Luther’s theological teachings. Cranach efficiently combines these scenes, each of which would typically be the star of its own work of art, into one concise composition. The entire story of salvation is right there in front of us. It appeals primarily to our heads, not our hearts. Cranach’s depiction of the nude man casts him not as an object lesson in the glories of the human form and, by extension, all that we are capable of as humans, but merely as a wretched sinner who is capable of nothing on his own, least of all his own salvation. Like many artists before and after, Cranach effectively draws viewers into the work. However, we are there not to be overwhelmed by the visuals in front of us, but rather to understand what Christ has done for us—that which we could never have done for ourselves.
Even though Luther clearly saw the value in art, in the centuries since his revolution Protestants have displayed a mostly ambivalent attitude toward the use of art in places of worship or devotion. We might see this best in the art of the Netherlands during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which there is a shift away from religious art patronage to that of the rising merchant class. Dutch Protestants sought to keep their places of worship free of images while filling their homes with images of landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. This is not to say that no one produced religious art during this time. The most famous of all Dutch painters, Rembrandt van Rijn, produced scores of paintings and etchings of Biblical scenes. However, this was not the dominant trend anymore, nor were these works commissioned by the Protestant Church.
Interestingly, the Protestant Reformation changed Catholic art as well. It was a wake-up call for the Pope and other church leaders to see thousands of believers leave the Catholic Church for Luther’s vision of a church free from indulgences and corruption. As a result, they made some reforms doctrinally, but artistically doubled down on the drama, giving way to the intensely theatrical sculptural work of Bernini and the unflinchingly realistic forms of Caravaggio. Where Reformation art made theological statements designed to change one’s mind, art of the Counter Reformation made a passionate plea to your soul, begging you to come back home to the transcendent.
However, for many Protestant churches the use of such images in a place of worship was just too close to idolatry, too much of a slippery slope towards breaking the Second Commandment. The interiors of these churches became more and more pristine. As Protestants pulled away from the art world, artists began fulfilling first other patrons’ desires and eventually their own, which has led to an enormous gulf between Protestant churches and the art world today. This discomfort with images in the church can still be seen in many American Protestant churches—at least in the ones I grew up attending. Admittedly, we were a bunch of Dutch Calvinists, so our sanctuary was so bereft of images that the primary childhood activity during long sermons was to count the bricks on the wall behind the pulpit. But we certainly never went so far as to storm the local Catholic church to destroy their altarpiece.
Contributor: Jason Oosting
Jason Oosting teaches Advanced Placement Art History at Montgomery High School, a class which covers everything from prehistoric to global contemporary art. He lives in Hopewell, NJ with his wife Shari, two sons Asher and Ezra, and two daughters Eli and Ada. He worships at Nassau Presbyterian Church where he also teaches adult education classes related to art history.