Art of the Reformation and Counter-Reformationby Rit Nosotro
Describe the differences between the art spawned by the Protestant Reformation verses the Catholic Counter-Reformation. What caused these differences?
This disparity between Protestant and Catholic art sprang from two divergent world views which were revealed in the art each produced.
-During the Middle Ages art was focused almost exclusively on religious content
-The reformation sparked leaders such as John Calvin and Huldreich Zwingli to encourage the iconoclastic movement
-As a result of the Council of Trent art was regulated in Southern Europe so as to maintain strictly religious content
-Catholics only painted religious symbols and depictions
-Due to the idea that all of life can bring glory to God, Protestants depicted all areas of life in their art
Between 1450 and 1550, a potent force emerged in Europe which would rapidly divide the entire continent, causing a rift between its northern and southern countries. This force was the Reformation. After Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, it took relatively little time for northern Europe's nations to become primarily Protestant, while the southern countries retained and strengthened their Catholic identities during the Counter-Reformation. Art became a great source of disagreement between the Protestants and Catholics, and a great disparity emerged between the art produced in the North and South. This disparity sprang from two divergent world views which were revealed in the art each produced.
Discerning the contrasting world views behind Reformation and Counter-Reformation art requires knowledge of the events that led to the distinction between the two. During the Middle Ages art had focused almost exclusively on religious content, and it often employed symbolism instead of depicting realistic scenes. (For example, the use of the halo over a saint was extremely common during the Middle Ages.) With the coming of the Renaissance much of this changed as humanists-including Michelangelo and da Vinci-began painting realistic scenes which focused on "ideal man" rather than on religious content. Once the Reformation began, Protestant leaders such as John Calvin and Huldreich Zwingli encouraged iconoclastic1 movements, which denounced Catholic imagery as idolatrous and called for its destruction. However, the Protestants did not condemn all art-they chiefly opposed the Catholic religious art, to which Catholics of the time gave reverence.
In response to the threat of Protestantism and its iconoclasm, Pope Paul III summoned church leaders to the Council of Trent, which convened periodically between 1545 and 1563. This council succeeded in instituting some reforms in the Catholic Church, including the prohibition of the sale of indulgences.2 but it also firmly reasserted many Catholic doctrines and took a more aggressive stance toward "heresy."3 This led to the Counter-Reformation, during which the Catholic Church cracked down on any hint of "heresy" and created institutions such as the Universal Inquisition to strictly enforce adherence to the Catholic faith.4 This severity regulated the arts, forcing the Catholic painters of the South to return to the medieval tradition of producing strictly religious art, which greatly distinguished them from the Protestant painters of the North.
In fact, content was the main contrast between the art of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. While Protestant artists occasionally painted scenes from the Bible, they often painted ordinary people performing every-day activities.5 Sometimes they even portrayed simple scenes from nature.6 It was in northern Europe during the Reformation that portrait-painting became popular. These Protestant types of painting, however, stood in stark contrast to the type of painting common among artists in the Catholic South during the Counter-Reformation. Although their works were now more realistic than medieval art and the use of symbolism had decreased, the Catholic artists did not paint common scenes. Instead they graphically portrayed the martyrdom of ideal-looking saints and painted the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ as ideal humans.7 Their paintings glorified Catholic traditions, the sacraments, and the saints.8 Clearly, the content of their work contrasted strongly with that of the northern Protestants' work.
What world views and ideas lay behind each type of art? Why did the Reformers seem to prefer secular art to religious art? Why did the Catholics see things differently? The main issue that the two groups disagreed on was the nature of the human relationship with God. While the Reformers believed that man could come directly to God through the finished work of Christ (because, as the great Reformer Martin Luther pointed out, all Christians are priests9), the Catholic Church saw a need for intermediaries, such as the saints and the Virgin Mary. As a result, Catholics of the time made images of the saints, of Mary, and of Jesus to which they gave reverence (although they insisted their reverence was not worship) because they believed these images would bring them closer to God. This veneration of images was similar to the Catholic practice of venerating relics, which they practiced because they believed God's power resided with the relics in a special way. The Catholic veneration of images sparked the iconoclastic movements of the Protestants. But at the heart of the issue were the different views about the human relationship with God.
Another issue also held significance in the shaping of the different types of art. This issue was the division of the "sacred" and the "secular." Apparently the Protestants realized that this division was artificial.10 God created people in His image, and all of our activities should be done to His glory.11 The Reformers recognized that God's calling to a "secular" vocation was no less legitimate or important than a call to be a missionary, and that an ordinary life could glorify God just as much as a life "in the ministry."12 By creating art with secular subjects, therefore, the Reformation artists could glorify God by portraying the natural beauty of His creation and by depicting people, who were created in His image. Many Protestants viewed this as the "pure and acceptable use" of art, which John Calvin sought.13 Catholics of the Counter-Reformation, however, did not share the Protestant view of art, as their paintings clearly revealed. For them art had to have religious or "sacred" content. It seems that this view may have sprung from the continuation of the monastic ideal (which was prevalent in the Middle Ages) of a life set apart and devoted to the "sacred," rather than from the Biblical view that all aspects of a Christian's life can glorify God. As a result, the Catholic artists produced radically different art than the Protestants.
In conclusion, the art of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation reflected two contrasting world views. The Protestant world view recognized that people could now "approach the Throne of Grace with confidence" 14 because of Christ's blood, and they attempted to "worship in spirit and in truth."15 The Catholics saw a need for intermediaries-as though Christ's work was not sufficient-and they fell into the trap of reverencing images rather than God alone. In addition, Protestants seemed to recognize that the division between "sacred" and "secular" was artificial, whereas the Catholics maintained the tradition of separation between the two. These two world views clashed during the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, creating art that focused on different themes and that demonstrated that ideas have consequences in the lives and actions of people.
The author did an excellent job of including a Biblical worldview. The author included appropriate Bible references where necessary and displayed a Christian worldview throughout the essay. The Catholics strictly regulated art to ensure it had only religious content. However, one can argue that all of life is sacred and that God is in all areas of life, so depictions of all areas of life can be sacred as well. It is also important to remember to worship the Creator and not the created. The Catholics reverence for saints and relics could be considered worshipping the created rather than the Creator. If the author wanted to improve upon their Biblical integration they could include how Catholic and Protestant art furthered the Kingdom of God and how it might have detracted from it
Up1The iconoclast movements destroyed art such as stained glass windows, pipe organs, and pictures of the saints in an attempt to prevent the idolatry of venerating images, which was practiced at the time.
Up2Indulgences were documents which the church sold that were supposed to grant forgiveness of sin and, therefore, reduce time in purgatory.
Up3This included the "heresy" of Protestantism.
Up4 "The Counter-Reformation," The Counter-Reformation and Baroque Art, http://www.bullis.org/edprograms/socialstudies/Counter-Reformation%20Baroque/counreform.htm (11 February 2004.) [unavailable when checked in May, 2008]
Up5Even the works which portrayed Biblical scenes generally depicted the characters as ordinary people in very real settings, rather than idealizing them and using symbolism as in the Middle Ages.
Up6Albrecht Dürer, for example, painted some such scenes.
Up8"The Impact of the Counter-Reformation on Art: Baroque Art in Catholic Europe (Italy, France, Belgium)," http://oak.conncoll.edu/~rwbal/Textbook4Sale/CounterReformation.doc (11 February 2004.) [unavailable when checked in May, 2008]
Up 9See 1 Peter 2:4-10
Up 10Gene Edward Veith, "The Reformation and the Arts," Modern Reformation.org 3, no. 6 (1994) http://www.modernreformation.org/mr94/NovDec/mr9406reformationarts.html (11 February 2004). [unavailable when checked in May, 2008]
Up 11"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through him." Colossians 3:17 (NIV)
Up13"I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible, but because sculpture and paintings are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each." John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Quoted by Veith, "The Reformation and the Arts."
Up 14Hebrews 4:16 (NIV)
Up 15John 4:24 (NIV)
"The Counter-Reformation," The Counter-Reformation and Baroque Art, http://www.bullis.org/edprograms/socialstudies/Counter-Reformation%20Baroque/counreform.htm (11 February 2004.) [unavailable when checked in May, 2008]
"The Impact of the Counter-Reformation on Art: Baroque Art in Catholic Europe (Italy, France, Belgium)." http://oak.conncoll.edu/~rwbal/Textbook4Sale/CounterReformation.doc (11 February 2004.) [unavailable when checked in May, 2008]
Veith, Gene Edward."The
Reformation and the Arts."Modern Reformation.org 3, no. 6 (1994).
February 2004.) [unavailable when checked in May, 2008]
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