The Reformation

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The Reformation



Printed Propaganda. In their desire to make the Bible the primary medium of spiritual understanding and experience, Protestant reformers presented a profound challenge to visual arts and to the livelihood that many artists drew from ecclesiastical commissions. At the same time, reformers were extremely adept at using new print technologies to popularize their ideas and win adherents to their cause. Cheaply produced woodcuts and broadsheets allowed Reformers to disseminate evangelical theology to a marginally literate populace. In Germany, Martin Luther worked directly with artists sympathetic to Reformed theology, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), to create didactic prints that explained theology through text and image. One popular format presented contrasting images of Catholic and Protestant practices and beliefs, usually with Catholic practices on the left (or sinister side) and Protestant on the right.


I approached the task of destroying images by first tearing them out of the heart through God’s word and making them worthless and despised. This indeed took place before Dr. Karlstadt ever dreamed of destroying images. For when they are no longer in the heart, they can do no harm when seen with the eyes. But Dr. Karlstadt, who pays no attention to matters of the heart, has reversed the order by removing them from sight and leaving them in the heart . . . .

I have allowed and not forbidden the outward removal of images, so long as this takes place without rioting and uproar and is done by the proper authorities. . . . And I say at the outset that according to the law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden. Heigh now! you breakers of images, I defy you to prove the opposite! . . .

Thus we read that Moses’ Brazen Serpent remained (Num. 21:8) until Hezekiah destroyed it solely because it had been worshiped (II Kings 18:4)....

However, to speak evangelically of images, I say and declare that no one is obligated to break violently images even of God, but everything is free, and one does not sin if he does not break them with violence. One is obEgated, however, to destroy them with the Word of God; that is, not with the law in a Karlstadtian manner, but with the Gospel . . . . Beyond this let the external matters take their course. God grant that they may be destroyed, become dilapidated, or that they remain. It is all the same and makes no difference, just as when the poison has been removed from a snake. . . .

Nor would I condemn those who have destroyed them, especially those who destroy divine and idolatrous images. But images for memorial and witness, such as crucifixes and images of saints, are to be tolerated. This is shown above to be the case even in the Mosaic law. And they are not only to be tolerated, but for the sake of the memorial and the witness they are praiseworthy and honorable, as the witness stones of Joshua (Josh. 24:26) and of Samuel (I Sam. 7:12).

Source: Wolfgang Steehow, Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600: Sources and Documents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966), pp. 129-130.

Stock Images. Catholic polemicists quickly took up the counteroffensive, using printed pamphlets and broadsheets to expose the dangerous errors of Protestantism. Both Catholic and Protestant artists satirized the religious practices, beliefs, and ringleaders of the opposition by drawing on popular cultural codes and iconographic traditions that required little textual explanation and could be readily comprehended by illiterate as well as literate viewers. Hydra-headed monsters and dragons dressed in papal regalia, which recalled the apocalyptic drama recounted in the book of Revelation, allowed Protestant propagandists to identify the Pope with the Antichrist. Polemicists on both sides of the religious divide used grotesque figures, such as slack-jawed demons and she-devils devouring (or sometimes defecating on) figures dressed in clerical garb, to defame and demonize the rival faith. Images that elided the human form with animals relied on a complex matrix of literary conventions from low and high culture for their potency. Popular proverbs and fables provided models for anticlerical satires, often showing a fox or wolf in clerical

garb preaching to geese or hens. Humanists’ aversion to any gesture, feature, or image that exposed the animal side of human nature made these images a particularly potent form of debasement. Printmakers also devised ingenious visual strategies to ridicule the opposition. In the folding print a soberly dressed theologian, clearly identifiable as Luther, was literally undressed when viewers lifted the tab to reveal the illustrious reformer urinating. Scatological prints such as this one were extremely popular and effective polemical tools that reduced revered figures to the lowest common denominator—what the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called the “material bodily principle.”

Iconoclasm and Social Disorder. Most mainstream Protestant reformers were vehement in their denunciation of the veneration of relics, images, and liturgical objects that lay at the heart of medieval devotion, but they rarely supported popular efforts to purify religious space by removing, breaking, or defacing idolatrous images such as statues, paintings, or stained glass in local churches. In a tract titled Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments (1525), Luther denounced the iconoclastic excesses of his colleague Bodenstein von Karlstadt (Andreas Rudolf Bodenstein). He defined his view on the question of images to the great relief of artists, such as Albrecht Diirer, who were otherwise drawn to Reformed teachings. In characteristic fashion Luther drafted a response which emphasized that the war against idols was to be waged by words on the battlefield of the heart and not in the streets and churches of German villages and towns. Later reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, were more radical in their denunciation of saints’ images, but they still condemned iconoclastic violence as the most egregious expression of social disorder.

Ritual Violence. Clerical censure did little to stem the groundswell of popular fury against the idols of the old faith. For many iconoclasts all objects in Catholic churches, from altar lamps and eucharistic chalices to freestanding sculptures and crucifixes, were cultic objects that perpetuated false idols and therefore needed to be purged from the church. Iconoclastic riots, however, were rarely random acts of violence. Most emulated elaborate ritual forms, deeply embedded in the vocabulary and symbolism of popular culture. Carnival-like processions and inversion rituals, which mocked the liturgical traditions of the medieval church, stripped religious artifacts and images of their sacred power. In sixteenth-century Germany and Switzerland crucifixes as well as saints’ relics and images were smashed, dismembered, and in one instance even smeared with cow’s blood, to demonstrate that they were merely human creations of wood, metal, or stone. Sometimes, in rituals that mocked judicial rites of judgment, icons were condemned, mutilated, and then executed for their many crimes against the Christian community. In Switzerland and Germany, rioters expressed their frustration with the spiritual economy of medieval Christianity when they explained that the statues they smashed were voracious idols that consumed financial resources that should have been directed toward the sustenance of the poor rather than material maintenance of the Church.

Musical Traditions. In their desire to elevate the Word, Protestant reformers also opposed the rich musical traditions of the medieval church. The highly ornamented, contrapuntal motet perfected by Renaissance composers juxtaposed voices against each other, obscuring the text in favor of spectacular vocal splendor and beauty. Moreover, medieval and Renaissance church music was composed in Latin to be sung by trained singers or clerics as part of a liturgy that many Protestant reformers rejected. Sixteenth-century Reformers favored hymns in the vernacular, often drawn directly from biblical texts such as the Psalms. They were often set to popular drinking songs and lullabies so everyone could easily sing them. Singing, along with sermons, became one of the identifiable features of Reformed liturgy. For more sober Calvinists, the popular provenance of Lutheran hymns and melodies rendered them somewhat suspect. The Psalms of David at the heart of the Calvinist psalter or songbook were a powerful vehicle of the Protestant faith, expressing the certainty of divine protection and providence.


Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Craig Harbison, The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context (New York: Abrams, 1995).

Edward Muir, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Bob Scribner, For the Sake of the Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Lee Palmer Wandel, Voracious Idols and Violent Hands (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

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The Reformation

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