Above: The Iconoclasm by Frans Hogenberg (1566)

To say that today our world is a vast sea of images is not an understatement. Neither is it to say that we spend a lot of our time consuming images on a daily basis. For instance in 2017, Facebook (the most used social site in the world) averages 136,000 image uploads per minute. YouTube (the world’s leading video sharing website) averages some 3 million views in the same 60 second time frame. Those of us who are tech and social media savvy will spend on average 35 minutes out of our day to upload, view and comment on images. learn more>

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and bet that very little of what our eyeballs were exposed to today had anything to do with or was connected to a faith practice.

We are far more likely to see a post of our friend’s picture-perfect breakfast than an image of Jesus talking with his disciples.

You may not realize it, but a big part of this reality comes out of a little thing called the Protestant Reformation. You see, back in 1517 (Western culture) most images had one of two purposes:

  1. Record Biblical scenes, individuals, and Christian saints or convey a moral lesson
  2. Record images of important individuals of the ruling/upper class

Most artists at that time relied on commissions from the church to make a living. Money could also be made off of wealthy families looking to secure salvation through the purchase and donation of art pieces to the local parish. But that whole system began to change once the Reformation mindset began to take root. Everything about images in the church came into question.

  • What purpose do images serve?
  • How do they help us?
  • How do they hinder us?
  • What should we do with them?

Ultimately, many Protestant groups chose to wipe the slate clean, even squeaky clean – no images allowed!

The Good and Bad of It All

The GOOD list:

  1. The greatest GOOD of the Reformation was the pure and simple rediscovery of the gospel message: We are saved by God’s grace through faith alone. Martin Luther experienced a momentous awakening upon reading from Romans 1:17: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Proclaiming this message to the masses became easier in settings stripped of the finery and adornment of what church and cathedral represented. The making or buying of images to secure salvation was no longer acceptable or deemed appropriate according to the new Protestant believers.
  2. With religious images out of the way, Creation took center stage and became the place to meet God and experience His presence.
  3. Artists were no longer shackled to making religious art only – now they could work free of the church’s bondage to paint things like landscapes and still-lifes with no specified religious reason to do so.

“There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice” – John Calvin.

The BAD list:

  1. The whole of Christianity’s rich icon-making tradition was declared “idolatrous” (more on this in a later post)
  2. Artist’s were restricted or outright rejected in contributing to worship settings and practices. The making of art moved from the “sacred” realm to “secular” where it largely remains today.
  3. The desire for Protestant groups to re-embrace visual worship components has been slow and limited.

A few words you may not have heard before

Iconoclasm is the act of rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical. An iconoclast is the individual who is doing the destruction or rejection.

What happened during the Protestant Reformation was a questioning and rejection of many of the ideas the institution of the Roman Catholic Church upheld. This soon included all manner of images housed in the churches and cathedrals across the empire – statues, paintings, mosaics, stained glass, etc. This was not the first time in history something like this had taken place. During the 8th and 9th centuries, iconoclasm was far more widespread. Back then, reigning Roman emperors declared all Christian images to be idols. Soldiers carried out searches and destroyed whatever they found. The issue was so heated, when a well-known image of Christ located over the palace gate in Constantinople was torn down around 730AD, crowds rioted. There was even much loss of life as monasteries (who tried to hide images) were raided and monks put to death.

A desire to defend religious images

Naturally, being an artist and a visual communicator, it should not come to any surprise that I would support the return of images to our Christian vernacular and daily life. Over the centuries, many, many arguments have been heard both for and against the inclusion of images in the lives of believers. Here are three arguments made by theologians for the inclusion of images in our worship spaces and practices for you to ponder:

  1. Images are a way to record the faith. We can record the saints and portray the works of God (both from Scripture and in the lives of believers). St. John of Damascus speaks to this point: “[The devil] does not want his defeat and shame to be spread abroad, nor the glory of God and his saints to be recorded.” Martin Luther made much effort to include images in his translation of the Bible into German so that he could meet his calling to bring Scripture to the common man, to create a “layman’s Bible.” Luther said this: “One cannot present God’s words and works to the common man too much or too often. Even if one sings and speaks, proclaims and preaches, writes and reads, paints and draws, Satan and his cohorts are always strong and alert for hindering and suppressing them.”
  2. Jesus was a real human being – it’s that simple. He walked, talked and was seen by thousands of individuals both while he was alive and resurrected from the dead. St. John of Damascus declared that “when the Invisible became visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness.” We enjoy celebrating the coming if Christ to earth as a man (at Christmas). Just as we preserve images of our family, friends, and ancestors, we can also cherish an image of our Savior, Emmanuel – God with us.
  3. Images are not in themselves bad or idols – the making of an image or anything else into an idol happens in the heart and not before the eyes. Luther believed that we experience faith on an intellectual level through both thoughts and images formed in the mind, and that our capacity to imagine or “see” our faith is critical to our understanding.

Adding images into our faith with intentionality

It’s really not all bad that for many Reformation groups images were removed entirely from their faith practices.

If you’ve read the recent best-seller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, you know that Marie’s first instruction for organizing anything is to remove everything from the space you are addressing. When cleaning out your closet, for example, you take everything out and pile it on the floor or bed. Then, carefully and with intention, you handle each item asking yourself, “Does this bring me joy?” You put only the items to which you responded, “Yes, this brings me joy,” back into the closet.

Having the slate wiped clean by the Reformation, the images we bring back into our lives and spaces are those we have taken the time to consider in value and purpose. This series is a way for us to do that together. Your comments and questions as the weeks progress are welcome.

A Final thought

I find those statistics from the beginning of this article quite disturbing. We are a culture steeped in imagery, yet imagery that inspires, teaches and accompanies our faith practice is limited if not non-existent. I leave you with another quote from Martin Luther to ponder for the week:

“I know for certain that God desires that one should hear and read his work, and especially the Passion of Christ. But if I am to hear or think, then it is impossible for me not to make images of this within my heart, for whether I want to or not, when I hear the word Christ there delineates itself in my heart a picture of a man who hangs on the cross, just as my face naturally delineates itself on the water, when I look into it. If it is not a sin, but a good thing that I have Christ’s image in my heart, why then should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?” – Martin Luther

What to expect with this series

In the weeks ahead we will be covering more of the story surrounding Martin Luther and other reformers and their thoughts on images. I will be taking you back to Christianity’s early days, a time when images were prevalent and their presence a tool for teaching and an aid to worship and prayer. I’ll walk you through important image concepts and how they set a foundation that even Renaissance artists acknowledged and built on in their work. We’ll travel also to the quiet lands of the Celts and explore the visual expressions of faith they developed during early centuries.

Michelle L Hofer

Hi, I'm Michelle…

A visual artist traveling the dusty roads of history and tradition searching for ENCOURAGEMENT, HOPE and WISDOM. My writings and art find inspiration at the crossroads of creativity and Divine Beauty.

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Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. — Jeremiah 6:16

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