Above: Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar (1500) by Albrecht Dürer – detail

If I were a better lyricist I would have attempted writing a full verse on the Reformation’s war on images for Billy Joel’s, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” It could start something like:

Martin Luther, Karlstadt, John Calvin, Zwingli
Wittenberg, Black Madonna, Crucifixes, Cranach
Protestant, Catholic, Turn the idols upside down…you get the gist.

If you don’t know the song, the chorus goes like this:

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it

That’s the song that’s come into my head while reading a book I came across in researching this blog series: The Reformation and the Visual Arts – The Protestant Image Question in Western and Eastern Europe (1993) by Polish author, Sergiusz Michalski. This book has been another goldmine for information on the movers and shakers of what all went down over the issue of images during the Reformation. It is quite extensive while the author admits that the full picture of all the various causes or effects (especially long-term) of the Reformation’s iconoclasm (war on images) has yet to be revealed. What we know at this juncture is how the writings and words of reformers, though unaware at the start, sparked and fueled the fire that been “burning since the world’s been turning.”

This war on images played a role in forming new political divides between Protestants and Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, and Calvinists and Lutherans. Images were at the heart of controversies that led to violence and warfare, conflicts that have caused long-standing oppositions. It was not beyond the tactics of authorities to provoke or instigate war using images. For example: “In Poland…there were cases where crucifixes were intentionally placed in the area of villages belonging to heretics so that the removal or destruction of theses holy objects could serve as a pretext for the church-state machine to undertake repressive measures.”

Calvin Says No…Sort Of

There is yet one reformer I have not much touched on – John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland. Those who follow the teachings of Calvin (even today) tend to be the strictest when it comes to art in the worship space or even any type of religious art. I grew up in such a church, and I had great difficulty reconciling my faith with my artistic talent. Take it from me, it’s incredibly hard to be an artist/believer in an environment that excludes your gift from use and service in the Body of Christ. It’s too bad Calvin did not have a relationship with an artist like Martin Luther had with Lucas Cranach – perhaps he would have seen things differently.

In Calvin’s arguments against images, his main point is how offensive these are to the divine majesty of God who cannot in any way be represented in visual form. Calvin understands God as a spirit-being only – one who can only be comprehended through the words of Scripture and those who preach this truth. Giuseppe Scavizzi points to the imbalance in Calvin’s theology when he says:

In Calvin the ear seems to acquire an almost divine connotation, the eye only a human and earthly one…In fact for Calvin the ear stands for the soul, the eye for the senses. – Sergiusz Michalski, p. 65

According to Michalski, Calvin also created a confusing situation for followers concerning the place for images:

Certainly, it is permissible to make use of images; however, God wishes his temple to be freed of images. If in a secular place, however, we have a portrait or a representation of animals, this is not harmful to religion…even idols kept in such places are not worshiped. – Sergiusz Michalski, p. 71

I really am at a loss as to how Calvin envisioned this dichotomy to work on a practical level. What did Calvin expect this to look like? Perhaps if this thinking had caught on (which it very much did not!), I would be meeting my friends at the “Holy Trinity Bar and Grill” and shopping at the “Mother of Tenderness Mall”.

Machalski writes: “Calvinist churches were stripped of visual elements, only tablets with inscriptions from the Bible remaining. Though Calvin, somewhat contradictorily, allowed the keeping of holy images in private homes, his numerous negative pronouncements and the impact of his whole system predetermined their reduction in this case too. On the other hand, he left an open field for narrative biblical scenes – especially from the Old Testament – and for secular art. Of decisive importance was the removal of works of art from the sacral sphere, from places of worship; in profane places an image took on an entirely different meaning.” (emphasis mine)

Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin’s hometown, did not have a prominent art scene in his day. It was not the art-centric place that other cities or areas of Europe such as the Netherlands or Northern Germany had become. So when Calvin came to his own conclusions about the connection between visual art and worship, it was not met with the kind of opposition that, for example, Andreas Karlstadt experienced in Wittenberg. Calvin’s message fell on the ears of an audience already not much interested or heavily involved in the visual arts, and in 1580 when Geneva banned the production and printing of all biblical imagery was anyone surprised?

Calvin’s Conundrum

We speak of the foolish deed which was performed at Sauve in burning idols and pulling down a cross. We are very much surprised at such temerity in a man whose duty it was to moderate and restrain others. For, as we have heard, he not only gave his consent to the deed (which was already too bad a thing) but he stirred up the people, being the most mutinous of all… – John Calvin, writing in 1561 on the actions of a French Calvinist preacher

Near the end of his life, however, Calvin was faced with the ugliness of what his theology had fueled. At that time, Calvin was associated with negotiations that were happening between French Catholics and French Protestants, the Huguenots, on the question of images. “In 1561 news of the great iconoclastic campaigns in France began to reach Geneva. Calvin was shocked both by the fact of widespread, armed iconoclasm and by the many scandalous episodes connected with it.” (Michalski, p. 73) Those negotiations?…well, that all just burned to the ground now, didn’t it?

It’s as if the dragon unleashed in Wittenberg by Andreas Karlstadt just ate a handful of magic beans fed to it by John Calvin…now the beast was quickly ballooning to 20 times it’s original size. Welcome to the fairy-tale turned horror flick.

Calvin would have also been shocked to learn how Calvinist-leaning city councils and other ruling authorities alienated (and at times incited) their Lutheran constituency by aggressively pressuring them to adopt Calvinist practices through the removal of images from their worship spaces. Some of these authorities, “in secret and often at night,” actually destroyed images and interior decoration of churches and chapels or did not allow for restitution of damage and loss when it happened. This “process of forced Calvinization of Lutheran territories in the years 1560-1619” in order to achieve and “idol-less” state has been termed the “Second Reformation.” This time period also saw roaming bands of iconoclasts who went village to village leaving a wake of stripped chapels.

“There was an inconsiderate zeal in devastating the temples as they have done…in the heat of passion.” – John Calvin, commenting on the iconoclasm in Lyon, France which took place on May 13, 1562

Turned upside-down and made to face the wall
Smeared with manure
Spattered with cow’s blood
Noses hacked off
Eyes gouged out
Hands broken off
Heads decapitated
Thrown into latrines, wells, lakes or rivers
Pierced with swords
Hacked to bits
Thrown into the fire
Hung from the gallows
Ritually burned at the stake
Animal horns and other body parts nailed on
Heckled and taunted: If you are God defend yourself, if you are human bleed!
Drug by rope through dirt and mire
Accused of demon-possession
Tried, drowned and burned like a witch

For those intent on destruction of idols, passion did indeed surge such that cruelty was not spared, hatred was deployed, and mockery ensued. For others, including the aged Calvin, these happenings were traumatic and shameful. In a village in Ulm, a man pleaded with iconoclasts to wait just a few days so his mother could die that she might be spared from knowing such a tragedy had befallen her church. And for whole groups of people and even nations, pain grew into resentment as a result.

The Black Madonna of Poland

Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland

Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland

Of course, the attack on images meant there was an increase of stories among Catholics pertaining to miracles associated with certain icon works of art – their treasured works of art becoming that much more precious and beloved. The best known example during the days of the Reformation was that of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland. This image one of the many said to have been painted by the gospel-writer Luke – it has a long history and many miraculous stories accompany this ancient art piece. It remains one of Christianity’s well-known artworks.

Here is some of the Black Madonna’s story from the Orthodox Church of America’s fine online library of articles:

…followers of John Hus attacked Czestochowa and plundered the monastery. When they attempted to carry the Czestochowa Icon away in a cart, the horses refused to move from the spot, held back by some invisible power. One of the Hussites became angry and threw the icon onto the ground, while another stabbed the face of the Virgin with his sword. The first man was struck dead, and the hand of the second man shriveled up.

The other invaders also suffered punishment from God. Some of them died on the spot, while others became blind. Although many of the monastery’s treasures were stolen by the Hussites, the wonderworking Czestochowa Icon was left behind.

Read more >

The Black Madonna bears two long gashes and puncture on her face from the sword of the Hussite and an earlier arrow. She is said to have been painted on a wooden tabletop built by Jesus, was given as a gift to Constantine by his mother Helen who acquired it during a visit to the Holy Land, found its way to Russia and then to Poland. It is normally displayed with a metal covering called a riza (Russian for robe) so that only the faces and hands of the original can be seen, these having become “blackened” by the burning of candles in front of it over the centuries. It is an example of the Hodegetria or “She Who Shows the Way” type of icon which we discussed in Part 9 of this series.

Final Thoughts

For artists in the midst of these attacks…well, I can’t imagine what they endured! How did they manage to keep their integrity or their wits about them? For these, the future seemed dim if not downright hopeless. Nuremberg artist Hans Greiffenberger summed it up perfectly.

…if the saints no longer matter, then we shall paint harlots and scoundrels… – Hans Greiffenberger

I totally get the cynicism in saying something like this considering all that was going on. I also know that under that cynicism there was the deep pain of bearing a gift that has been thrown into the toilet…and in some cases, literally.

Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar (1500) by Albrecht Dürer

Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar (1500) by Albrecht Dürer

I chose Albrecht Dürer’s self portrait as the cover image for this post for a couple reasons. First, it is highly unusual for portraits in his day – this full-frontal view was traditionally reserved for none other than portraying Jesus Christ. There is much controversy around Dürer’s decision to do this, but given his deep faith and later commitment to Protestant theology, especially Luther’s, I tend to lean towards the faith-centric explanations. Dürer may have chosen this pose as a depiction of the transformation of himself becoming Christ-like OR Dürer could be projecting his deep belief that artistic gifts are God-given, a point he found necessary to stress in the coming dark Reformation days of iconoclasm:

…painting [or any visual art form] – which requires great skill – is a gift of God. – Albrecht Dürer

I can’t see anything more important to our regaining of some art’s ground lost in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.

Second, Dürer’s gaze, the dark coloration, the intricate details all exude a strong sense of confidence – in this I read the kind of mind-set that will be needed for artists such as himself to ride the waves of iconoclasm. Dürer’s talent was exceptional, he stands as one of the most skilled artists the world has ever known. His body of work includes some of the most wonderful Christian art ever made. I find in this portrait he seems to say,

“Come on, stay strong, live your life worthy of the artistic calling you have been given, be true to God your Creator and Christ your Savior.”

Lastly, I’ll leave you with some questions to once again ponder:

  • Do you have some artistic abilities? Do you know someone who does?
  • Have you or they ever used them in a church context?
  • What opportunities does your local Christian community offer for those with artistic gifts?
  • How might you or your Christian community encourage budding artists to serve the church with their gifts?
  • What are the risks of trying to regain lost ground for art in Protestant circles?
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

Down an Ancient Path


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