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Bobbi Dykema

The story of Protestant visual art begins well before Luther posted the 95 Theses. It is a story bound up with iconoclastic revision and destruction as well as with new ways of telling the Christian story in a distinctly Protestant visual mode. In the centuries since the Reformation, artists have emphasized prophetic themes such as the peaceable kingdom, the abolition of slavery, the suffering of women, and the plight of the homeless.

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The reformers of the 16th century brought to the fore questions regarding sacred images that had arisen in the context of changes in society, religion, and art in the late Middle Ages. Late medieval Catholicism already produced warnings against idolatry in the cult of images, superstition, and the misuse of popular devotional practices for monetary gain. Reformation-era re-evaluations of sacred images arose primarily from three overlapping impulses: (1) the humanistic enlightenment and critique of external religion; (2) concern for the Scriptures, including the Old Testament prohibition against idolatrous images; and (3) the ethical complaint against ecclesiastical luxury and neglect of the poor. Some of the Reformers fostered a more or less complete iconoclasm (e.g., Karlstadt, Bucer, and Hätzer). Others had positive attitudes toward art in general, but had reservations about religious representations (Calvin). Yet others had more ambiguous attitudes. Zwingli thought that images are inherently dangerous because of the temptation to idolatry, but his position softened toward the end of his life. Luther’s ideas on sacred representations changed through his career from a somewhat negative to a fairly positive evaluation. He held that the Old Testament prohibition pertained only to idols, not to images themselves. His primary concern was that images and devotion to them could foster a spirituality of external works as the means to salvation. This problem could be met by uniting images with texts and stressing their didactic function. The Council of Trent dealt with sacred art in 1568. The Council agreed with the reformers that abuses were possible in the cult of the saints and in the use of art, and also that much of the art itself was “inappropriate” for sacred use because of its worldliness. However, its decree insisted on the validity and usefulness of images and their veneration. The decree of Trent did not give specific guidelines for sacred art, but only general principles, leaving implementation in the hands of bishops. The vagueness of Trent’s decree made room for a wide range of practical judgments about what was “appropriate” or “fitting” in sacred art. But in the second half of the 16th century, several bishops and theologians wrote treatises on painting to guide artists. The Tridentine reforms, although put into practice in varied ways, included several general characteristics: (1) elimination of “sensual” and secular elements from sacred art; (2) faithfulness to Scripture and tradition; (3) concern for doctrine and devotion above artistry; (4) use of art as a means of education, indoctrination, and propaganda; (5) the valuing of visual naturalism; (6) polemical concentration on contested dogmatic themes in content; and (7) the sensual as a means of entry into the spiritual. With the advent of the Baroque in the later stages of the Counter-Reformation, a spirit of triumph prevailed. Art that was pleasing to the senses brought an atmosphere of spiritual exaltation. Baroque art was purposefully theatrical, artful, and dramatic. An unintended result of the image controversies was the separation of sacred and secular art and the formulation of separate criteria for each.