The cultural historian, Will Durant, once wrote that a clash between the Protestant Reformation and art was inevitable, just because the Reformers believed the Ten Commandments. Apparently, Durant thought that the Decalogue counted for next to nothing in late medieval Catholicism—which is far from true! Thus, the question of what the Reformation meant for the arts is clouded by polemic.

Art Patronage: Religious and Public

There are stereotypes to be overturned all around. On the one hand, late medieval Catholicism was the primary patron of the arts throughout the middle ages. We still marvel at religious works of art (e.g. Leonardo’s “Last Supper”) as well as architecture from this era. Yet already in the 1400s, the rise of the wealthy entrepreneurial class in the north Italian city states (which grew rich by Mediterranean trade) brought into being a second line of patronage for the arts. Wealthy bankers, merchants, and manufacturers could now commission portraits, sculptures, and murals  on religious and personal themes that almost rivaled the patronage offered by the late medieval church. An artist such as Michelangelo depended on artistic commissions of both kinds.

Now, upheaval in the Christian world bearing on the role of art in religious buildings would have as its practical consequence the enlarging of the need for private commissioning of works of art. In the regions of northern and western Europe where the Reformation took hold (areas that underwent a re-evaluation of the role of art) there was going to be an awkward transition from the old system of patronage to the new. Already in 1526, Erasmus—then dwelling in Basel—wrote letters of reference on behalf of that city’s Holbein the Younger on account of the scarcity of commissions to be found in that Reformed city. Holbein was shortly kept very busy in Tudor England where, given the still-glacial advance of Protestantism, commissions both religious and public were not so hard to find.

Art and the Reformation ‘Turnstile’

Protestantism—both Lutheran and Reformed—did make the arts (including drama) pass through a kind of a “turnstile.” Whereas formerly, it had been accepted that religious art found legitimation by functioning as the “Bible of the unlearned,” this dictum now came under a double scrutiny. First, it was fairly asked whether what religious art (in stone, wood, marble or oils) depicted was in fact taught by the Bible. And the answer settled on was very often in the negative. Religious art that made no distinction between fictional characters in the OT Apocrypha and actual biblical characters, religious art that depicted Christian heroes and heroines as objects of devotion and as lesser intercessors with God, and religious art that afforded to Mary a role beyond that warranted in the Scriptures could not, reliably, serve as the “Bible of the unlearned.” Such art did not pass the “teaching” test. Second, as in Protestant territories literacy mushroomed with a speed no one had anticipated (much like the mushrooming of internet access today), the old traditional argument in favor of religious art in glass, marble, wood, and oils had outlived its time. Europeans could read the biblical text for themselves; the didactic use of art was thereby diminished.

Intra-Protestant Differences

There were at the same time differences of opinion among Protestants. In Lutheran Saxony, religious art of the customary kind continued to be created in the usual media of wood, ceramic, and oils provided that it met the test of biblical fidelity. From this era we date the altar-pieces of Lucas Cranach. The Lutheran approach was that it was enough if religious art did not contravene some major biblical principle, such as the commandment against the veneration of images. Contrary to much popular understanding, “iconoclasm”—the destruction of religious art and images—was fairly limited in Lutheran territories. Luther understood correctly that this destruction, if encouraged, would utterly undermine the Reformation’s attempts to show that it meant to purify the Christianity that had been received, rather than to start utterly again.

However, in territories of Switzerland (beginning with Zurich) a much more austere standard began to be employed. In spite of his Christian humanist education and pronounced musical skills, Ulrich Zwingli was determined to uproot art and music from Christian places of worship. He had imbibed the burgeoning neo-Platonist outlook (one finds this also in Erasmus), which led to the conclusion that in the worship of God, all that was required was the pure Word of God and a responsive human heart. At Zurich, the city council listened to Zwingli and then authorized the removal of the organ from the Grossmunster (where Zwingli ministered). Church frescoes and murals were whitewashed over. Zwingli even favored the removal of the silver communion service and its replacement by lathe-turned wooden ware. There was no singing in Zurich’s Reformed church until the 1580s (when Zwingli had been off the scene for half a century).  At work here was what has come to be called the “regulative principle”, i.e. the principle that what is not positively mandated by the Scripture as necessary for the Christian may not be made obligatory. Religious art was still permissible, but only at home. The same held true for music. And this was the approach that spread from Zurich to Bern and from Bern to Geneva. Bern assisted the Genevans to declare for the Reformation in 1535-1536.

John Calvin’s approach at Geneva in the period 1536-1538 was rather like Zwingli’s. Though he would not encourage the destruction of religious art at the hands of private citizens, he was happy enough to see it go when the cantonal council approved of the measure. The fear of the misrepresentation of the invisible God by images of human devising was real and heartfelt. But Calvin’s sojourn at Strasbourg in the years 1538-1541 served to broaden his perspective somewhat. It was in this other city, apparently, that Calvin first heard congregational singing, and when he returned (reluctantly) to Geneva in 1541 it was not long before he introduced congregational singing into the canton’s churches. Eventually, the Geneva Psalter became a religious best-seller across Francophone regions of northern Europe; it was also adapted for use in other European tongues. As for the plastic arts and for painting, Calvin allowed that while they were gifts of God, he could see no place for them in places of worship.

Iconoclasm was a much larger issue for the Reformed—especially in the regions of northern Europe where governments (civic or national) would give no protection to the legal practice of Protestantism. Persecuted Protestants in France and in the Spanish Netherlands vented their sense of injustice (against the intense religious persecution they received) at Catholic religious art especially in the 1560s. Yet with the gradual granting of a measure of toleration towards Protestantism in these regions by late century, iconoclasm abated. The Netherlands soon became an artistic “hotbed” for gifted persons associated with the Reformed religion; before long it was possible to have artistic representations of Moses with the two tables of the law, in churches.

The Reformation in its various forms did bring about biblical accountability for the arts. But we are still wrestling today with the dilemma of whether the Reformation was not more successful in identifying the potential snares that the arts represent for the Christian than in articulating any positive role the arts might fulfill.