Summer/Fall  2000
Volume 5 Number 1

The Visual Arts in the Reformed Tradition

by Paul Corby Finney, professor emeritus of history, University of Missouri-St. Louis, and husband of Kathleen McVey, PTSís Joseph Ross Stevenson Professor of Church History

In art circles one occasionally hears the opinion expressed that the Reformed tradition is generally hostile to artistic creativity in the visual arts and in particular opposed to the pictorial arts, painting, and sculpture. While this perception is inaccurate in my view, it has some basis in fact. Actually the relationship between Reformed Christianity and the visual arts is a big subject with many parts, some of which support common perceptions, while others contradict or are at variance with the stereotypes. Because it is complex, this subject deserves a nuanced and extended analysis; unfortunately, this is not possible here. The most I can hope to achieve here is a sketch of what I take to be the fundamental issues.

Worship without Pictures

The purpose of the Reformed life is to know God and to glorify God in worship and obedience. True knowledge and true worship are part of a continuum, a seamless web. Worship is central to the Reformed lifeFigure 1:  Anon. Engraving 17.8 x 22 cm well-lived, and in Calvinís reading this means worship as free as possible from the taint of idolatry. Calvin believed all humans have a proclivity to sin, which he equated with idolatry. He taught that true worship must be spiritual, not material and idolatrous, and since in Calvinís view God is always misrepresented in visual symbols, there must be no pictures and no statues in Reformed places of worship. Pictures designed to encapsulate divinity necessarily diminish Godís honor and transcendence and sovereignty. Worship must be word-centered, because words in Calvin's view are the only fitting vehicles for communicating symbolically Godís spiritual being. It is impossible to capture Godís power and majesty in a visual image, and all attempts to do so deteriorate into magic, superstition, and idolatry. Images in worship destroy the human spirit; they distort Godís spiritual identity; they promote the lie of idolatry.

Calvin was a warrior. He saw himself and his coreligionists continuing the battle that the Israelites had initiated against the Canaanites, those proverbial idolaters. Calvinís Canaanites were the papists, the Antichrist pope and his priests, along with the Catholic laypeople whom Calvin characterized as mired in the muck of superstition, magic, and idolatry.

Calvin himself did not support iconoclastic violence, but many of his associates and followers did (further reading: C.M.N. Eire, War against the Idols [Cambridge, 1986]). In Switzerland, in the Rhenish and Netherlandish territories, and in England, sixteenth-century Calvinists defaced, destroyed, and confiscated a great many medieval Catholic works of art, paintings, sculpture, stained-glass windows, ecclesiastical furnishings, and even whole buildings. The iconoclastsí purpose was to purify Christendom, as we see graphically represented (see Figure 1) in an anonymous sixteenth-century print showing on the right virtuousquote iconoclasts sweeping away papist idols (chalices, candlesticks, patens, statues), while to the left kneeling idolaters worship their papal Antichrist elevated on a monumental stone pagan altar and astride a seven-headed beast. This is a strong visual polemic, designed in part to embolden the righteous in their cause of purification. The multiple episodes of Reformed iconoclasm in the sixteenth-century raise a difficult question, namely the degree to which anti-idolatry violence against property was endemic to the early Reformed tradition.

Calvinís word-centered reform promoted a religiosity that was strong in the moral, political, and social arenas and relatively weak in cultural expression, arguably at its weakest in painting and sculpture. Calvin himself was not so much hostile as he was indifferent to the visual arts, but the place where his reform program came into open conflict with the visual arts was the worship space, which he felt must be purged of idolatryóan issue of vital concern to Calvin on which he was unwilling to make even the slightest compromises. There would be no religious pictures in Reformed places of worship.

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