Summer/Fall  2000
Volume 5 Number 1

The History of Art and the Reformed Tradition

All of the above is familiar territory, often repeated, widely known, well understood. What is perhaps new, or at least less well known, is the fact that Reformed Christians have a long and in some cases distinguished history of involvement in the design and manufacture of visual arts in a wide range of media. This goes back to the beginning of the tradition with the book arts and the production of illustrated Bibles in Lyons and Geneva during Calvin’s lifetime along with the several portraits of Calvin that were executed by contemporaneous painters and graphics artists. Naturally, devotional pictures, for example painting and sculpture exhibited in churches, are not part of the Reformed repertory, but virtually everything else is. A recently published volume (Seeing beyond the Word, ed. P.C. Finney [Grand Rapids, 1999]) presents a selection of the evidence, and although this volume omits more than it includes, there is enough in this book to support certain broad generalizations.

First comes architecture, arguably the most conspicuous historical arena of Reformed creativity in the visual arts. For the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries much of the evidence consists in already-existing buildings that were appropriated and reconfigured by Calvinist communities; but from the same period and later we also have examples of Reformed communities designed and built de novo to accommodate a word-centered order of worship.Figure 2:  Rock Hill meeting house

What is remarkable about this architectural tradition is its breadth of styles and types, its versatility and evident freedom to experiment and innovate independent of architectural orthodoxies. For the New World, one of the most distinctive developments is the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New England meetinghouse tradition (see Figure 2) whose hallmarks include clarity of design and simplicity in the organization of an architectural vocabulary. In addition, this is an Anglo-Saxon tradition that places considerable value on the quality of materials and their workmanship, especially woodworking.

As far as figural genres are concerned, clearly the most important area in which Reformed Christians have excelled is the graphics medium (woodcuts, etchings, drawings) which provides the quintessentially Protestant venue for pictorial expression: the joining of word and image in the book arts. For the early Reformed tradition the main figure is Rembrandt, but there are dozens of other important examples. The portrait genre also occupies an important place within the Reformed tradition. It has a continuous history from the portraits made of Calvin during his lifetime to yesterday’s notables.

Within the realm of the decorative arts there are multiple examples of fine to superb pieces produced within the Reformed orbit. This includes gold and silver vessels executed especially by Huguenot exiles living in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, porcelains and enamels produced in France and Prussia, textiles woven in several European settings, and finely wrought hardwood furnishings manufactured for both religious and secular patrons in Europe and the New World. In short, there is a wealth of visual riches embedded within a tradition that is known mostly for its poverty of visual culture. For churches and for instructional purposes in colleges, universities, and seminaries, it would be useful to write this material into the general history of early modern and modern art.

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