Depictions of the Reformation in Art
Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional academic writers. You can view samples of our professional work here.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.
Published: Wed, 02 May 2018
The corruption and immorality of the Church spurred the Christian Reform movement in Europe, eventually leading to the “hundred years of civil war between Protestants and Catholics” or the Protestant Reformation. The Counter- Reformation began with the Pope Paul III’s calling of the Council of Trent in response to Protestant uprising; this movement was initiated by the Church’s attempt to re-establish its power as the only true Church of Christ while pacifying the current disorder as well. The creation of these two rivaling movements jeopardized the Roman Catholic Church’s absolute authority in Europe, dividing it into the regions of the Protestant North and Catholic South. Influenced by these two opposing movements, the North and South branched out into different directions in terms of its culture and artistic style of painting. They developed unique style of painting, depicting differing themes, styles, and contents based on their dissimilar beliefs. What influence did the reform movements have on the paintings from the south of the Alps, the north of the Alps, and the Netherlands and were the artists from these regions inspired by each other despite the divergence in their styles? The paintings by the artists from the South of the Alps would most likely been influenced by the Counter- Reformation, while the works produced from the other two regions would reflect the influence of the Protestant – Reformation due to their geographical locations. Therefore, the content and purpose of the works from these regions should differ but some similarities may exist in the artists’ painting techniques because it was common for artists to travel to Rome during this time. It is interesting to analyze how the style in 16th and 17th Century Europe was shaped by the religious disparity and the development of new ideas which were reflected in the paintings. Since it is inaccurate to generalize the whole European continent into only two sections, I decided to narrow down my topic by focusing on the South of the Alps, the North of the Alps, and the Netherlands. I chose to study these regions because the South of the Alps was the center of Counter- Reformation strongly embraced by the Roman Catholic Church, while the North of the Alps was the birth place of the Protestantism. And the Netherlands was the hot bed for dispute between Calvinism and Catholicism. I referred the Protestant Reformers as one group, choosing not to deal with the Protestant sectarianism, a division within the Reformers due to the difference in their interpretation of the sacred texts, as part of my research.
The final spark of the Protestant Reformation was “The Ninety-Five Theses” written by Martin Luther in 1517. His work disclosed Church’s dishonesty, rousing doubts in people’s minds about the Catholicism and also the Church’s authority. His criticism of the sale of indulgences and the Roman Catholic clergy’s abuses quickly earned popularity among people, regardless of their social standings and wealth, ultimately giving birth to Protestantism. Martin Luther condemned the sale of indulgences as a violation of the original meaning of confession and penance. Indulgence is the forgiveness of the temporal punishment for sins that have already been confessed. Reformers like Zwingli and Calvin had also commented on the corruptions within Church, but Luther was the one who introduced the radical idea of purifying the Christianity by physically breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church. The Luther’s idea spread rapidly throughout the Europe, threatening the Roman Catholic Church’s established authority especially in the North.
In addition to being known as the center of the Counter-Reformation, the South of the Alps was known as the center of stylistic development as well. It was the place of passion and innovation with the overflow of new artistic styles eventually giving birth to the Italian Renaissance. The artists from all of the Europe visited Rome and were inspired by the unique Italian styles. Aside from the innovative styles of Italian Renaissance, its content was often strictly religious. The Roman Catholic Church attempted to re-establish the catholic faith among people by regulating the artworks produced. The southern painters were forced to bring back the medieval tradition of producing strictly religious art, branching off into the different direction from the Northern painters.
Scipione Pulzone was famous in Rome as the prototype of the Southern painters during this time period for his strictly religious paintings. The Lamentation, one of his most famous paintings, serves as the prime example of the art commissioned by the Church. Painted in 1592 for the chapel of the Passion of Christ in the Jesuit church of Gesù in Rome, this painting is clearly influenced by the Counter- Reformation in that it demonstrates the new artistic style advocated by the holy council. The Crucifixion of the Christ is the focus of this art piece, drawing viewer’s attention directly to the idealistic image of Christ in the center. Like other southern painters during this time period, the artist propagated faith by portraying the lives of saints and Christ in a realistic yet intensely dramatic manner. The careful details, facial expressions, along with the shadows cast on people enhance the lifelike characteristics. The depiction of the folds on people’s gowns is also note-worthy. The artist adds details such as “tears of Virgin, the crown of thorns held by John, and the pallor of the Christ’s body” to portray people in a more expressionistic manner. Moreover, the spotlight on the Christ in the center contributes an illusionistic and dramatic element to the painting which counter-balances the painting’s realistic image. The light cast on the Christ, in comparison to the dark background, creates almost a theatrical impression. These characteristics represent the style of art in the south of the Alps during this period, also called the Italian Renaissance. “Catholic Italy and Lutheran Germany shared in a lively commerce…and the art of the sixteenth century in the north manifests the benefit of the exchange.” Although the religious clash tormented the sixteenth century Europe, the exchange of artistic ideas continued to thrive.
In the North, “the intellectual shakeup of age-old faiths and opinions prepared the way for a new and nonreligious outlook on the world-the Enlightenment-when the rise of a scientific view of nature would challenge forever the dogmatisms of the past,” also called the Northern Renaissance. However, the art of northern Europe during this period is also characterized by “a sudden awareness of the advances made by the Italian Renaissance and by a desire to assimilate this new style.” In other words, while the content of the artworks produced in the North differ from those of the region south of the Alps, the style was similar. Many northern artists traveled to Rome to study the new art in firsthand and others were exposed to the Italian style of painting through the direct contact with the Italian artists who came to the north. The influence of the Italian art varied according to the artist, the time, and the place; the northern artists generally kept their local traditions while adopting “only single motifs or the general form of a composition”. The Northern painters in general moving away from depicting biblical scenes and turned to painting ordinary people in a commonplace setting can be inferred to have been influenced by the Protestant- Reformation. Especially in the north of the Alps, the artists quickly incorporated Italian style into their artworks while avoiding portrayal of religious themes.
The famous work, The Battle of Issus, by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1529 is a great example of a northern painting that diverges from the works produced in the regions south of the Alps. Albrecht Altdorfer represents the Donaustil (Danube Style), which depicts the landscape and stresses mood and passion. Although Altdorfer’s style is unique and personal, it still reflects the influence of Protestant- Reformation in that it eliminates depiction of religious themes. Moreover, his style clearly diverges from the style of painting prevalent in the regions of the south of the Alps. The painter gives a bird’s eye view of an Alpine landscape as the setting and depicts the battle scene in which the Alexander the Great overthrows the Persian King Darius. Instead of illustrating the strictly religious theme, the artist chooses to focus more on depicting the historical event. The crowd of people in comparison to the vast nature in the background suggests the moralizing theme of the insignificance of human life. He uses the vast nature in the background to symbolize the power of cosmos and the illuminating sky to represent the immense space. The slight trace of Italian Renaissance is shown by the meticulous details the painter uses for the image of Alexander the Great and the dramatic and illusionistic portrayal of the setting. Also the idealistic impression of the artwork as a whole resembles that of the Italian Renaissance paintings.
Another praise-worthy example of Northern painting is The Judgment of Paris by Lucas Cranach the Elder, who is the representative of German Protestant painting. This work is a great example of how his works shifted from religious to humanistic subject matter when he became a follower of Luther. His humanistic subject matters include mythology, history, and also portraits. The Judgment of Paris illustrates the scene from mythology in which the three goddesses boast off their beauties in front of Paris. The humanistic subject matter along with the background landscape reflects the typical characteristics of Northern paintings. The cupid in the painting serves as a symbol for love and affection while the German armor that Paris is wearing in the painting represents his social status as a knight and his honor. The artist does not dress the goddesses after the antique manner. Cranach’s composition featuring the nude was inspired in an attempt to learn from the style of Italian Renaissance.
The Four Apostles by Albrecht Durer in 1526 is a remarkable northern painting that is stylistically influenced by Italian Renaissance. This art piece is unique in that the painter expresses his own religious and political testament, sympathizing “the protestant cause and [warning] against the dangerous times, when religious, truth, justice, and the virtues all will be threatened.” Unlike other Northern paintings, this piece does contain religious meanings, but it distinguishes itself from Italian paintings by eliminating any glorification of the Church. This piece was hung in the city hall, the four apostles symbolically representing the guardians of the city; they are cautioning people against the sermons of false prophets who will misinterpret the word of God. The four apostles are symbolic representative of various ideas such as the four temperaments, of the human soul, and also the four ages of man. In this painting, Durer’s experience of traveling to Italy allows him to harmonize the two opposing styles of northern naturalism and southern monumentality. The realistic visualization of the four apostles reflects the northern naturalism while the monumentality of the figures along with the vivid use of color and sharp lighting mirror the Italian Renaissance. Durer, along with Cranach and Altdorfer, serves as an example of northern artist who illustrated contents related to Protestant-Reformation while incorporating styles of Italian Renaissance into his paintings.
The Netherlands was the exceptional region in North in which Calvinism and Catholicism co-existed. In the late 16th Century, the Northern Netherlands was able to break away from Spain’s influence, while the Southern Netherlands remained under the rule of Spain. Therefore, the Northern Netherlands eventually embraced Calvinism while the Southern Netherlands remained as supporters of Catholicism. It is important to realize that Dutch and Flemings were not predestined to become Calvinists and Catholics; it was solely caused by the geographical and military circumstances. No curtain existed between the North and the South that forbid the exchange of ideas. In fact, Constantin Huygens, a diplomat and an art critic, referred to great painters of Amsterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague collectively as the painters of Netherlands. Therefore, it cannot be concluded that the Northern Netherlands was only influenced by Calvinist ideas, which also applies to the Southern Netherlands.
In the early 17th Century Catholicism was suppressed and catholic churches were demolished due to the iconoclast movement, but the protestantizing of the Northern Netherlands was still a slow process. Most artists chose to remain as Catholics, although exact number is hard to determine. However, the attempt to repair damage caused by the iconoclast movement was not as extensive and as systematic in the North as in the South. The Northern Renaissance in the Netherlands took on a completely different form from the Italian Renaissance because the Church no longer was the major patron in the North. Instead, the wealthy merchant middle class were the primary patrons of the art and thus, the Dutch masters painted small pictures for their small houses, not for the Cathedral altars. Since large church commissions were no longer available, artists changed their styles in accordance to the taste of their new customers. The artists from the Netherlands specialized in intense realism, depicting lifelike features with an unflattering honesty, unlike the Italian Renaissance painters who specialized in idealism and simplicity. Therefore, the basis of art for the Northern Renaissance was observation while for the Italian Renaissance, it was theory. The Northern Renaissance in the Netherlands indirectly reflects the influence of Protestantism in that religious themes no longer prevailed in art, although more direct causes were the changing structure of the Netherlands economy and culture. The artworks produced in the 17th Century Netherlands were more conservative compared to those of Germany, concentrating on the nature and the past times of the prosperous Dutch merchants. The “direct portraits, realistic still-lifes, landscapes, marine-scapes, and genre paintings showing scenes of everyday life” were popular subjects of the Dutch artists.
A Scene on the Ice by Hendrick Avercamp in 1625 is an accurate representation of a typical Dutch style, illustrating the commonplace scene of people enjoying winter sports in the quiet village of Kampen northeast of Amsterdam. His style clearly reflects the Northern Renaissance’s realism and its use of details, faithfully depicting the winter. He enhances his realistic rendering by using a frosty day to convey a sense of depth; “the pearly gray tonality here becomes ever paler and the forms less distinct as they move into the distance.” His work is unique in that it successfully portrays all classes of Dutch society through by using meticulous details, “from the poor fisherman surveying the skater to the well-dressed ladies riding in an elegant sleigh driven by a groom.” This is the typical genre painting of Northern Renaissance departing itself from the religious influence of Roman Catholic Church of Italy.
A seascape, along with landscape, also became very popular in Holland due to the rise of merchant class; view of Dordrecht from the Dordtse Kil by Jan Van Goyen painted in 1644 serves is an impressive seascape painting. The artist uses monochromatic phase, which is a technique in which a single color dominates the painting, to “unify each view of nature;” the golden brown aura dictates the scene, from the hazy clouds to the city skyline. He reached the summit of Northern realism by lowering the horizon to focus more on the atmospheric conditions overhead and by creating an illusion of standing on the opposite shore of the port. Unlike the Northern Netherlands, the Southern Netherlands was more influenced by the Counter Reformation than the Protestant Reformation. The Reborn Catholicism in Spain had an undeniable impact on the Southern Netherlands provinces. Moreover, France sent numerous religious orders and congregations to Spanish Netherlands in order to secure the Catholics’ authority.
The disparity in the contents of the paintings resulted from the disagreement in Protestants’ and Catholics’ perspectives of the human relationship with god. Unlike the Protestants who claimed that humans are capable of having a direct communication with god, the Catholics argued that intermediaries, such as saints and the Virgin Mary, are essential for humans to connect with god. Therefore, Catholics created artworks of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus and gave reverence to them, as a way of getting closer to god. Although the Catholics asserted that they are not worshipping the intermediaries, the Protestants criticized this practice and led the iconoclastic movements. Iconoclasm is a deliberate destruction of religious icons and symbols within one’s own culture for religious changes. The Protestants and Catholics’ conflict was caused by the difference in their perspectives of the “sacred” and “secular”;while the Catholics maintained the clear separation of the two, the reformers recognized the connection between the two. Consequently, the Roman Catholic Church clergy advocated strictly religious and sacred artworks whereas the reformers preferred artworks depicting the lives of ordinary people. The Northern Protestant painters believed that “an ordinary life could glorify God just as much as a life `in the ministry’ “; since god created humans in His image, the reformation artists claimed that they are glorifying god by portraying the natural beauty of his creation, in other words, the people. These differing ideas are well conveyed through the artworks produced from the regions south of the Alps, north of the Alps, and the Netherlands mentioned above. My thesis is partially proven to be correct in that Italian art was definitely influenced by the Counter- Reformation and that German art was influenced by the Protestant- Reformation. But contradicting to my statement, the Netherlands was influenced by both religious movements. According to the Art History Professor Sarah Blick from Canyon University, the Counter- Reformation had a more direct influence on art produced after 1520s then the Protestant Reformation. Therefore, she suggested me focus on the lack of religious content in the artworks in order to study the influence of Protestant Reformation during her interview. Although artworks from each of these regions have distinct characteristics that set them apart, Italian style of painting frequently perceived in these artworks indicate that artists were inspired by each other. Because I had to narrow down my topic, many new questions emerged from my research. I am curious to know whether the various Protestantism had different influences on art. For this research, I referred to Protestants as one group but I want to extend my research so that I can investigate on the influence of the Protestant Sectarianism on art.
- MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation A History. New York: Viking Adult, 2004. Print.
- The Annotated Mona Lisa. Missouri: John Boswell Management, Inc., 1992. Print.
- Helen, Gardner,. Gardner’s art through the ages. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College, 1996. Print.
- Iconography of the Counter Reformation in the Netherlands heaven on earth John B Knippings
- “Art of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.” HyperHistory.net. Web. 07 Oct. 2009. .
- “Scipione Pulzone (Il Gaetano): The Lamentation (1984.74) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: metmuseum.org. Web. 07 Oct. 2009. .
- Janson, H. W. History of art for young people. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2002. Print.
- “Matters of Taste: Genre and Still Life Painting in the Dutch Golden Age.” Welcome to Albany Institute of History and Art. Web. 07 Oct. 2009. .
Cite This Work
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below: