Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Protestant Iconoclasm and Art Appreciation

Contrary to Islamic aniconism, which prohibits the representation of living creatures in art, Protestant iconoclasm, mistaken interpretations notwithstanding, has not opposed visual and aesthetic art en masse, but only sought to channel it in ways that accord with the second and seventh commandments. Geraldine Jean Wheeler, Visual Art, the Artist and Worship in the Reformed Tradition: A Theological Study (2003 dissertation), pp. 9-10, writes:

In spite of the widely held view, expressed by Voltaire27 and many others, that Calvin, Geneva and the whole following tradition eschewed art, this can be shown to be misplaced.

27 Quoted in [Jérôme] Cottin, Le regard et la Parole, p. 285, n. 1.

Likewise, the charge that the Puritans were "fanatical Philistines, apostles of gloom, utterly antagonistic to the arts and music" as well as "tone-deaf and colour-blind iconoclasts" has been ably refuted by others.

One need only look closely at the works of Calvin and his followers to see the distinction between opposing ungodly art and allowing art its freedom to blossom within ethical boundaries. Illustrations abound in the Geneva Bible; Huguenot craftsmen such as the potter Bernard Palissy thrived under the Calvinistic appreciation of the arts; the Dutch Golden Age is renowned for its visual arts. The first paintings of Native North Americans were made by Jacques Le Moyne, the French Huguenot painter who survived the Spanish massacre of Fort Caroline, near modern-day Jacksonville, Florida, in 1565. Theodore Beza's classic work, Icones, was not a treatise against images in church, but a collection of biographies of ecclesiastical leaders, accompanied by pictures, or images, of these men. The list goes on...

John Calvin, Institutes 1.11.12:

12. I am not, however, so superstitious as to think that all visible representations of every kind are unlawful. But as sculpture and painting are gifts of God, what I insist for is, that both shall be used purely and lawfully,—that gifts which the Lord has bestowed upon us, for his glory and our good, shall not be preposterously abused, nay, shall not be perverted to our destruction. We think it unlawful to give a visible shape to God, because God himself has forbidden it, and because it cannot be done without, in some degree, tarnishing his glory. And lest any should think that we are singular in this opinion, those acquainted with the productions of sound divines will find that they have always disapproved of it. If it be unlawful to make any corporeal representation of God, still more unlawful must it be to worship such a representation instead of God, or to worship God in it. The only things, therefore, which ought to be painted or sculptured, are things which can be presented to the eye; the majesty of God, which is far beyond the reach of any eye, must not be dishonored by unbecoming representations. Visible representations are of two classes—viz. historical, which give a representation of events, and pictorial, which merely exhibit bodily shapes and figures. The former are of some use for instruction or admonition. The latter, so far as I can see, are only fitted for amusement. And yet it is certain, that the latter are almost the only kind which have hitherto been exhibited in churches. Hence we may infer, that the exhibition was not the result of judicious selection, but of a foolish and inconsiderate longing. I say nothing as to the improper and unbecoming form in which they are presented, or the wanton license in which sculptors and painters have here indulged (a point to which I alluded a little ago, supra, s. 7). I only say, that though they were otherwise faultless, they could not be of any utility in teaching.

John Calvin, Catechism of Geneva (1545), quoted in James T. Dennison, Jr., ed., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, Vol. 1, pp. 487-488 [on the second commandment]:

144. M[inister]. Does He entirely forbid us to make any image?
C[hild]. No, but He forbids us to make any image with which to represent God, or to worship Him.

148. M. This does not mean that all sculpture or painting is universally forbidden, but only all images used in the service of God, or in worshipping Him in visible things, or indeed for any abuse of them in idolatry of any kind whatsoever.
C. That is so.

Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

Question 96. What does God require in the second commandment?

Answer: That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word.

Question 97. Are images then not at all to be made?

Answer: God neither can, nor may be represented by any means: (a) but as to creatures; though they may be represented, yet God forbids to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them or to serve God by them.

Question 98. But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity?

Answer: No: for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word.


  1. Andrew, HC Question and Answer 98 is one of my favorite in the Catechism. But, if I remember correctly, the Heidelberg prohibits "dumb" images, not "dump" images. :)

  2. Thanks, Seth. I fixed it. That's what I get for copying and pasting without checking more closely (sigh)!