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The Reformation illustrated

30 June 2017

Yes, there was iconoclasm. But Luther saw the value of art, says David Hoyle

Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

FIVE hundred years after Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, Reformation history has become an academic light industry — there are even historians of the history of the Reformation. In this country, John Foxe is generally considered the first Reformation historian. Although he is usually described as the author of his Book of Martyrs, he was interested in broader questions, and he wanted us to know what made the Reformation happen: “The Lord began to work for his church, not with sword and target to subdue his exalted adversary, but with printing, writing, and reading.”

Foxe believed that reformation (for my use of the term, see panel) was modern: it was made possible by the technology of printing. He also knew that reforma­tion de­­manded writing and reading: it was all about texts. The Protestant faith put its trust in the word, and expressed itself in words. The Ninety-five Theses were an invita­tion to debate; what followed was a welter of words, argument, trans­lation, preaching, and publica­tion.

Words and not images were what interested the reformers: scripture, above all, but preaching and pro­clamation next. As Erasmus put it, in the Introduction to his New Testament, the gospel “makes Jesus so fully present that you would see less if you were to gaze upon him with your very eyes”. So, almost every historian will tell you that the Reformation was bad for art. If they write about art at all, they will suggest, as Patrick Collinson did, that “iconoclasm is where you have to begin.”


IN FACT, Foxe was a better hist­orian than he knew. The printing presses did not just publish texts: they distributed images. You do not need to begin with icono­clasm: re­­formation began with image. Foxe’s own book was laden with illustra­tions of the sufferings of the godly, and the cruelty of their opponents. He did not just tell us about what happened to Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer; he showed us. There are images of torture in the Tower, and a really alarming picture of Bishop Bonner bursting out of his clothes with the sheer effort of thrashing the bare backside of John Willes.

Printed images were a powerful device, and reformers were not the least bit squeamish about using them. Neither were their opponents. Pamphlets, illustrated with cheap woodcuts, fought the Reformation battle. Some were complex and needed decoding, but others told a story that could be “read” by the illiterate, and so increased the audience for religious debate.

There were pictures, sold as single sheets, that made Luther look like a saint, or (in an image attrib­uted to Holbein) depicted him as the “German Hercules”, laying low not just the pope, but Duns Scotus, Ockham, Lombard, and Aristotle. There were other images intended to teach; and then there were the cartoons. At some point in the 1520s, you would have been able to enjoy a picture of a thoroughly repulsive female devil seated on one of the indulgences that Luther de­­nounced, while popes and prelates feasted in its mouth.

In 1522, an illustration of the Whore of Babylon, in Luther’s New Testament, portrayed her wearing a papal tiara. It so offended the Duke of Saxony that it had to be removed in the next edition. A few years later, Luther’s antagonist Coch­laeus published a pamphlet, The Seven-Headed Luther, intending to show that the great reformer was not just contradictory but was the Antichrist in our midst; inevitably, within a year, a picture was circulating of a seven-headed pope.

Luther was ambivalent about images. He knew that they could mislead, but believed that they could also instruct and encourage. He was inclined to let his followers have them, much as you might permit children to have toys. The more radical Karlstadt was enraged. Images were not toys, he argued: you might as well give a child a sharp knife. If you saw a child with such a knife, the loving thing to do was to “break his will” and remove it.

In 1522, while Luther was holed up in the Wartburg, Karlstadt seized the opportunity to demonstrate his tough love, and there was an icono­clastic riot in Wittenberg. Luther was quickly back in harness, and reined in this new and destruc­tive enthusiasm. As a consequence, you are much more likely to find sur­viving medieval art in the Lutheran churches of Saxony than you are in England; and there are some re­­markable altarpieces that may have been moved from their original positions, but still have a place of honour.


THERE were new commissions, too — most notably from Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach was an established artist long before he became one of Luther’s admirers. Art historians are inclined to suggest that he did not do his best work after he had hitched his wagon to reforming zeal. There is plenty to admire, though, in the sequence of portraits of Luther which he painted.

The problem for Cranach, and for other artists, was that the Re­­forma­tion dealt in binary opposites: it demanded that you took sides, and it was impatient with subtlety and nuance. There was a message to be conveyed, and a stern determina­tion to teach the truth that temporarily constrained imagina­tion.

Luther was clear that reformation was taught rather more than it was caught. He wrote catechisms, he lectured, and he preached. Even Cranach got a little heavy-handed. It was so very important to distin­guish this from that.

In Cranach’s Allegory of Law and Grace (1529), a panel is divided in two by a tree. To the right, this tree is in leaf and St John the Baptist points out Christ and his cross, above another image of Christ’s resurrection — God’s grace. To the left, the tree is bare, Christ sits in judgement, and Moses holds the tablets of the law, powerless to stop devils from driving another naked man into hell fire.

Cranach knew what he was about. The images were carefully chosen, and became recurring themes. Luther’s sure sense of the reality of judgement and the futility of human works is there. The figure of John the Baptist represents Reformation preaching and pro­clamation (that pointing finger is important). The figure of Christ is the grace of God: the salvation that Luther told us was given by God, and which we can never earn. The cross is the perfect statement of Christ’s saving power, but, signific­antly for Luther, the cross was also a stumbling-block and foolishness. Seeing Christ on the cross, we learn that faith is hard, and that reason will never save us.

Of course, there were also texts: Cranach added six of them. Image did not just serve the message, but offered it up.


THE cross is there again in Cranach’s Wittenberg altarpiece. Now, it is not John the Baptist who points but Luther himself. The reformers may not have believed in works, but they were clear that their efforts as preachers put them front and centre.

In the church in Wittenberg, Cranach subverted a familiar form. Where once the panels of these altarpieces provided us with a window into heaven, now they become a kind of mirror. It is a contemporary, reformed congrega­tion that we are shown: a sermon, a Lutheran baptism, a Lutheran con­fession. Worshippers wondering if this might all be a bit novel are given a ringing endorsement.

Then, in the central panel — a picture of the Last Supper — they literally find a place at the table. Cranach has chosen an odd mo­­ment at which to freeze the frame. Jesus is feeding Judas. The table they sit at is round, and Jesus sits to one side. Now look again: could that possibly be Luther himself turning from the table to receive a cup?

There are lessons to be learned here. There is no hierarchy at this table, and the reformed are sure of their place at it. Even so, any con­fidence that they might gain needs to be tested against the knowledge that the act of communion will never be enough. Even Judas, after all, shared in this meal. It is not works that matter, it is faith.


ANY account of reformation and art really does not need to begin with iconoclasm: there are wood­cuts and paintings, portraits and altarpieces. Dürer, too, was an admirer of Luther’s, and there is a glorious painting of four apostles in which St Peter, carrying his keys, stoops to read the Gospel that John holds. Text must triumph, and the first pope must learn his place.

That said, iconoclasm must get a mention. Reformation did not in­­vent hostility to images. There was an old anxiety to tap into, and it had surfaced among the English Lollards nearly a hundred years before any­one had heard of Luther. What reformation did was to make icono­clasm an industry.

In 1538, the great mechanical rood from Boxley, Kent, complete with rolling eyes, was burned at St Paul’s Cross. Soon afterwards, the Franciscan friar John Forest was burnt at Smithfield, and a statue of St Derfel added fuel for the flames. The systematic destruction that followed, in which the saints were literally “de-faced”, and the cruci­fixes and statues on countless rood screens came tumbling down, was a staggeringly thorough piece of work. You will need to look very hard indeed, in England, if you want to see what a rood screen really looked like.


LUTHER’s tolerance of images did not spread with the rest of reforma­tion ideas. Other reformers liked text even more, and image much less. In 1566, a “statue storm” swept through the Low Countries, and, to this day, if you visit churches in Antwerp, or Ghent, you will find that the guidebooks still reel from the shock. Dutch artists soon learned to give us glorious paintings of church interiors. They had stopped painting for churches.

In England, Holbein had given up painting for altarpieces on the Continent, and become a master of the portrait. He was responsible for the frontispiece of the Great Bible, one of the more depressing ex­­amples of reformation art, in which a tiny Christ peeps over the shoul­der of the King of England. Here, the arrival of the word of God in English is greeted not with cries of “Alleluia”, but by a loyal “Vivat Rex!”. Art was learning to serve a national narrative.

By 1571, the English Bible dispensed with illustrations alto­gether. Two generations later, the Civil War was heralded by the sound of breaking glass, as William Dowsing visited Cambridge, and Richard Culmer made a shattering progress through Canterbury Ca­­thed­ral.

The saints did not survive, but Culmer left a medieval devil in the windows. His instructions said nothing about devils. The text, after all, was so very important.


The Very Revd Dr David Hoyle is the Dean of Bristol.

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