Wednesday, October 7, 2009

16th Century Northern Europe, Art, and Reformation

The Protestant Reformation had a significant impact on Western culture, and art is no exception, it seems. Iconoclasm is probably the most noteworthy feature of the protestant movement in 16th century, Northern Europe. This movement resulted from new and varied interpretations of the bible by the masses, something that was strongly enouraged and facilitated by the principles established by Martin Luther. Iconoclasts believe that religious imagery borders dangerously on encouraging idol worship and, as such, they not only discouraged the creation of certain religious imagery but even went as far as to destroy religious art/icons in occassional violent raids on catholic churches. So there was a great divide between the Protestans view of the role of art in their worship and the Catholic church's view on this, to say the least.

Protestant churches did not highly decorate their churches, if at all, so they really didn't serve as patrons of art in the way that the Catholic church did as far as large paintings and statues go. Therefore their influence over art was, in that regard, minimal by comparison. But, according to the textbook, "Protestants viewed low-key images such as woodcut prints as useful devotional aids." It seems that Protestants were more concerned with the context of the religious imagery. Illustrations of biblical stories were accepted and even promoted by protestant churches in the form of woodcut illustrations that were dispersed as pamphlets or used in books. Albrecht Durer, a protestant artist from Germany, became somewhat of a super star and one of the first Germans to make an impression on the mediterranean scene. His artistry, namely in woodcutting, was unrivaled and so his work was widely known and paid attention to. As a protestant, his work reflected and was representative of protestant views. An example of this is seen his depiction of the "Last Supper" which he composed from a protestant perspective, distinguished from traditional catholic depictions by absence of symbols which promoted the belief in transubstantiation, for example.

According with Luther's principles, sacraments and other Catholic-invented practices and observances, were abandoned by the protestants, with a couple exceptions (namely communion and baptism). This stance is reflected in Protestant art of Northern Europe by the elimination of such imagery from their works. Also, our textbook makes note of the Protestants' interpretation of the second commadment as "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath...". This would certainly include depictions of Yahweh , and angels such as in the Sistine Chapel for example. Indeed nearly any religious theme could be considered suspect or at least debatable. For this reason, protestant painters, to a great extent, quickly and quite naturally took to painting landscapes, portraits and genres other than religion.

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