Calvin. History and Reception of a Reformation Week 4. The Spread of Calvinism
Sequence 14a. Calvin and the Visual Arts Welcome to today's video sequence, which will focus on the relationship between the Calvinist tradition and the arts. In your material for this sequence, you'll find texts and images: articles by Craig Harbison and David Freedberg; and reproductions of the artwork I'll be presenting today. The question we'll address today goes beyond the opinion expressed by John Calvin about art -- we'll also explore, on a wider basis, how artists have related to these issues, whether they sought to follow pastoral guidelines, or go beyond them, or even, in some cases, subvert them in one way or another. First, let's look at Calvin's view on the proper relationship between art and the divine. When you read the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’, it appears at first that Calvin, following the biblical prohibition, is opposed to representation: "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." The point bears insisting upon: it is unlawful to give a visible shape to God -- for Calvin, very clearly, what is at stake is this relationship, this contrast, this incompatibility between the infinite and indeterminate quality of God and the finiteness and determinacy of the shapes inherent to artistic representation. The other thing to which Calvin is violently opposed is idol worship or idolatry. For Calvin, worship should revolve around the Word, preaching, prayer and song. Any image used as a substitute for the Word of God should be considered a falsification of the Word. What Calvin is also criticizing, then, is the way in which images can serve as objects of worship, turning the worshipper away from the true God, as he wrote in the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’: "Indeed, brothels exhibit their inmates more chastely and modestly dressed than churches do images intended to represent virgins." Clearly, Calvin is here attacking something he virtually equates with a type of fetishism, a way of imbuing images and objects of worship with some sort of power or magic, which is no different from turning away from the reality and truth of God. This position of Calvin's is hardly original: many Catholic theologians, including St Augustine, were opposed to images, or at least questioned their legitimacy -- like Calvin, in the name of the primacy of Scripture. The Second Council of Nicea had extensively and precisely regulated the manner in which images were to be designed and produced, including, of course, sacred images. Yet it is important to understand that Calvin's theory is not anti-image; it is not what might be called an iconophobic theory. For instance, he said it was acceptable for churches to be decorated with bare crosses. What he was against was for these crosses to become crucifixes, that is, to include a representation of the visible figure of Jesus, which could lead or incite the faithful to adoration. Calvin insisted, however, that the arts of painting and sculpture are gifts from God and therefore could potentially be regulated and accepted in this respect. There is a particularly significant passage in the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ in which Calvin describes nature as "this beautiful creation" -- a passage in which nature is likened to artistic creation, a masterpiece, a work of art created and given to us by God. Another passage shows that beauty is not excluded from Calvin's value system: "Has the Lord adorned flowers with all the beauty which spontaneously presents itself to the eye, and the sweet odour which delights the sense of smell, and shall it be unlawful for us to enjoy that beauty and this odour? Has he not so distinguished colours as to make some more agreeable than others?" Here Calvin insists on the beauty of nature, and thus on the possibility for artists to celebrate this beauty and honor God's greatness through nature. Calvin's position, then, can be described as follows: it is forbidden to represent divinity, to represent scriptural events, for reasons connected with the incompatibility between the infinite and the finite quality of such representations. On the other hand, all other forms of representation, particularly of nature, are acceptable. "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." The arts, then, are not to be condemned in and of themselves, but only when they are used inappropriately, i.e., in a way Calvin sees as liable to lead the faithful away from God's simple and true greatness, which can be attained only through the Word, that is, by studying the Holy Scriptures.