The Protestant Reformation and Art
The Protestant Reformation arose during the sixteenth century in Europe. The Reformation was a religious movement that occurred in Western Europe during the sixteenth century that resulted in a split in Christianity between Roman Catholics and Protestants. This movement “created a North-South split in Europe, where generally Northern countries became Protestant, while Southern countries remained Catholic. Protestant theology centered on the individual relationship between the worshiper and the divine, and accordingly, the Reformation's artistic movement focused on the individual’s personal relationship with God. This was reflected in a number of common people and day-to-day scenes depicted in art.
The Reformation and Protestant art
The Reformation ushered in a new artistic tradition that highlighted the Protestant agenda and diverged drastically from southern European humanist art produced during the High Renaissance. Reformation art embraced Protestant values, although the amount of religious art produced in Protestant countries was hugely reduced. Instead, many artists in Protestant countries diversified into secular forms of art like history painting, landscapes, portraiture, and still life. Art that did seek to portray religious figures or scenes followed Protestant theology by depicting people and stories that emphasized salvation through divine grace, rather than through personal deeds, or by intervention of church bureaucracy. In terms of subject matter, iconic images of Christ and scenes from the Passion became less frequent, as did portrayals of the saints and clergy. Instead, narrative scenes from the Bible and moralistic depictions of modern life became prevalent.
The Protestant Reformation also capitalized on the popularity of printmaking in northern Europe. Printmaking allowed images to be mass produced and widely available to the public at low cost. The Protestant church was therefore able to bring their theology to the people through portable, inexpensive visual media. This allowed for the widespread availability of visually persuasive imagery. With the great development of the engraving and printmaking market in Antwerp in the sixteenth century, the public was provided with accessible and affordable images. Many artists provided drawings to book and print publishers.
Iconoclasm and resistance to idolatry
All forms of Protestantism showed a degree of hostility to religious images, especially sculpture and large paintings, considering them forms of idol worship. After the early years of the Reformation, artists in Protestant areas painted far fewer religious subjects for public display, although there was a conscious effort to develop a Protestant iconography of Bible images in book illustrations and prints. In the early Reformation, some artists made paintings for churches showing the leaders of the reformation in ways very similar to Catholic saints. Later Protestant taste turned away from the display in churches of religious scenes, although some continued to be displayed in homes. There was also a reaction against large images from classical mythology, the other manifestation of high style at the time. This brought about a style that was more directly related to accurately portraying the present times. For instance, Bruegel’s Wedding Feast portrays a Flemish-peasant wedding dinner in a barn. It makes no reference to any religious or historical or classical events, and merely gives insight into the everyday life of the Flemish peasant (Figure 2).
The Protestant Reformation induced a wave of iconoclasm, or the destruction of religious imagery, among the more radical evangelists (Figure 1). Protestant leaders, especially Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, actively eliminated imagery from their churches and regarded the great majority of religious images as idolatrous, even plain crosses. On the other hand, Martin Luther encouraged the display of a restricted range of religious imagery in churches. For the most part, however, Reformation iconoclasm resulted in a disappearance of religious figurative art, compared with the amount of secular pieces that emerged.