John Calvin and the Visual Arts: Dueling Cavaliers? - page 1

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From the Spring 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

John Calvin and the Visual Arts: Dueling Cavaliers?

Part One of a Two Part Series on the Arts and Theology

by Connally Gilliam
C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow


ave you ever had a war take place inside your head? Imagine two conflicting forces, each claiming to be truth and each stubbornly refusing to bow to the other. In my mind, there has been such a standoff. Like those who are about to engage in a duel, these two forces have taken their ten paces, turned around, and have aimed their pistols at each other. Who are these cavaliers? They are not living people but caricatured images of John Calvin and Reformed thought on one hand, and the stereotypically flamboyant Artist and the entire world of visual arts on the other.
  On the Calvinist side (this in my mind’s eye; please, take no personal offense!) we find restrictive, restricted, repressive, reformed religion. The walls of churches are white washed, bare and blank, matching the surrounding faces. The stiff figures look right at home—as if part of the architecture—sitting on the hard, straight-backed wooden benches. Their lips are tightly pursed while clenched hands sit firmly on cold laps.
  On the other side dances the wildly unorthodox, mystical, mysterious, exasperating, and exhilarating Artist. This composite composer is a combination of Caravaggio, who painted the sumptuous Bacchus, and Monet, who rendered his Water Lilies. There is a bit of Picasso flaunting his fractured Demoiselles D’Avignon and Jackson Pollock running around, splashing erratic color.
   Is there any hope for reconciliation between these seemingly opposed forces? Can the two dueling sides ever come together? Is there, in fact, maybe at the root of this battle, a gross misunderstanding? Could Calvin and “Visual Arts” actually be friends? Those more familiar with Reformed thought might instantly assert a definitive yes. But for many, resounding affirmation is not the first imagined response of the father of Reformed thought when asked about space in his (and his legacy’s) thinking for the visual Artist and his or her creation. So if we are going to avoid a potentially disastrous explosion inside my head (and I would love to do so), then it is worth taking a closer look.
   Back we must go to the original sources to understand this image of Calvin, the seeming foe of visual arts. We must travel back to sixteenth-century Geneva, Switzerland, to the office of one pastor, teacher, preacher, and theologian: John Calvin. His brow furrowed in concentration, he puts his pen to paper and begins to write: “It Is Unlawful to Attribute a Visible Form to God, and Generally Whoever Sets up Idols Revolts against the True God.” Thus begins chapter 11 of the first book (“The Knowledge of God the Creator”) of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.1 And there begins what seems to some like a short circuit in the connection between Reformed Christianity and the visual arts.

Calvin: The Nemesis of Visual Arts?

  Aside from a short paragraph on “The functions and limits of art,” the bulk of Calvin’s words about art have to do with the images of God that are used in worship. Calvin essentially lays out a defense for the iconoclasm practiced by sixteenth-century Protestants everywhere. “Ha!” one-half of my brain says, “Calvin was anti visual arts after all. If he wrote to support the destruction of beautiful images, religious art even, he was obviously an aesthetic nit-wit with an axe to grind toward those who were more creative and more sensuous than himself.” But perhaps that brain half needs to relax for a moment, suspending judgment until the whole story is told.
  Calvin wrote as he did against images within a context of image misuse and abuse in the late medieval church. If we want to understand his story, we need to go back further, this time to the world of Gothic cathedrals, filled with candles and crucifixes, smells and bells, statues of saints, paintings of popes, altars of gold. This is the world that the medieval Christian knew as the center of culture, the heartbeat of Christendom.

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