John Calvin and the Visual Arts: Dueling Cavaliers? - page 2

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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

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  In his book Zwingli and the Arts, Charles Garside describes the experience of entering the cathedral in Zurich (prior to the iconoclastic activities of the reformer Zwingli):

. . . the pilgrim was prepared symbolically on entering the chapel, since over the portal leading down into it was a wall painting of Christ standing in the tomb with instruments of His passion on either side. Once the pilgrim had descended, he would have seen a wooden sepulcher under a canopy supported by pillars, likewise of brilliantly painted wood. Surround the sepulcher were large wooden statues of Mary Magdelene, Mary and St. John, while wrapped in a white coverlet with silken tassels, was laid a wooden replica of the body of Christ, which was removed (through a hole in the vaulting contrived especially for the purpose) from the grave on Easter Sunday.2

  Simply entering the church meant encountering an image extravaganza. Everywhere the Christian looked, there were saints and Christ images staring back. (“Ah,” says half my brain, “I’d love to contemplate all that beauty.”)
   The medieval Christian, however, did more than simply contemplate these objects as we might do today in a beautiful home or an art museum, letting the “feel” soften or even instruct our hearts. The medieval Christian spent much of his or her time in faithful veneration before these images. Veneration meant giving honor to the saint (or worship to the Christ) whose reality existed behind the painted or sculpted image. So a Christian might come in off the street and light a candle in front of a particular crucifix (there were seventeen altars to choose from in the Zurich cathedral3), knowing that his homage rested not on the gold, stone, wood, or pigment out of which the image was created. Rather his praise and prayer went up to heaven, invoking (via the saints, Mary, or Christ) the good grace of God. Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “Religion doesn’t offer worship to images considered as mere things in themselves, but as images drawing us to God incarnate.”4
  Trouble, however, started just at this point. As Scripture was unavailable in the vernacular (which actually made little difference, as the majority of people were illiterate), and as services—except for the sermon—were conducted primarily in Latin, most people missed the subtle distinction between worshiping/honoring the prototype and worshiping/honoring the graven image. As a result, images in churches came to be not only beautiful objects that could lift the mind and heart toward a focus on the beautiful Creator; they became power sources that the good Christian should tap for grace. Even the Eucharist need not be understood; one must simply get a look at the host to receive a healthy portion of God’s grace.5
  Such is the context into which Calvin writes. And write he does. His attack on images (specifically images of God that were used in worship) emerges not as a direct attack against the visual arts, but against the idols that he believes have taken God’s place. His argument is clear and simple: People want to control God, so they “reduce God, who is immeasurable and incomprehensible, to a five-foot measure.”6 The visual image becomes a dumb icon whose grace is invoked at human bidding. No one need wait upon the true Giver of grace, the triune God. Such an understanding of images, said Calvin, teaches “insipid fiction”7 about God—that God is at humanity’s bidding and not the other way around. This, contends Calvin, infringes upon God’s glory: “Images are unworthy of God’s majesty because they diminish the fear of him and increase error.”8

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