Art in the Age of Holbein



ART had to suffer from the Reformation, if only because Protestantism believed in the Ten Commandments. Had not the Lord God said, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”? (Exodus 20:4) How was representative art possible after that sweeping prohibition? The Jews had obeyed, and had passed by art. The Moslems had almost obeyed, had kept their art decorative, largely abstract, often representing things, rarely persons, never God. Protestantism, rediscovering the Old Testament, followed the Semitic line. Catholicism, whose Greco-Roman heritage had overshadowed its Judaic origin, had more and more ignored the veto: Gothic sculpture had fashioned saints and gods in stone; Italian painting had pictured the Bible story, and the Renaissance had quite forgotten the Second Commandment in a blooming riot of representative art. Perhaps that old interdict had been meant to ban representation for magicalends; and the patrons of art, in Renaissance Italy, had the good sense to override a primitive and now meaningless taboo.

The Church, greatest patron of all, had employed the arts to form the letterless in the dogmas and legends of the faith. To the ecclesiastical statesman who felt that myths were vital to morality, this use of art seemed reasonable. But when the myths, like purgatory, were manipulated to finance the extravagances and abuses of the Church, reformers forgivably rebelled against the painting and sculpture that inculcated the myths. In this matter Luther was moderate, even if he had to revise the Commandments. “I do not hold that the Gospel should destroy all the arts, as certain superstitious folk believe. On the contrary, I would fain see all arts .... serving Him Who hath created them and given them to us. The law of Moses forbade only the image of God.”1 In 1526 he called upon his adherents to “assail the... idolaters of the Roman Antichrist by means of painting.”2 Even Calvin, whose followers were the most enthusiastic iconoclasts, gave a limited approval to images. “I am not so scrupulous as to judge that no images should be endured... but seeing that the art of painting and carving .... cometh from God, I require that the practice of art should be kept pure and lawful. Therefore men should not paint nor carve anything but such as can be seen with the eye.”3 Reformers less human than Luther, less cautious than Calvin, preferred to outlaw religious painting and sculpture altogether, and to clear their churches of all ornament; “truth” banished beauty as an infidel. In England, Scotland, Switzerland, and northern Germany the destruction was wholesale and indiscriminate; in France the Huguenots melted down the reliquaries, shrines, and other vessels found in the churches that came into their power. We should have to recapture the ardor of men risking their lives to reform religion before we could understand the angry passion that in moments of victory destroyed the images that had contributed to their subjection. The demolition was brutal and barbarous, but the guilt of it must be shared by the institution that had for centuries obstructed its own reform.

Gothic art ended in this period, but the Reformation was only one cause of its demise. The reaction against the medieval Church brought with it a distaste for the styles of architecture and ornament long associated with her. And yet Gothic was dying even before Luther spoke. It ailed in Catholic France as well as in rebellious Germany and England; it was consumed in its own flamboyance. And the Renaissance, as well as the Reformation, was fatal to Gothic. For the Renaissance came from Italy, which had never loved Gothic and had travestied it even in adopting it; and the Renaissance spread chiefly among educated people whose polite skepticism could not understand the enthusiastic faith of crusading and Gothic days. As the Reformation progressed, the Church herself, which had found in Gothic architecture her supreme artistic expression, was too impoverished by the loss of Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia, and the inroads made upon her revenues by Catholic kings, to finance art as lavishly as before, or to determine taste and style. Day by day a secularizing, paganizing Renaissance asserted its classical predilections over the sacred traditions of medieval faith and form. Men impiously reached over pious and fearful centuries to grasp again the earthloving, pleasure-loving passions of antiquity. War was declared against Gothic as the art of the barbarians who had destroyed Imperial Rome. The conquered Romans came back to life, rebuilt their temples, exhumed the statues of their gods, and bade first Italy, then France and England to resume the art that had embodied the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome. The Renaissance conquered Gothic, and in France it conquered the Reformation.

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