Arts, Media, and Entertainment

The Reformation and the Visual Arts


Glenn Sunshine

While the impact of the Reformation on music is widely recognized, its considerable effect on the visual arts is not. Partly this is because Protestants are widely regarded as iconoclasts who rejected religious art altogether. Many people believe that Protestantism’s only contribution to the visual arts was to secularize them.

Although Protestant artists clearly did not produce the same kinds of religious art as the Catholic artists of the time, they certainly did paint religious works. In many cases, even their “secular” work contained spiritual themes encoded in the paintings.

Albrecht Dürer

Not surprisingly, the earliest Protestant artists painted in styles very reminiscent of Catholic painters of the day. In some cases, it isn’t entirely clear what a painter’s religious views were. Albrecht Dürer, for example, painted many of his most important works as a Catholic before the Reformation. He expressed admiration for Luther, but it is not clear whether he became a Protestant. There may be a hint, however, in his paintings of the Last Supper before and after the 95 Theses in 1517. His 1510 painting, “The Last Supper,” following Catholic iconography, does not have a chalice on the table; his 1523 painting does. Some scholars believe that this change reflects Luther’s view that the laity should receive the cup at the Eucharist, not simply the priests (as had been the case in the Catholic Church).

Lucas Cranach

The religious views of other painters are much clearer. Lucas Cranach the Elder painted both before and after the Reformation began, but he was a close collaborator with Luther. Cranach’s style did not change much, but the content of his paintings certainly did. The best example of this is Cranach’s “Law and Grace,” which he painted in consultation with Luther as a pictorial depiction of Luther’s theology and its contrast with Catholicism.

Luther believed that religious art should teach sound theology. Although Luther likely was hesitant about depicting God visually at first, he eventually allowed Cranach to paint images of Christ and even of the Father, and to include them in engravings in his Bible.

Meanwhile, Cranach continued painting traditional religious themes. Judith and Holofernes, a story from the Apocrypha, was a favorite subject, and paintings of saints and biblical stories continued to be popular among Cranach’s patrons. However, he painted fewer and fewer Madonnas over time, most likely also reflecting the interests of his patrons.

Engravings were also an important part of Lutheran art, particularly since printing allowed mass distribution of the images. As with paintings, engravings promoted Protestant ideas, presented Luther and Melanchthon as heroes (including as the Two Witnesses in Revelation), and criticized and mocked Catholic ideas and people. Later, the targets would expand to include non-Lutheran Protestants, including Calvin.

Images in the Reformed Tradition

The Reformed tradition was much more ambivalent about religious art than the Lutherans were. As we noted in the previous article, Reformed Christianity rejected the use of images in churches as distractions from the preaching of the Word. This was reinforced by the Regulative Principle, that only what is expressly commanded in Scripture can be included in worship.

Further, many Reformed thinkers argued that the Second Commandment prohibits any depiction of God. Such depictions inevitably distort our understanding of who He is since they conceal more than they reveal. This ban extends even to depictions of Jesus: even though He has a human nature, He is also God and thus is included in the prohibition.

As a result, Reformed Christians are often seen as iconoclasts, rejecting religious art altogether in favor of portraits, landscapes and seascapes, still lifes, and scenes of daily life.

Genre Paintings

However appealing this conclusion might be on the surface, it is misleading upon deeper inspection. First, Reformed Protestantism put a strong emphasis on the cultural mandate, that is, our responsibility before God to build culture, which thus means that all of life is sacred. Depictions of a well-ordered household (or, in the case of 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Steen, totally disordered households) thus make theological statements even though their subjects are not overtly religious.

Theological messages were often encoded in these paintings. For example, early modern still lifes , while they pointed to prosperity and the good life, almost always have a memento mori, that is, something to remind the viewer of the passing of time and the inevitability of death, such as a snuffed candle, an hourglass, a skull, a half-peeled piece of fruit, or an overturned glass.

Reformed Religious Art

Further, not everyone within the Reformed tradition rejected depictions of Jesus. For example, Rembrandt van Rijn painted a wide range of biblical scenes, including many from the life of Christ. (He also painted scenes from Tobit, a book in the Apocrypha not accepted as canonical by Protestants.)

Stylistically, Rembrandt’s religious paintings are markedly different from paintings produced by Catholic artists, particularly those with a Counter-Reformational focus. The Catholic paintings naturally focused on Catholic themes, such as the saints and sacraments, but many were highly charged emotionally, depicting martyrdoms, for example, and using extreme contrasts to heighten the visual impact.

Rembrandt’s religious paintings seem almost homey by comparison. Rembrandt’s painting of the “Supper at Emmaus,” for example, depicts a very human and ordinary Jesus (except for the implied halo) sitting down with very ordinary friends. Most of his paintings have a humble tone, although Rembrandt, depending on the subject, can and does use the techniques of Counter-Reformation artists. For example, his Ascension would fit very well with Catholic sensibilities of the day. On the whole, though, his paintings depict Jesus and the saints as simple people in keeping with the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the sacredness of the ordinary. These are the same themes that inform the Protestant traditions of congregational singing and giving both the bread and the wine in Communion to the laity.

Monumental Art

This brings us to a final distinction between Protestant and Catholic art in the period. While Catholic churches continued to produce monumental art and elaborate altarpieces, and used a great deal of gold leaf, particularly in frames and sculpture, Protestants preferred smaller, private commissions. There were several reasons. One of the grievances people had against the Catholic Church was its insistence on collecting tithes and then using them for gold, jewels, and elaborate decorative programs in churches. People thought the Catholic Church was getting rich off them. So churches soon stopped commissioning elaborate altarpieces and large-scale art for the churches, even in Lutheran areas.

Along with this rejection of conspicuous consumption (and the tithes needed to fund it), Reformed aesthetics of whitewashed churches bereft of statues or stained-glass windows also obviously eliminated the kind of large-scale decorative programs so typical of Catholic churches of the period. And in The Netherlands, the country’s long war for independence from Spain also contributed to a rejection of monumental art, which was associated not just with Spanish Catholicism, but also with the Spanish monarchy. The Dutch Republic thus saw it as inappropriate both theologically and politically.

Wrapping It Up

As we bring this series to a close, it is worth reflecting briefly on why the Protestant Reformation, a religious movement, changed culture on so many levels.

In our postmodern world today, religion is just one aspect of life, seen as largely disconnected from everything else (except perhaps for ethics and morality). In the medieval world, however, religion provided the basic framework governing all of life:

  • When you were born, you received your name at baptism in the church;
  • Your profession had a patron saint, and if you were in a guild, you had religious duties associated with your work;
  • Religious rituals blessed the fields to help ensure their fertility;
  • The church determined whom you could marry, using both biological and spiritual kinship to determine how closely you were related to avoid incest;
  • You married, if at all, in a church;
  • Social welfare and charity were handled either by religious orders or by confraternities, lay religious organizations;
  • Religious leaders such as bishops were part of civil government;
  • When you were on your deathbed, the priest came to console you;
  • When you died, you were buried in the churchyard;
  • The church regulated probate law since it was a form of sacred vow.

Despite the well-known corruption in the Catholic Church of the late Middle Ages, its position was unassailable—it had a monopoly on the means of salvation. If you wanted to go to heaven, your only route was believed to be through the Catholic Church’s sacraments.

When Luther rediscovered justification by faith in Scripture, the Catholic monopoly on salvation was broken. This development had a massive ripple effect through everything that the Catholic Church touched, including the family, work and the economy, politics, law, the arts … literally every area of life. And in the process, for good and ill, the Protestant Reformation laid the foundation for the modern world.


Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Image: “Supper at Emmaus” by Rembrandt van Rijn, Wikimedia Commons


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