Reformation and Counter-Reformation
How do you get to heaven? Does religious art lead to idolatry?
The Reformation asked these and other good questions.
1517 and after
The Protestant Reformation
A challenge to the Church in Rome
In art history, the sixteenth century sees the styles we call the High Renaissance followed by Mannerism, and—at the end of the century—the emergence of the Baroque style. Naturally, these styles are all shaped by historical forces, the most significant being the Protestant Reformation’s successful challenge to the spiritual and political power of the Church in Rome. For the history of art this has particular significance since the use (and abuse) of images was the topic of debate. In fact, many images were attacked and destroyed during this period, a phenomenon called iconoclasm.
The Protestant Reformation
Today there are many types of Protestant Churches. For example, Baptist is currently the largest denomination in the United States but there are many dozens more. How did this happen? Where did they all begin? To understand the Protestant Reform movement, we need to go back in history to the early sixteenth century when there was only one church in Western Europe – what we would now call the Roman Catholic Church – under the leadership of the Pope in Rome. Today, we call this “Roman Catholic” because there are so many other types of churches (ie Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican – you get the idea).
The Church and the state
So, if we go back to the year 1500, the Church (what we now call the Roman Catholic Church) was very powerful (politically and spiritually) in Western Europe (and in fact ruled over significant territory in Italy called the Papal States). But there were other political forces at work too. There was the Holy Roman Empire (largely made up of German speaking regions ruled by princes, dukes and electors), the Italian city-states, England, as well as the increasingly unified nation states of France and Spain (among others). The power of the rulers of these areas had increased in the previous century and many were anxious to take the opportunity offered by the Reformation to weaken the power of the papacy (the office of the Pope) and increase their own power in relation to the Church in Rome and other rulers.
Keep in mind too, that for some time the Church had been seen as an institution plagued by internal power struggles (at one point in the late 1300s and 1400s church was ruled by three Popes simultaneously). Popes and Cardinals often lived more like kings than spiritual leaders. Popes claimed temporal (political) as well as spiritual power. They commanded armies, made political alliances and enemies, and, sometimes, even waged war. Simony (the selling of Church offices) and nepotism (favoritism based on family relationships) were rampant. Clearly, if the Pope was concentrating on these worldly issues, there wasn’t as much time left for caring for the souls of the faithful. The corruption of the Church was well known, and several attempts had been made to reform the Church (notably by John Wyclif and Jan Hus), but none of these efforts successfully challenged Church practice until Martin Luther’s actions in the early 1500s.
Martin Luther was a German monk and Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther sparked the Reformation in 1517 by posting, at least according to tradition, his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany – these theses were a list of statements that expressed Luther’s concerns about certain Church practices – largely the sale of indulgences, but they were based on Luther’s deeper concerns with Church doctrine. Before we go on, notice that the word Protestant contains the word “protest” and that reformation contains the word “reform” – this was an effort, at least at first, to protest some practices of the Catholic Church and to reform that Church,
The sale of indulgences was a practice where the church acknowledged a donation or other charitable work with a piece of paper (an indulgence), that certified that your soul would enter heaven more quickly by reducing your time in purgatory. If you committed no serious sins that guaranteed your place in hell, and you died before repenting and atoning for all of your sins, then your soul went to Purgatory – a kind of way-station where you finished atoning for your sins before being allowed to enter heaven.
Pope Leo X had granted indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These indulgences were being sold by Johann Tetzel not far from Wittenberg, where Luther was Professor of Theology. Luther was gravely concerned about the way in which getting into heaven was connected with a financial transaction. But the sale of indulgences was not Luther’s only disagreement with the institution of the Church.
Martin Luther was very devout and had experienced a spiritual crisis. He concluded that no matter how “good” he tried to be, no matter how he tried to stay away from sin, he still found himself having sinful thoughts. He was fearful that no matter how many good works he did, he could never do enough to earn his place in heaven (remember that, according to the Catholic Church, doing good works, for example commissioning works of art for the Church, helped one gain entrance to heaven). This was a profound recognition of the inescapable sinfulness of the human condition. After all, no matter how kind and good we try to be, we all find ourselves having thoughts which are unkind and sometimes much worse. Luther found a way out of this problem when he read St. Paul, who wrote “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Luther understood this to mean that those who go to heaven (the just) will get there by faith alone – not by doing good works. In other words, God’s grace is something freely given to human beings, not something we can earn. For the Catholic Church on the other hand, human beings, through good works, had some agency in their salvation.
Luther (and other reformers) turned to the Bible as the only reliable source of instruction (as opposed to the teachings of the Church). The invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century (by Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany) together with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular (the common languages of French, Italian, German, English, etc.) meant that it was possible for those that could read to learn directly from Bible without having to rely on a priest or other church officials. Before this time, the Bible was available in Latin, the ancient language of Rome spoken chiefly by the clergy. Before the printing press, books were handmade and extremely expensive. The invention of the printing press and the translation of the bible into the vernacular meant that for the first time in history, the Bible was available to those outside of the Church. And now, a direct relationship to God, unmediated by the institution of the Catholic Church, was possible.
When Luther and other reformers looked to the words of the Bible (and there were efforts at improving the accuracy of these new translations based on early Greek manuscripts), they found that many of the practices and teachings of the Church about how we achieve salvation didn’t match Christ’s teaching. This included many of the Sacraments, including Holy Communion (also known as the Eucharist). According to the Catholic Church, the miracle of Communion is transubstantiation – when the priest administers the bread and wine, they change (the prefix “trans” means to change) their substance into the body and blood of Christ. Luther denied that anything changed during Holy Communion. Luther thereby challenged one of the central sacraments of the Catholic Church, one of its central miracles, and thereby one of the ways that human beings can achieve grace with God, or salvation.
The Church initially ignored Martin Luther, but Luther’s ideas (and variations of them, including Calvinism) quickly spread throughout Europe. He was asked to recant (to disavow) his writings at the Diet of Worms (an unfortunate name for a council held by the Holy Roman Emperor in the German city of Worms). When Luther refused, he was excommunicated (in other words, expelled from the church). The Church’s response to the threat from Luther and others during this period is called the Counter-Reformation (“counter” — against).
The Council of Trent
In 1545 the Church opened the Council of Trent to deal with the issues raised by Luther. The Council of Trent was an assembly of high officials in the Church who met (on and off for eighteen years) principally in the Northern Italian town of Trent for 25 sessions.
Selected Outcomes of the Council of Trent:
- The Council denied the Lutheran idea of justification by faith. They affirmed, in other words, their Doctrine of Merit, which allows human beings to redeem themselves through Good Works, and through the sacraments.
- They affirmed the existence of Purgatory and the usefulness of prayer and indulgences in shortening a person’s stay in Purgatory.
- They reaffirmed the belief in transubstantiation and the importance of all seven sacraments
- They reaffirmed the authority of both scripture the teachings and traditions of the Church
- They reaffirmed the necessity and correctness of religious art (see below)
The Council of Trent on religious art
At the Council of Trent, the Church also reaffirmed the usefulness of images—but indicated that church officials should be careful to promote the correct use of images and guard against the possibility of idolatry. The council decreed that images are useful “because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent” (in other words, through the images we honor the holy figures depicted). And they listed another reason images were useful, “because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety.”
The Reformation was a very violent period in Europe, even family members were often pitted against one another in the wars of religion. Each side, both Catholics and Protestants, were often absolutely certain that they were in the right and that the other side was doing the devil’s work.
The artists of this period – Michelangelo in Rome, Titian in Venice, Durer in Nuremberg, Cranach in Saxony – were impacted by these changes since the Church had been the single largest patron for artists. And art was now being scrutinized in an entirely new way. The Catholic Church was looking to see if art communicated the stories of the Bible effectively and clearly (see Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi for more on this). Protestants on the other hand, for the most part lost the patronage of the Church and religious images (sculptures, paintings, stained glass windows etc) were destroyed in iconoclastic riots.
It is also during this period that the Scientific Revolution gained momentum and observation of the natural world replaced religious doctrine as the source of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Copernicus up-ended the ancient Greek model of the heavens by suggesting that the Sun was at the center of the solar system and that the planets orbited around it.
At the same time, exploration, colonization and (the often forced) Christianization of what Europe called the “new world” continued. By the end of the century, the world of the Europeans was a lot bigger and opinions about that world were more varied and more uncertain than they had been for centuries.
Please note, this tutorial focuses on Western Europe. There are other forms of Christianity in other parts of the world including for example the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Introduction to the Protestant Reformation (part 1 of 4): Setting the stage
Introduction to the Protestant Reformation (part 2 of 4): Martin Luther
Introduction to the Protestant Reformation (part 3 of 4): Varieties of Protestantism
Introduction to the Protestant Reformation (part 4 of 4): The Counter-Reformation
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Law and Gospel (Law and Grace)
How to get to heaven?
How exactly do you get to heaven? Good deeds? Can you get yourself to heaven on your own merit or do you have to sit back and let God do the work? These questions caused international controversy, mass looting, vandalism, and killing in the sixteenth century. One casualty of the violence and chaos was the destruction of thousands of works of religious art. Iconoclasts (breakers of likenesses/images) stormed through churches, destroying every work of art they could get their hands on. How did heaven get to be so controversial?
The most influential image of the Lutheran Reformation
These questions are answered in a surprising kind of picture called The Law and the Gospel (full image below, detail above), originally painted by the artist Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1529. The Law and the Gospel is the single most influential image of the Lutheran Reformation. The Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, was originally an attempt to reform the Catholic Church. However, reform quickly became rebellion, as people began to question the power and practices of the Catholic Church, which had been the only church in western Europe up until Luther.
The role of art
A decisive difference between Catholics and followers of Luther was the question of how to get to heaven, and what role, if any, religious art could play. The Catholic Church insisted that believers could take action to vouchsafe their salvation by doing good deeds, including making financial donations and paying for elaborate art to decorate Christian churches. Luther, however, insisted that salvation was in God’s hands, and all the believer had to do was to open up and have faith. As people became disillusioned with Catholic teaching, they grew angry about the ways the Catholic Church became rich in money, art, and power. When reform became impossible and rebellion the only course of action, furious, frustrated believers directed their anger at works of art, an easy and powerful target.
Other reformers followed Luther’s example and staged rebellions against the Catholic Church. Some reformers took a strong position against religious art, forbidding it entirely. Luther however was more moderate, and believed that some religious art was acceptable provided it taught the right lessons, and this is where The Law and the Gospel comes in.
Luther’s ideas in visual form
In consultation with Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder produced The Law and the Gospel (below). All of Cranach’s Lutheran painting rests upon this pictorial type, which also influenced other artists. The Law and the Gospel explains Luther’s ideas in visual form, most basically the notion that heaven is reached through faith and God’s grace. Luther despised and rejected the Catholic idea that good deeds, what he called “good works,” could play any role in salvation.
In The Law and the Gospel (below), two nude male figures appear on either side of a tree that is green and living on the “Gospel” side to the viewer’s right, but barren and dying on the “law” side to the viewer’s left. Six columns of Bible citations appear at the bottom of the panel.
Right (“gospel”) side
On the “gospel” side of the image (the right side), John the Baptist directs a naked man to both Christ on the cross in front of the tomb and to the risen Christ who appears on top of the tomb (see detail at top of page). The risen Christ stands triumphant above the empty tomb, acting out the miracle of the Resurrection. This nude figure is not vainly hoping to follow the law or to present a tally of his good deeds on the judgment day. He stands passively, stripped down to his soul, submitting to God’s mercy.
Left (“law”) side
In the left foreground a skeleton and a demon force a frightened naked man into hell, as a group of prophets, including Moses, point to the tablets of the law. The motifs on the left side of the composition are meant to exemplify the idea that law alone, without gospel, can never get you to heaven. Christ sits in Judgment as Adam and Eve (in the background) eat the fruit and fall from grace. Moses beholds these events from his vantage point toward the center of the picture, his white tablets standing out against the saturated orange robe and the deep green tree behind him, literally highlighting the association of law, death, and damnation.
Taken together, these motifs demonstrate that law leads inescapably to hell when mistaken for a path to salvation, as the damned naked man demonstrates.
God judges and God shows mercy
The Law and the Gospel is concerned with two roles that God plays, to judge and to show mercy. On the one hand, God judges and condemns human sin; but on the other hand, God also shows mercy and forgiveness, granting unearned salvation to sinful believers. As Reformation scholar Bernhard Lohse explains:
The Word of God encounters people as law and as gospel, as a word of judgment and as a word of grace…. It is certainly true that there is more law than gospel in the Old Testament and more gospel than law in the New Testament. Luther’s distinction between law and gospel, however, referred to something other than the division of biblical statements into the two parts of the biblical canon. This distinction rather describes the fact that God both judges and is merciful.¹
Luther’s idea of law is multifaceted, and bears a complex relationship to his idea of gospel. Though law alone will never make salvation possible, it remains indispensable as the way the believer recognizes sin and the need for grace. Law paves the way to salvation by preparing the way for grace.
Although The Law and the Gospel includes events from both the New and the Old Testaments, it is not a simple contrast of Christianity and Judaism. If The Law and the Gospel simply distinguished between the Old and New Testaments—or even more broadly between Judaism and Christianity—then it would not be specifically Lutheran or new, art historically or theologically. Instead, The Law and Gospel concerns two aspects of the relationship between humanity and God, a relationship based on human action on the one hand, and divine power on the other. The Law and Gospel describes events throughout the Bible which reveal the dual aspect of God’s relationship to people.
The Law and the Gospel is Lutheran because it represents Cranach’s pictorial translation of Luther’s unique understanding of salvation. The painting interprets the roles of law, good works, faith, and grace in the human relationship to God.
Note: The Law and the Gospel is frequently called Law and Grace, a title which derives from a version of the painting in Prague (above), where the terms “Gesecz” (Law) and “Gnad” (Grace) are boldly painted and plainly visible.
1. Bernard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, Fortress Press, 1986.
Iconoclasm in the Netherlands in the Sixteenth Century
Different church interiors — Calvinist (Protestant) and Catholic
In paintings by seventeenth-century Dutch artist Pieter Saenredam, the interiors of Calvinist churches often appear as blank, sterile spaces with white walls, clear glass windows, and a notable lack of decoration. We know from his meticulous preparatory drawings that Saenredam was a precise artist, and although he sometimes did make changes to the interiors he represented, they were by and large emblematic of what Dutch Calvinist sacred space was like. By contrast, Pieter Neefs’s contemporary paintings of Flemish Catholic religious spaces — which contain a profusion of small altars and devotional artwork — reflect a distinctly different attitude about decoration, materiality, and piety. The difference between Calvinist and Catholic churches persists to this day.
Some of these differences can be attributed to two intertwined events of the sixteenth century that transformed the Low Countries (a lowland region in northern Europe that includes Belgium and the Netherlands): the prioritization of the written word in the theological reforms of the Protestant Reformation and the Iconoclasm (or Beeldenstorm) of 1566. The word “iconoclasm” refers to any deliberate destruction of images. Instances of iconoclasm can be found from the ancient world to contemporary events, such as the 2015 destruction of Palmyra in Syria by ISIS or the elimination of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.
Here, iconoclasm specifically refers to the events of 1566 in an area that we now know as Belgium and the Netherlands. Prior to 1566, most churches in this region would have been largely encrusted with ornament: guilds commissioned altarpieces for their chapels while private patrons donated memorial paintings, endowed tomb sites, and donated elaborate shrines or ritual vessels. Piety was made visible in the material culture of the church, paralleling a northern European explosion in personal devotional artwork in the form of manuscripts, woodcut prints, carved boxwood shrines and prayer beads, and small paintings.
The sixteenth century was a time of significant religious change. According to legend, in 1516, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg and criticized what he perceived as corrupt practices within the Catholic Church. Following Luther, numerous other Northern European reformers shifted away from the Catholic Church centered in Rome. Among other more systemic and doctrinal issues, the reformers also had complicated relationships with religious imagery.
Controversy over the nature of religious images was not new in the sixteenth century. The same tension had rocked the Byzantine Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries. Like the earlier Byzantine case, strict reformers believed images were inherently sinful.
The northern humanist Desiderius Erasmus noted that the physical veneration of an object made it an active agent and turned it into an idol, pushing the objects and images traditionally at the heart of northern European piety into the zone of the idolatrous. Therefore, to use an image as part of your prayers creates idols — the very sin explicitly condemned in the Second Commandment, which reads:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a 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; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:3
Luther himself was not entirely anti-image, stating that if there was no sin in the heart, there was no risk in seeing images with your eyes. However, the faithful needed to remove the roots of sin in themselves; they needed to worship God and not a material object which takes the place of God. Luther later clarified that what the second commandment prohibited was images of God; images of saints or crucifixes were not condemned by him as they serve as memorials.
By 1566, the debate about the line between “an image of a religious figure or story that aided in devotional practice” and “an idolatrous object which took the place of God in the sinful heart of the viewer” had been heavily contested for close to fifty years. The precise nature of the debate varied widely based on location, and violence against images erupted at different times in different cities throughout Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Belgium, and England.
The debate about the nature of images seems abstract and it is impossible to know to what extent the theological details were the motivations of any specific iconoclast. In the case of the Beeldenstorm of 1566, we can focus on a few factors to more closely examine one particular case and the intersection of tensions that led to violence. Studying the Beeldenstorm is complicated by the fact that it took many different forms depending on the local conditions and the range of responses to both religious and political circumstance.
Church, state, and other complex issues
Debates over religious imagery occurred at the same time as other complex disputes. Political tensions were running high. At the time, most of the land that now constitutes The Netherlands and Belgium was the Spanish Netherlands — an assortment of territories brought together through marriages and dynastic alliances and owing fealty to the King of Spain.
Through the abdication of the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V, in 1556 and the ascension of Philip II to the throne of Spain, Netherlanders were becoming increasingly unhappy. The Spanish Crown supported an aggressive Catholic identity and agenda and vigorously pursued heretics (anyone not practicing Catholicism in line with the teachings of the Church in Rome).
The Spanish Inquisition existed specifically to root out those who were not Catholic enough. Though we tend to think of the Inquisition as something confined to the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), it also had a significant impact on Northern Europe. A branch of the Inquisition operated there which was overseen by Margaret of Parma (the illegitimate daughter of Philip II who had been appointed regent and reported to her father). In response to petitions filed by the local nobility, Margaret ended the Inquisition in 1564 in an attempt to broker peace and avoid outright rebellion. A group who came to be called the Gueux brought further petitions in 1566 to try to end ongoing persecution. The tensions surrounding religious persecution were made worse by several bad harvests, prolonged and widespread famine, particularly harsh winters, and new taxes.
“Hedge preachers” as rebellious leaders
Religious, political, and economic issues were closely intertwined. To a Flemish Protestant, the Spanish Catholic Crown represented religious and political oppression. This was made worse by the widening cultural and linguistic gap between the Spanish Crown and its Flemish subjects. These tensions were brought to a boil by hagenprekers, or “hedge preachers,” wandering figures who whipped up anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic sentiment in sermons held outdoors, and usually outside of city walls and therefore beyond easy jurisdiction.
Several scholars have argued that Pieter Bruegel’s painting, The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist, represents this biblical event as if it were happening in the current political climate. John the Baptist, here cast as a hedge preacher, almost disappears into the crowd; Jesus, who he is introducing, is even less noticeable. Typically for Bruegel, the crowd of people gathered to listen to the speaker are from all walks of life and dressed in contemporary Flemish clothing.
One face stands out in the crowd because he unexpectedly faces the viewer: a man in a black hat having his palm read in the foreground. He would have been identifiable to contemporary viewers as dressed in a Spanish mode, and fortune telling would have been seen as corrupt and popish.
The Spaniard alone ignores the humble John the Baptist in favor of giving in to superstitious practices, while two monks in the front right look on with expressions that could be interpreted as jeers and skepticism. As a result, Bruegel’s painting possibly functions simultaneously as a biblical scene and a contemporary political polemic, containing just enough ambiguity to not ruffle Inquisitorial feathers.
The hedge preachers were at least partially responsible for the ignition of the Beeldenstorm, the sudden outbreak of violence against religious images that began in the summer of 1566 and spread throughout the Low Countries. In response to their anti-Catholic preaching, violence began in West Flanders and radiated outward.
In some towns, it was outright mob violence: groups of people burst into churches, smashing windows and sculptures. In other cities, the destruction of religious images was systematic and either openly or covertly supported by the local government. In some cases, the iconoclasts and the local Catholic Church officials negotiated for the survival of certain artworks.
It was a fever that spread throughout the Low Countries, leaving few towns untouched by the sudden explosion of anti-image sentiment. According to Alistair Duke, the destruction of images functioned as a ritualistic act intended to prove to both Catholics and Protestants that the images were powerless. If images were indeed sacred conduits that connected the faithful to God, they would defend themselves; since it was possible to destroy them, they were therefore earthly vanity and merely distractions from truth.
To destroy the objects and ritually humiliate them was to reject the broader political and religious structures they represented, as well. Sculptures were torn down from their niches, windows were smashed, and altars and shrines were disassembled and burned.
When the sculptures were part of the fabric of the building and could not be easily removed, the heads of the figures were hacked off. Examples reflecting this kind of violence remain visible in churches throughout the Northern Low Countries inside previously Catholic, now Protestant churches.
Iconoclasm in 1566 was not just the result of doctrinal disagreement about the nature of religious imagery and the interpretation of biblical text. It was instead a response to intertwined issues of politics, religious oppression, and economic factors. It was one spark that helped ignite the flames of the Eighty Years War, a war that ultimately resulted in the split between the northern Calvinist provinces of the Dutch Republic and the southern Catholic province that remained connected to Spain. As much as the violence of the Beeldenstorm itself may have been short-lived, the broader cultural and historical changes that cascaded as a result had permanent and far-reaching consequences.
David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989).
Alistair Duke, “Calvinists and Papist Idolatry: the Mentality of the Image-breakers in 1566,” in Dissident identities in the early modern Low Countries, ed. Pollman and Spicer (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009).