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Friday, November 19, 2010

Calvin and the Arts

Even today, I think we'd have to say that there remains, to some degree, an uneasy alliance between organized religion and art. It is uneasy both on an institutional and a personal level depending on the denomination and the individual. Both the artists and the clergy are wary of one another because neither are dependent on the other economically or symbiotically. Today, there is a strong Calvinist streak running through Protestant denominations in particular that, if not totally eschewing art and decoration, at least they tend to use it sparingly.
Iconoclasts in a Church, 1630,
Dirck van Delen
Some five hundred years ago, however, the Calvinists, often referred to as iconoclasts, went to war against all forms of religious art. Arising from various excesses of the Catholic Church, the followers of John Calvin in Holland and northern Europe had a great deal of popular support. They were especially severe and dogmatic in banning the use of all imagery in places of worship. They considered it idolatrous and evidence of the corruption of the Catholic Church. Their preoccupation with this belief reach its militant height during the sixteenth century when they tore down art from many northern cathedrals, leaving once magnificent interiors whitewashed and spartan.

Boy Removing Fleas from His Dog,
Gerard ter Borch
By 1566, support for the arts from the Dutch church had totally collapsed and artists were forced to turn elsewhere for sustenance. Their economic salvation was in the newly affluent middle class. The impact of this change was far more than economic, however. A new market required a new art. Grand religious murals and enormous Biblical scenes were out. Modest depictions of everyday life among the common people were in. Portraits became the artists' bread and butter. Landscapes thrived. Genre arrived. Artists like Gerard ter Borch painted pictures such as Boy Removing Fleas from his Dog, and that boy was not Jesus. 

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