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The Reformation’s Influence on Northern European Art

February 8, 2012

 As Protestantism spread over Northern Europe during the 16th century, the subjects and themes that artists began taking on started to stray from the strict religious standards of Rome. Religious paintings in Northern Europe typically had a Protestant spin on traditional Catholic themes, as Martin Luther sought refuge for himself and his church in Germany. But further still, artists in Northern Europe were not limited to depicting religious works of art, and the patronage of the wealthy upper class allowed a large number of secular works to be made as well.

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Durer is a good example of Protestantism’s tangible mark on religious art during the Reformation. A two panel piece, Durer has depicted two apostles per panel, with Peter and John on the left and Mark and Paul on the right. Where in the past Peter may have been given some hierarchical status as the first pope, Luther’s favorite evangelist, John, stands in front of Peter, dominating him both in size and stance (John with a sturdy stance holding an open Bible while Peter stands behind and to the side, almost reading over his shoulder). Opposite, the same domination of foreground figure over background figure is used. Paul stands solid with a staff in one hand and a Bible in the other, his eyes sideways glancing towards the viewer soberly, while Mark looks up inquisitively towards Paul (Paul’s epistles were favored by Protestants). The open Bible that John holds also makes reference to Protestant thought, with “In the beginning was the Word” visible to the viewer. This, along with the inscriptions on the bottom of the panels, refers to Luther’s teachings that faith should be placed more on the teachings (and personal revelations) in the Bible and less on the institutional interpretations of the Bible (the Roman religious society). The most interesting aspect of this piece to me, as it relates to the ideas of the Reformation, is the text he wrote when presenting the piece to the city of Nuremberg. “For a Christian would no more be led to superstition by a picture or effigy than an honest man to commit murder because he carries a weapon by his side. He must indeed be an unthinking man who would worship picture, wood, or stone. A picture therefore brings more good than harm, when it is honourably, artistically, and well made”. This statement is a direct criticism of the Catholic church for its’ actions regarding censorship in art leading up to and during the spread of Protestantism. It also rejects the notion that there are formal or sacred ways to depict religious images, but rather any image produced by an artist with a personal desire to honor or celebrate God or the Bible should be considered respectable. This attitude is exactly the reason why secular and more conceptual interpretations of religious themes were permitted to flourish in Northern Europe.

The Northern tendency during the Renaissance to place more focus on color and detail than the Italians carried out through the 16th century. This, along with more secular images being sought by patrons, led to an increase in the amount of landscape paintings being done in the 16th century. Whether purely landscape with no human subject or narrative (a la Albrecht Altdorfer) or exquisite lanscapes providing the background for naturalistic scenes, everyday activities, or portraits of wealthy patrons, depiction of landscape can be a clear distinction between Northern and Italian art. The vibrant colors and atmospheric qualities of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s landscapes in his Cycle of Months clearly marks it as Northern. Though Return of the Hunters’ title would suggest the piece’s focus is narrative, and there is certainly a group of hunters in the foreground, the expansive landscape could easily be thought as the focal point of the piece. Series of paintings such as Pieter’s Cycle of Months were popular among affluent houses in the Netherlands at the time as interior decoration. Artwork in Northern Europe seemed to serve increasingly more as conversation pieces and jumping off points to intellectual/conceptual discussions. The artist Hieronymus Bosch (himself from the Netherlands as well) was an artist that played with the boundaries of imagination and complex conceptual motives. It’s been suggested by art critics that his paintings, and in particular The Garden of Earthly Delights, seeks to instigate personal interpretations, being intentionally ambiguous rather than using standard definitions of symbolism. Though Garden of Earthly Delights clearly depicts religious themes, the execution is hardly something that would have been condoned by the Inquisition occuring at the same time further South. This piece of art is perhaps the clearest example of what Durer spoke of when presenting his Four Apostles. The personal investigation into one’s faith that Hieronymous Bosch is taking by embarking on such a profoundly conceptually complex and deep piece has to be appreciated as a practice of faith and as a form of theological study. It’s also interesting to note that in a piece so consumed by symbolism, human activity, and bizarre narrative, the landscapes (and their colors) in the 3 panels demand the viewer’s attention as much as anything else, clearly pointing out where this piece comes from.



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  1. I am glad you added Durer’s quote about his Four Apostles painting. I must have missed that in my reading or did not get it into my notes. I believe that the quote may also have been directed towards the Calvinists that found much of the religious art, particularly that which included Saints, a form of idolatry. I understand that there were iconoclastic riots that destroyed a lot of art of this nature though I am unsure as to exact dates that these took place. The 1526 date does place the work a good 9 years after the alleged theses hammering that Martin Luther is renowned for but I also understand that news moved slowly during this time period and the riots may not yet have begun.

  2. Brian, that’s an interesting point about Calvinists. If this painting was created about 10 years later, then that quote could have been related to Calvinism. However, Calvinism itself doesn’t really get established until the 1530s. John Calvin’s seminal work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion” was first published in 1536.

  3. Durer does seem to be addressing some concern about idol worship… It would be interesting to learn more about the conversations of the day. Imagine having the opportunity to mass produce any printed word or image that you wanted to for the very first time in history… Durer had clearly given thought to the potential of this technology, could he have been anticipating repercussions?

  4. The inscription definitely addresses concern about idol worship. I have read some commentary about how this inscription seems to serve as a warning for religious radicals – both Protestant and Christians alike.

    I like your thought about Dürer anticipating repercussions. Perhaps so. He might have felt compelled to make this positive statement about art in a public, authoritative space (since these panels were a gift to the city of Nuremberg).

    You might be interested to know that these inscriptions were sawed off of the paintings at one point, when Maximilian I (a Bavarian ruler in the 17th century) obtained possession of the paintings. As a Catholic, Maximilian I found the inscriptions to be heretical. The inscriptions were reunited with the rest of the panels in 1922.

  5. mel permalink

    The Garden of Earthly Delights predates the Protestant Reformation

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