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Revolutions in 16th Century Western Europe: Protestant Reformation & It’s Effect on Art

The Protestant Reformation was a split in the Christian religion during the 16th century that divided Europe in many ways. Christianity was separated into several sects that each had it’s own ideals and values that helped to shape (and even destroy) art during that time period. The split in the religion eventually became so disputed by both sides that it developed into the Thirty Years War; the aftermath left central Europe financially and physically devastated.

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The Roman Catholic church rejected the concepts of the Protestant movement, and generally the art fabricated from Roman Catholic countries moved into a stricter, more rigorous style especially in terms of religious depictions. Most of the pieces made in Southern European countries were contemporary-religious with the ideals of the Roman Catholic church. On the other hand, the amount of work produced in Protestant countries was largely diminished; the majority of Northern European countries created secular style-pieces and favoured the idea that religious symbolism in artistic representation was idolatrous. In this blog post, the differences between the principles of both churches will become quite discernible.

When the Reformation occurred and Europe became broken, the Protestant art that was being fashioned became focused on secular concepts. The Roman Catholics advocated the idea that depicting God and religious characters, ethics, or scenes was a necessary element of art. when the Reformation occurred and Europe was essentially broken, the Protestant art that was being fashioned became focused on secular concepts. The Catholics thought that there was far too much focus being put on material things and there were not enough holy works being depicted. Thus began the Counter-Reformation.

Protestantism was advocative to a certain degree of the destruction of religious imagery; this is known as iconoclasm. The more subtle that holy iconography was (i.e.: smaller codexes, scrolls), the more tolerable it was. Furthermore, many of the central religious figures that were seen markedly in biblical illustrations during the previous centuries to the Reformation had lost their clarity and distinction within most Protestant works. This actually led to the deterioration of sales for artisans, and commissioned works from the Church ceased to exist. The sales and displaying of religious works were placed entirely in the hands of artists and patrons.

A pre-Reformation depiction of several religious figures. Leonardo Da Vinci, Madonna of the Rocks -1438-1446

A pre-Reformation depiction of several religious figures.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Madonna of the Rocks -1438-1446

Very little religious iconography seen in this Protestant painting. Peter Breugel the Elder, The Peasant Wedding 1567

Very little religious iconography seen in this Protestant painting.
Peter Breugel the Elder, The Peasant Wedding 1567

Arguably one of the most significant differences in the theological perspectives of the Roman Catholic church and the Protestants was the concept of transubstantiation, a.k.a the literal transformation of wine and bread to the blood and body of Christ. There is much debate as to how this idea should be interpreted, more substantially or more symbolically. The Catholic side mainly thought that it was more substantial and to emphasize that point, the Catholic  churches commonly had crucifixions shown as an altarpiece. This visual implication becomes chiefly meaningful when you contrast it with the Protestant altarpiece commonly depicting the Last Supper.

Roman Catholic Altarpiece, Mid- Sixteenth Century

Roman Catholic Altarpiece, Mid- Sixteenth Century

Protestant Altar Piece

Protestant Altar Piece

The spiritual meaning behind the Protestant beliefs in regards to the Eucharist (a picture of the Last Summer) is in essence to remind worshippers that the Eucharist is just a symbolic meaning whereas the Catholic belief was that the Eucharist was to be taken quite literally; the dispute on this particular subject brought about very extensive iconoclasm from both sides of Christianity.

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