Joseph Leo Koerner on Art and the Reformation
We in the field of Northern Renaissance art have hardly finished celebrating one big anniversary, and another is already upon us. Five hundred years ago last August, Hieronymus van Aken, known by his taken name as “Bosch,” went to his grave, and the anniversary of death day was celebrated by conferences, books, and fabulous exhibitions in ’s-Hertogenbosch, where the artist lived and worked, and in Madrid, where most of his masterpieces hang. This work didn’t solve all the enigmas of this most elusive of painters, but it did bring him and the works attributed to him more sharply in focus than before. Now we look forward to the quincentenary of a much more historically consequential event: Luther’s writing and posting his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517.
The last Hieronymus Bosch centennial, the one back in 1916, occasioned no festivity, and previous anniversaries of the Flemish artist came and went unnoticed: the date of his death was not rediscovered until 1857, and at that time only specialists cared. By contrast, each of the last four centenaries of the Reformation’s zero hour were feted as defining cultural and political events of their own time, celebrations in which, every hundred years, the Lutheran confession, and eventually the whole German nation, put its identity display: here, as one artist imagined him in 1917, in the midst of World War I, the Reformer looking sternly back at us while performing his epochal hammer blow.
And here a contemporary engraving of the festive dedication of a commemorative obelisk in Zittau in 1817: scores of such monuments were erected in Lutheran towns in Germany that year, partly to affirm religion over against its enlightened detractors, partly to shore up national feelings in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.
And finally here, how one anonymous artist in 1617 imagined the event of 1517, with Luther’s outsized quill toppling the papacy in faraway Rome as he writes his theses on a church door in Wittenberg. Other Reformers—Calvin, Zwingli, etc.—grab the feather’s offshoots.
For art historians, the shift from celebrating Bosch to celebrating Luther can be wrenching. In Bosch, we wrestle with aesthetic and semantic overload; with Lutheran art, we have to make due with drab school pictures, or else we try to grapple with art history’s inimical foe, the iconoclasts. However, this wrenching change can illuminate what we might attempt to commemorate in 2017, namely: an epochal turning point to a new world order, perhaps to the modern one we still inhabit. The idea of a single, local event—an obscure monk making obscure arguments in a swampy town in Saxony: this idea of one gesture having global consequences shaped the very image of that event: Luther as tatmensch, as heroic, decidedly German man-of-action nailing the theses to the door with mighty hammer, when, in actuality, if indeed they were ever publically posted, the theses were probably fixed to a crowded notice board with sealing wax.
Last year the fact that Hieronymus Bosch died the year before the Reformation colored our perception of his art. Unlike Albrecht Dürer, say, who lived until 1528, witnessed his native Nuremberg become Germany’s first major Protestant city, and even wrote a personal lament on Luther’s behalf, Bosch rests as if sealed within an earlier epoch, hence, in textbooks and survey courses, his characterization as the last gothic artist and perfect medieval foil to a Renaissance that begins in the North with Dürer. But more vividly, Bosch personifies what is often called the “eve” of the Reformation. The word eve is almost synonymous with evening, and it conjures a darkness preceding what’s to come. Consigned to the waning of the Middle Ages, the thinking goes, Bosch foreshadowed, but himself benightedly couldn’t understand, the endpoint of the historical vector to which his art also belongs. And his art does seem to belong to a definite vector because it anticipates attitudes that would be developed by Protestants. For example, his scenes of sin, folly, and damnation show monks, priests, and the Pope in compromising situations; and in Bosch’s hands, church ceremony sometimes takes a sinister or demonic turn.
I believe Bosch introduced these satirical details to poke a finger at his own patrons, some of whom would have been erudite clerics able to get the joke. These details also allowed his moralizing to hit home with both orders, the priestly and the lay. But in our time, Bosch’s seeming anti-clericalism has led many scholars to cast the artist as a secret heretic or else as a reformer avant le lettre.
There is throughout Bosch’s art a more plausible premonition of evangelical piety, and that is his marked focus on the inner self. With few exceptions, this painter portrays not the militant martyrs but the hermit saints—spiritual loners like his name saint, St. Jerome, or like St. Anthony, who turns inward in order to imitate Christ.
Staring calmly out at us from the vortex of his trials, Bosch’s kneeling hermit exemplifies what the preachers of the day called “apathy,” the elimination, that is, of any pathos for the world. Unlike other painters, who engineer their portrayals to inspire public veneration of the saints for their miracles and martyrdoms, Bosch makes his images look the viewer right in the eye, effecting in him or her that inner turn to Christ modeled by the apathetic saint.
Not only is religion an inner and personal activity in Bosch, as it will also be in Luther; Christ himself withdraws from view, or he is conspicuously obscured, and this prefigures Luther’s theology of the cross, with its idea of Christ as the hidden god, the deus absconditus.
A metaphysics of concealment affects just about everything in Bosch’s art, from his deliberate construction of iconographic enigmas to his the spontaneous and evasive way he lays down paint on panel. Bosch is at his most Boschian when he paints illusions, such as devils, magic tricks, dreams, and idols. He renders the scandalous Golden Calf as crumbling architectural décor of uncertain medium, with the sinful Israelites dancing a Morris Dance around the idol; and below that scene, as if in fresco or polychrome relief, the abject veneration of some nameless, bestial deity.
To conjure these false gods, Bosch evokes an imagery that peals away from the surface of ruined temple—or tomb—like the idols described by Lucretius, and he pits this abject imagery off against the true, but almost hidden icon of Christ on the cross, glimpsed in the dark interior. Bosch thus asks the question that will trouble image-makers mightily on the other side of 1517: Is art itself idolatrous? And whose side is this painter on, that of God or of the other master illusionist, Satan?
But what most of all causes Bosch to teeter on the brink of change are the emergency states into which his works plunge us. A state of siege is at once the subject, the origin, and the very ground of Bosch’s art. This makes him relevant today, with some 200 million people around the world living in declared “states of emergency,” and with our own president, having shattered the norms of his office, advancing now to our laws. Bosch portrays the ordinary man as a creature pursued by present dangers rushing blindly towards a future catastrophe. The peddler painted on wings of a triptych looks backward towards the murderous thieves and snarling dog, oblivious both to the crack in the footbridge ahead and to the gallows that hover over him.
And these perils are nothing compared to one that awaits him and that we glimpse as the panels he has painted on swing open, cutting through his form, to reveal all humanity on the road to Hell.
When painting Christ, Bosch shows him haunted already at birth by Antichrist, mobbed at death by tormenters and traitors, and engulfed presently, in sacrament and church service, by unbelievers, charlatans, and heretics.
And Bosch’s hermit saints practice their piety within a global state of emergency.
The father of the monastic orders, St. Anthony went into the Egyptian desert to seek solitude; the English word “monk” derives from the Greek monos, meaning “single” or “alone.” But in that empty waste Anthony found not seclusion but an army of demons. Bosch shows these angry spirits tempting and tormenting the saint at his devotions. They besiege, and have begun to infiltrate, the ruined pagan tomb where he prays, while far off, in the right panel’s distant view, a Brabantine town, with windmills like the ones of ’s-Hertogenbosch, has already fallen to hostile forces. Troupes in Turkish turbans and equipped with siege ladders swarm the towers, and their flag flies on the ramparts: the crescent moon of Islam, Europe’s absolute enemy, stands atop a slave, symbol of the Christians’ doom when the infidel prevails.
In 1500, Egypt and the Holy Lands stood under Muslim rule. Bosch extends this sovereignty all the way to his hometown. The demonic siege of the Christian self, pictured by St. Anthony’s temptation, thus expands to encompass the entire nomos of the earth. In his Last Judgments, Bosch portrays what resembles a military siege’s catastrophic aftermath. Hell is a ruined city, with walls breached, buildings torched, and denizens liquidated.
It helps to know that Bosch saw such destruction at close range. His town stood on the front line of the long, cruel war between the Habsburg Empire and the Duchy of Guelders. During one of his military campaigns against Guelders, Emperor Maximilian parked his new wife Bianca Sforza in the house next door to the painter while imperial troupes liquidated enemy villages nearby.
Bosch didn’t invent this siege mentality. He was just better than anyone else at capturing what his wider public felt prevailed. Historians have debated the nature and causes of this era of fear that stretches back five hundred years before the Reformation, and that turned its nebulous anxieties into finding and punishing enemies real and imaginary. On a metaphysical level, there was the Old Enemy, Satan, whose rebellion in heaven God crushed: Lucas Cranach’s slick copy of Bosch’s version of that primordial event shows the rebel angels falling like poisoned insects from the sky, making Eve and Adam’s trespass in Eden just an episode in the continuing story of cosmic hatred.
On a geopolitical level, the enemies could be absolute foes like the Tartars and heretical Hussites. Closer to home were the Jews.
Purported Christ-killers, host-desecrators, and child-murderers, they remained perpetual enemies whose nefarious crimes artists fictively imagined. “It’s enough that I suffered such great torture from the Jewish foe!” sneers Christ as Man of Sorrows in this title-page woodcut by Dürer from 1511, adding: “And now, my friend, leave me in peace!”
Enemies lurked not only nearby, but also in the hearth and home. In war and hard times, floods of refugees wandered, peddled, and begged their way through Europe. In the Netherlands of Bosch’s time, such itinerates came to be vilified for belonging to a secret, global order, with its own arcane rules, cryptic symbolisms, and inverted honor code, operating through deception and bent on ruining honest homeowners. An early edition of the Book of Vagabonds claimed to capture this conspiracy in all its forms, and included a glossary of the cryptolect—or “cant”—used among rogues and their accomplices.
Bosch specialized in hostile imagery. In portraying enemy communiqués, he may have drawn inspiration from nefarious signs such as these, what purport to be arsonists’ marks.
Illegible to their victims, they carried messages to perpetrators, telling which house or farm to torch, and when and how. All such crafty illusionists—it was believed—were banding together in an unholy alliance with sorcerers, werewolves, and (especially) witches, those mainly female malefactors who caused crop-failure, hailstorms, stillbirths, and male impotence by consorting with the devil.
Cranach the Younger’s broadsheet of a mother and her three sons burnt at the stake for witchcraft announces that “more and more these harmful gangs roam about in our lands as beggars, thieves, and henchmen’s accomplishes”.
The woodcut shows what they look like after justice has been served, but mostly artists show what goes on before, when the witches engage in their evil acts.
Striped naked somewhere in a forest, these enemies could be anyone, the crafty midwife down the road, the eccentric widow next door, or even—as Dürer pictures it—an ordinary Nuremberg wife, maybe the viewer’s own wife, when she’s left alone with other women.
Such artworks do not merely reflect a perceived state of siege. They picture it and, by means of mechanical reproduction, they disseminate to a wide public foes that could otherwise not be seen, because witches hide their malefaction from view, or else they plays tricks with the sense of sight, making people perceive things falsely. In answer to the pressing question as to how it is that witches so regularly steal male members, or cause impotence, the authors of the Malleus Malificarum explain that the missing penises are not “stripped from human bodies in reality but are concealed with the art of conjuring.”
Artists not only portrayed enemies; they created them. Prints like this famous woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien spread throughout Europe the vivid, cunningly unfathomable, and destructive fantasy of a Witches’ Sabbath.
Once having beheld the print and observed with their own eyes what witches secretly do, inquisitors could shape their questions around these fabricated facts, and then they could pose those questions, under brutal torture, to the poor accused, eliciting from her confessions of crimes evidenced only by Baldung. Being experts in enemies, some artists played dangerously with the possibility that, given their special knowledge of the foe, they were hostile agents themselves. In his oblique self-portrait made just before his death, Baldung confessed to having been overcome by his own signature motifs: the witch and the wild mare in heat.
More elusive but more central to his art, Bosch, whose taken name means woods or forest, cast himself as the infernal Treeman of his so-called Garden of Delights. Such vilifying self-portraits puzzle historians who expect Renaissance artists to celebrate themselves. They are common in the period, however. Indeed, they belong to the imaginative core of the universal state of siege. In this state of siege, the self is under attack not only by hostile outsiders. The self is also attacked, and more dangerously, by itself. The fourteenth-century Theologia Deutsch put it this way: Ichheit (literally “I-hood”) is selfish and inward turning, and veers from God to vice. Ego is the enemy. This was one of Bosch’s messages when he gave his topsy-turvy tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins the shape of a colossal eye, with Christ looking out of us from the pupil.
The warning label states “Beware, beware, God sees.” It is directed at you who find yourself both observed by the painting and reflected in its imagery.
“State of Siege” is a modern term. It derives from Napoleonic legal theory and belongs to the doctrine that a ruler can assume total power whether or not a territory is actually besieged. Such a siege was, by definition, “fictive” or “political.” This use distinguished the state of siege both from the state of peace, where law prevails, and the state of war, where necessity overrules the law. The state of siege sounds more concrete than what is termed a state of exception, because it conjures a physical wall between inside and outside. But the early nineteenth-century jurists who coined the term did so to define emergency measures taken against internal foes.
However, where modern legal theory seeks to make the enemy more concrete, illusionists like Bosch work in the opposite direction: they turn enemies more ghostly. This is because, according to a Christian understanding of the time, all hostilities are pale shadows of the showdown between Satan and God.
Before 1517, the sense of being under siege, whether externally or internally, made people feel that they lived on the eve of something singular, huge, imponderable, but inevitable: not the beginning of a new historical era but the end of history per se. At bottom, Bosch’s paintings are all Last Judgments, and it is useful to remember that Dürer’s leap to fame followed from his woodcuts of the Apocalypse. That means his confidence—evinced by his deliberately epochal self-portrait—that history would continue after the ominous year 1500, was perhaps more a sigh of relief that the end had not yet come.
However, to historians the siege mentality pervasive at the eve of the Reformation makes it look like 1517 was long foreseen. Luther’s breakthrough took place while Bosch was still alive.
By most accounts, it occurred around 1515, while the Reformer—then a monk of the Augustinian order—was preparing his university lectures on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Luther found himself stalled at one sentence of the text: “For therein is the righteousness of God received from faith, to faith.” What bothered him about this line was also what caused some of the deep anxieties in the culture as a whole: the concept of God’s righteousness as a wrath that demanded people keep God’s law, and that punished those who didn’t. In English, righteousness still has that slightly sense, as outraged justice or morality. This concept was terrifying because, as Augustine and many others explained, even if one wants to be good, even if somehow one only does good, one cannot wean one’s mind from vice. “In your eyes,” Augustine confesses, “no man is free from sin, not even a child who has lived only one day on earth.” In Luther’s day, this meant that confession could never be complete, and yet the church required it to be total: to take communion without a full confession was deemed a deadly sin. Father confessors therefore went to great lengths to ferret out iniquities of their flock, turning confession and penance into an inquisitorial trial. With something to hide always, people felt perpetually licked by the flames of Hell. Bosch not only illustrates this condition; his pictures create it by seducing viewers into sinful earthly delights. His so-called Garden of Delights is—among other things—a Last Judgment triptych, with Paradise on the left, and Hell on the right, but with God and the scales of justice out of sight at the center.
Bosch’s explicit Last Judgments show the last of the saved entering heaven far, far in the distance: you have to climb up on a chair and examine the painting with a magnifying glass to glimpse these lucky few, while meanwhile you who are left behind can at least relish the spectacle of other people’s pain.
In his Table Talks, Luther recollected the terror he felt as a young novice in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, when he glimpsed a particularly gruesome image of the crucified Christ displayed there. Looking at it made him fall into sinful despair, since how could a wrathful God, who had been brutalized and murdered by humans, ever have mercy on our soul?
“I shrunk back and averted my eyes and would have rather glimpsed the devil himself!” This terror was the backdrop of Luther’s exegetical breakthrough. He realized that what St. Paul termed the “righteousness of God” was not divine juridical wrath but the righteousness God gives us freely as a gift through Christ. Nothing we can accomplish affects this righteousness. Under the law, we will always be damned, as Cranach’s painting seeks programmatically to explain.
All we can and should do is to hear Christ’s promise announced in scripture and accept it inwardly through faith. This tiny, almost grammatical adjustment to the reading of Romans 1:17 changed everything. It underlay Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, with their attack on indulgences and works-righteousness, and it explains the Church’s aggressive response, for if salvation comes only through faith alone, then the church loses its entire economy.
Art had depended largely on that economy. Most of the works we study were originally gifted as pious donations to some church. They may tell stories, convey messages, project status, arouse admiration, and give pleasure, but they functioned most basically to help speed to heaven those specified by their donation. With the sola fides all this was for nothing, or worse: filling the house of God with useless things, art came to be seen as a wasteful extravagance, as wealth better given to the poor. A woodcut from around 1524 pits representatives of the many crafts threatened by evangelical preaching against the common folk, with Luther as their advocate.
Armed with the Bible and dressed as a Doctor of Theology, the Reformer refutes the artisan’s complaint before God, suggesting that the judgment reached against the painters, sculptors, bellfounders, paternoster-makers, etc. will be dire. Through sly enchantments, art bamboozled people into believing it played a role in salvation. It was more than wasteful, since it concealed the essentials of faith, blocking the way to heaven. It deserved vengeance, and vengeance there was.
Here is how one poor farmer explained his conversion in 1523. He had once insulted the pope in public and had been placed under the ban. So fearing for his soul, he stole his wife’s egg money, rushed to Bern, and spent everything on an indulgenced print: here is an example of such an object, this engraving showing the Mass of St. Gregory and promising generous indulgences.
“I believed I had seen God himself in it,” the farmer recalls, repulsed by his former gullibility. Because “instructed by knowledgeable people to perceive the thing to be worthless,” the scales had now fallen from his eyes and he became enraged at his deception, “so I fetched the thing and wiped my ass on it.” Before 1517, art was expert at picturing its audience in a universal state of siege. After 1517, the tables turned and art itself came under attack: here a painted Mass of St. Gregory with everyone’s eyes gouged out, except for Christ.
Iconoclasm is a polemic in the root sense of the word polemos, Greek for “war.” Not only do iconoclasts break images they deem inimical; they also distinguish as enemies those who have such images, or who have images at all. The Old Testament interdict against images transforms a pluriverse of multiple gods into a universe under one god, the other deities being no longer rivals but falsehoods or “idols.” Of all the commandments that Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, only the one forbidding image-making would have seemed strange or distinctive to other cultures of the ancient Middle East.
It alone singled out the law of the Israelites from the written or unwritten codes of other tribes and nations. What Jan Assmann has controversially termed the “Mosaic distinction” defined Israel internally, as well, because the chosen people—the Jews—were habitually straying from that one requirement peculiar to them, becoming idolatrous like other peoples. That is what the prophets continually rail about: their people’s special propensity for worshipping false gods. Israel already strayed during the mere forty days when their leader, Moses, was away receiving the law: the impatient people fashioned a golden idol in the form of a calf, worshipped it, and danced around it, “naked unto the shame of their enemies.” Idolatry violated not just any law. It trespassed against what might be termed monotheism’s basic law, its Grundgesetz. Hence on seeing the dance around the Golden Calf, Moses cast down the tablets engraved with all ten laws. Moses’s next response was political in the ultimate sense. It cut through all non-political ties: blood, marriage, and proximity. To the sons of Levi, who abandoned their idolatry and stood on the Lord’s side, Moses said: “slay every man his brother, and ever man his companion, and every man his neighbor.”
As warfare and polemic, iconoclasm occurs inside the conflict of enemy and friend. From inside, this confrontation looks to be the extreme one in which a group perceives its own existence to be threatened by some other group. Such an extreme conflict will therefore be hard to judge by a disinterested third party, for example, by an historian observing the war of images sparked in Europe five centuries ago. Indeed the breaking of images is far more impenetrable than the making of images. With the making of images we have, first and foremost, the artifact itself, which bears eloquent witness to its manufacture, and in the early sixteenth century, artists gave independent value to the craft itself. From the Renaissance on, preparatory drawings also become valued collectables. Love of art became—very early on—an affection for the making of art. This peculiarity caused art to become far and away the most documented of all forms of human fabrication.
With the breaking of images, by contrast, we have next to nothing. The object of their wrath destroyed, iconoclasts leave—at best—suggestive gaps, targeted erasures, and conspicuous absences that perhaps can be read as evidence of some hostile intention, for destructive hammers are sometimes guided by more than blind fury. People attack something or someone in or through the image. In extant works bearing scars of an attack, it is sometimes unclear whether the assailants attacked hated figures portrayed in the image (devils, rogues, etc.), whether they attacked the image itself as idol, or whether they attacked both: the enemies in the image as well the image as per se enemy. A fascinating sketch from the workshop of Dürer’s teacher in Nuremberg, Michael Wolgemut, shows a gang of mockers and tormentors attempting to gag Christ with spittle.
Some later viewer of this sketch responded to this scandalous defacement of the deity by jabbing out the faces of the perpetrators.
Protestant iconoclasm could be directed towards some hated personage in the image: knavish clerics who profit from images, wealthy donors who oppress the poor, and so forth. On occasion, the alibi for image breaking is disingenuously neutral: I bumped it, it was old, it broke. But even then there is a target: the Church, for keeping old junk about.
A considerable body of written diatribes against images survive. In Wittenberg in January 1522, while Luther was in hiding in the Wartburg, the city’s interim preacher, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, enumerated—in sermons and a published pamphlet—the biblical, pastoral, and economic reasons for image breaking.
And because of his and other local reformers’ arguments, the Wittenberg Council issued a new Church Ordinance requiring the removal of images from the city’s churches—the first such ordinance ever in the Christian West! Not a single figurative artifact from the period before the Reformation survives inside Wittenberg’s City Church. However, whether church cleansing followed from Karlstadt’s arguments or the Council’s decree, and when exactly the cleansing occurred and how long it took, we do not know. In Bern, fragments of the enemy images survive, because the city’s iconoclasts unceremoniously dumped the great mass of broken statues into a ditch beside the church. In Zwickau, the old images were removed from the church but preserved as objects of derision and—perhaps—of curiosity. Placed in a leaky room called the Götzenkammer (“idol-chamber”), they survived to become, in 1857, the core of a newly-created Museum of Church Antiquities. But in the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg, the history of earlier church art was simply eradicated: or more precisely, that history was rewritten in the form of new artifacts that posed as apostolic ones. The most important and cunning of these is the altarpiece that Lucas Cranach and his workshop made to commemorate Martin Luther, as we will see.
Karlstadt testified to an anxiety sparked by destruction, how the mind flees timidly from what the hand dares to destroy. In his treatise against images, he confesses—in the first person—how, because of centuries of learned respect and acquired superstition, he has been (as it were) programed to be terrified of burning idols: “Fear holds me and makes me in awe of the image of a devil, a shadow, the notice of a small falling leaf.” Meant to get inside the head of the reluctant church cleanser in order to comfort him, this passage exposed Karlstadt to mockery. Luther returned from the Wartburg in March 1522 in order (in the first instance) to put an end to the iconoclasm. He judged that image-breaking would jeopardize the civic order, alienate the common folk, and anger his princely protectors. Among his arguments against what he termed the Wittenberg “fanatics” (Schwärmer) was the claim, sarcastic but effective, that iconoclasts so believed in the power of images that they fancied they had to smash them in order to break their spell. In short, the image breakers were secretly idolaters. Thus even before the Roman Church could formulate a response to this, the first outbreak of iconoclasm in the West, Protestants stood divided among themselves over image-breaking, with each side claiming the other is its mortal foe.
But then, idolatry itself is not a description but an accusation. Idolatry is what enemies do. It marks them as absolute foes. This is crucial to understanding the clash between having images and not having images: no one has ever been an idolater. No one has ever believed in the way that iconoclast says the idolaters believe. Defenders of traditional religion responded to Karlstadt by stating, correctly, that his representation of church pictures and their use by Catholics was a slanderous caricature. The defenders note that even the simple folk know the image is not identical to the personage it represents; it is of course a mediator, and that insight separates Christians from their vilified, idolatrous other, the pagan—“pagan” itself being yet another accusation. The concept of naïve belief is polemical. It is perhaps the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of critical reasoning.
Iconoclasm suffers too from polemical descriptions. A contemporary woodcut allows the vilified images to have their say.
As the iconoclasts break them and haul the debris to the bonfire, the “poor persecuted idols” do not quite deny their culpability:
People flocked to us in reverence
By land and sea, at great expense,
Made sacrifice, as it were God
And mocked the True Lord and guffawed.
Although they admit their fault, the statues go on to complain that they receive unequal justice, because they just stood there, passively complicit in the crime, while their attackers do far worse, disturbing the peace, living in sin, and turning church service into carnival. The statues also attest that the people now breaking images were the very ones who, before, had worshipped images, turning them into idols. At the upper right, flanked by wine, women and money, an iconoclast looks at the proceedings with a strange beam in his eye—an allusion to Matthew 7:3: “And why worry about a speck in your brother’s eye when you have a log in your own.”
Like Luther’s diatribe against Karlstadt, this woodcut’s argument against image-breaking is not yet an argument for images. Art remained, if not direct attack, at least in a state of siege that lasted another hundred years. So how did artists survive the siege? Some increased their production of secular images, such as portraits, landscapes, and coats-of-arms, or created exquisite objects for a new consumer base: the dedicated art collector. Some took to painting and carving words, like the retable in Dinkelsbühl that, as it were, materializes the Gospel text of Christ’s institution of the altar sacrament.
A few artists may have joined in the rites of destruction. Karel van Mander reports of a painter covering with greasy black a masterpiece by Hugo van der Goes but van Mander does not name the culprit. More recently, Marxist art historians looked for revolutionaries among German painters of Luther’s time, but no iconoclasts were found. In Catholic territories, artists could engage in the task of restoration. An early sixteenth-century Adoration of the Magi had once been a winged triptych, but smashed by iconoclasts, it became ruined bits and pieces only to be remade into a single-panel monument commemorating its own survival.
In confessionally-divided Augsburg, Christoph Amberger painted for the stripped High Altar of the Cathedral a new triptych, using as his model old project drawings for the destroyed retable.
The result is an eerie premonition of neo-gothic altarpieces.
Meanwhile, artists on both sides of the religious wars could reach into their old repertoire and create images of a new enemy: the other confession. Where before 1517, artists conjured monstrosities as signs of a world out of joint and at the brink of the apocalypse, now this imaginative expertise could serve polemical ends. The Papal Ass and Monk Calf are typical freaks of nature—the sort of thing that Sebastian Brant, at the eve of the Reformation, confessed to being tired of reporting, so common had they become.
Portrayed by Cranach, and elaborately interpreted by Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, they were enlisted as evidence of papal and clerical corruption. Omens of the millennium thus morph into weapons in a new war of public opinion, in which each Christian is called upon not to repent of their sins, but to decide who are their friends and who are their foes. Matthias Gerung’s Satire of Indulgences draws its imagery from Bosch’s most famous fantasy: the colossal, hybrid Tree-Man, with sinners feasting in its orifice. Again, the difference is the enemy. In Bosch, the foe is nebulous: in his sketched iteration of the Tree-Man, the monstrosity, imagined as a sort of Ship of Fools beached on some Flemish waterway, bears the crescent moon of Islam, but that flag could also be an emblem of lunacy. In Gerung, the monstrosity is seated on an indulgence letter, with demons flying about its head like flies. He, she, or it clearly represents the Catholic Church, and all the details check the boxes on this identification. For the Catholics, the Protestants, for the Protestants, the Catholics could be slotted into the old antagonisms between Christians and Turks, and between Christ and Antichrist.
Published in Wittenberg in 1521, a year before Karlstadt’s attack on visual images, Cranach’s Passional Christi und Antichristi struck a hammer blow against the visible church itself: here against the pope whose splendid tiara makes him into Antichrist.
Observe how the army depicted through the door next to the pope fires its weapons in Christ’s direction, as if besieging him again.
I took the title for this essay from the contemporary artist William Kentridge. Writing in 1986, Kentridge employed the phrase “art in a state of siege” to describe the condition of artists working in South Africa under apartheid law. “The pictures I love,” wrote Kentridge in 1986, “are not for me. The great Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, like the paintings of Seurat in London, are those which give me the greatest pleasure. Immediate pleasure, in the sense of a feeling of well-being in the world. They are visions of a state of grace, of an achieved paradise… This state of grace is inadmissible to me.”
This expulsion of grace from the artists living under a wicked legal system leads Kentridge to say: “Lyricism seems to need a … clear conscience. And here in South Africa, more than in most other places, one’s nose is rubbed in compromise every day.” Another paradise stands closed, as well.
For Kentridge, art in a state of hope was exemplified by Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International—not the proposed colossus, but the wood and wire model, with its makers clambering up it:
Such hope, particularly here and now, seems impossible. The failure of those hopes and ideals, their betrayals, are too powerful and too numerous. I cannot paint pictures of a future like that and believe in the pictures.
So Kentridge took solace in a canvas painted by Max Beckmann in exile. Beckmann fled Nazi German in 1937, on the day before the opening of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, where his paintings hung as enemy artifacts. For Kentridge, Beckman’s canvas stood as “a beacon for endangered souls.” It accepts the existence of a compromised society but “does not rule out all meaning or value nor pretend these compromises should be ignored. It marks a spot where optimism is kept in check and nihilism is kept at bay.”
Hitler seized power in 1933 through a decree suspending personal liberties. He did this by invoking an article in the Weimar Constitution allowing emergency measures in extreme conditions. Hitler’s decree was never repealed, making the Third Reich a twelve-year state of exception. When Kentridge announced his art to be “in a state of siege,” South Africa stood in the midst of a legal state of exception that had been declared in 1985 and was annually renewed until 1989. During these years, thousands died at the hands of security forces, state-sponsored assassins, and in the violence among opposition groups. The legal basis for this emergency state was the Public Safety Act of 1953, but above these decrees was the pathological legality of apartheid, in which the white minority government overruled decisions made by the courts and retroactively passed laws supporting its racialist rulings. What Kentridge calls the “state of siege” was both the suspension of law by the South African state and the abandonment of living beings to a lawless law.
To acknowledge that one is in a state of siege, as Kentridge tried to do, is to recognize the government’s abnormality and its violence, because the tendency will always be to grow accustomed to political or legal outrages. Kentridge termed this stance “urbanity,” or the “refusal to be moved by the abominations we are surrounded by and involved with.” The state of siege is not the subject of Kentridge’s art but rather its starting point and its arena.
“The work itself is so many excursions around this position,” he claimed:
Stories stop where they should continue, gaps are left for the viewer to bridge. One is captivated by trying to reduce to sense a riddle that has no answer, of joining in the play which the artist has offered and in doing so accepting his or her terms.
Returning to the state of art during the Reformation, there was perhaps an analogous path certain image-makers took. The idea that a paradise had been lost—let us follow Kentridge and call it “art in a state of grace,” and I will have Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation stand for that beatific condition as it obtained a hundred years before Bosch and Luther.
The doors to such a paradise were shut, and not just for Protestants: Counter-Reformation art developed under new restrictions on its affective power. Also ended, or indefinitely postponed, was the “state of revolutionary hope,” when the image-makers became image-breakers in the hope of creating a more perfect world. In this third way, between grace and hope, art remained, but partly undercover, almost disappearing into the world around it.
On April 24, 1547, the city of Wittenberg capitulated to Charles V. The day before, the Imperial armies had defeated the Protestants at Mühlberg. During the siege, the people of Wittenberg still mourned their famous preacher Luther, deceased a year before—in 1546.
Cranach had probably started work on a painted memorial to the reformer in the form of a new altarpiece for the City Church, one that would stand on the place cleared by iconoclasm—one that, in the empty scene of preaching that holds the triptych up, remembers a church cleared of all ornament and featuring only the Crucifixion as image of the word. Local historians long claimed that Cranach’s altarpiece was dedicated on the very day of the city’s defeat by Imperial forces, but payment records suggest a slightly later date. After his forces had entered Wittenberg, the Emperor offered a generous compromise: if the town would give itself up and hand over their ruling prince, John Frederick of Saxony, then Charles would mercifully install a ruler of the same dynastic house as John Frederick, and one who was also Protestant, but who had allied in war with Charles. Moreover, through negotiations with the city’s two great living Reformers—Philipp Melanchthon and Johannes Bugenhagen—the Emperor permitted Wittenberg to remain (in Bugenhagen’s words) “with our religion according to the Augsburg Confession.” It is partly this settlement, or compromise, that Cranach commemorates in his altarpiece. In the left wing panel, Melanchthon officiates at a baptism; in the right panel Bugenhagen takes confession; and at the center, disguised as he was in the Wartburg Castle, but recognizable to his flock, Luther takes bread with the Apostles at the Last Supper. An affirmation of the leadership and the ideals of the Reformation, the whole ensemble is however built to resemble a traditional pre-Reformation triptych retable, with saints’ portraits on the wings and a biblical scene at the center. And yet: these paintings no longer transport us to a sacred elsewhere or painted paradise. In a strange tautology, they place us where we are, in the mundane practice of religion as it occurred in that church at that time.
Legend has it that a Catholic soldier in the Imperial army attacked the retable with his sword, and that the wound remained visible until a later restorer covered it up. However, a document attests that, while Charles’ army was encamped around Wittenberg, “five Spaniards stood beside the altar, seeing and hearing church services in all reverence.” In the state of siege, these painted panels almost disappeared into the reality that surrounded them, while also whispering to Wittenberg that its religion had survived. They mark a spot “where optimism is kept in check and nihilism is kept at bay.” As this year’s Luther centenary threatens to coincide with in a state of siege like we have never seen before seen in this country, the art produced during the Reformation may have special relevance.
Joseph Leo Koerner is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Society of Fellows. He is the author of many books, including most recently Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (Princeton, 2017). He is currently writing, directing, and producing a documentary film entitled The Burning Child.