Religious Iconography in Northern Renaissance Painting, Or the Iconoclasm of Conventional Icons in German and Netherlandish Religious Paintings
Part of last month’s focus revealed that after1517, Luther’s Protestant Reformation launched a trend that challenged religious concepts Western painters standardized. Halos, wings, and other holy emblems became virtually non-existent in religious Northern paintings during the iconoclastic period of the Protestant Reformation. The aim of this discussion is not to take a stance for or against the application of religious icons and iconography in art, but merely to examine the intellectual gap in perspective between the West and North throughout one of history’s most challenging controversies.
Much of the controversy, reviewed in previous issues and in a past Seminar Sundays series entitled, “The Early Renaissance Artists”, links to the unfortunate events that culminated from the global disaster of the Black Death in Europe and Central Asia between 1347 and 1351, and to the Investiture Controversy that flared between the Roman and Avignon papacies, 1309 to 1376.
It would certainly be erroneous to interpret the great cultural gap between the West and North merely as a direct fallout only from the social conditions that exploded after the Black Death. The Peasant Revolt of 1525, though an immediate epic failure, successfully instigated positive change for peasant laborers and had a profound impact on artistic trends. On the other hand, the pandemic did contribute to an intent division of humanity and disruption of peace everywhere in Europe. Luther’s own publication, Ninety-Five Theses, clearly outlined that the central dispute concerning the Reformation involved the Western perspective on papal indulgences that became discriminatory and misused after the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague.
The work of German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder, (1472 -1553) – a colleague of Martin Luther (1483-1546) – vividly conveys the visual hallmarks of that shift, for it was Luther himself who commissioned Cranach’s projects and oversaw the expressive direction of some works. In those days, art in Germany and the Netherlands implemented debate and discussion, and did inspire personal, contemplative devotion of the faithful layman. Before the Reformation, Cranach’s Crucifixion, 1503, emphasized the humanity of Christ in close relationship to a lush surrounding landscape.
After the publication of Luther’s work, Cranach expressed his intellectual break from conventional iconography in woodcuts and one particular painting, Justified in Jesus, completed for the Weimar Altarpiece, St. Peter and Paul Church, Weimar, Germany, c.1550. The altarpiece, completed by Lucas Cranach the Younger in 1555, emphasized the visibility of the purity and goodness of Christ. It also clarified Luther’s message that faith in Jesus Christ alone -- the doctrine of justification-- not in deeds or material wealth – was the true, essential, controversial core of Luther’s Reformation.
The iconography of this masterpiece alludes to a fresher vision of Christ that conflicts with that of Western interpretations. Christ hangs from the Crucifix amidst a clouded sky; beneath Him in the foreground, Moses reveals the Ten Commandments. Death and Hell juxtapose Moses and Cranach to indicate an evil, dubious concept that papal indulgences apparently created. The central figure, a dying Jesus Christ, further clarifies Cranach’s Lutheran message: He looms larger than life; His pouring blood cleanses human Sin, thereby enabling Salvation through His own sacrifice and pain.
Cranach the Elder paved the way for later artists such as Dutch artist Lucas Van Leyden (1494-1533) and the Flemish Peter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569). Rather than embracing the traditionally dominant themes associated with the Roman Catholic Church, these two painters instead opted to represent a purer and more simplistic passion for Christ in using typical, earthy imagery. For example, Lucas Van Leyden’s 20 by 27-inch oil on panel diptych, Virgin and Child with Mary Magdalen and A Donor, 1522, held at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, visually emphasizes the Biblical figures baby Jesus, Joseph, and Mary Magdalen with everyday imagery rather than traditional religious iconography.
Like Cranach, Lucas emphasizes very specific messages of Lutheran doctrine through color, setting, and sensitive imagery, all which convey the controversial theme of Baptism. Baby Jesus sits on His Mother’s lap, clutching a cluster of grape vines; the grapes allude to Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s tiny white robe symbolizes purity; Mary Magdalen’s red robe emphasizes passion; the earthy tones of the natural surroundings set against a cloudy sky represent death and rebirth.
The donor’s folded hands and white lilies signify faith, a prerequisite for the reception of Sacrament of Baptism. In the Protestant Reformation, Baptism is a form of communication between God and the baptised. Baptism is only one of the Seven Sacraments that Luther readily accepts. Art and literature are the tools by which Luther and his commissioned artists express messages of faith. As for the Eucharist, the Lutheran confession assumes that although Christ’s body and blood are both implicit in this Sacrament, they exist in the mystical plane rather than in the physical sense of eating and drinking. Therefore, Luther rejects the concept of transubstantiation. Spanish Mysticism influenced this trend.
Conversely, in Italy, Spanish Mysticism had a profoundly diverse effect on the Counter-Reformation paintings that emerged after the Council of Trent, 1545–1563. Some cherished Counter-Reformation artists include Titian, Tintoretto, Federico Barocci, Scipione Pulzone, El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, Guido Reni, Anthony van Dyck, Bernini, Zurbarán, Rembrandt and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. By the late sixteenth century – the Baroque Period – new standards defined art and architecture in Italy. needed to reinforce Catholic theology, mainly through choice of Biblical characters, subject matter, and the explicit recreation of Christ's pain. Architectural emphasis on humanism through detail became a main vehicle of expression in Counter-Reformation art. It was due to such a requirement that the artists Michelangelo and Veronese came under attack by the Vatican and the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire. Lewdness and nudity – an element greatly admired in the works of Botticelli, Masaccio, and Michelangelo – had become completely censored.
The theme of feasting is the clearest way to study the varied impacts that the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation had on painting. The Dutch-Flemish painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, expressively conveys the casual heedlessness of a peasant to the structure diverse social classes beyond the realm of a rural community in The Peasant Dance, 1568, housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. This 45 by 65-inch oil on panel vividly conveys the artist as a genre painter of landscapes.
The festive event unfolds around two peasant men, in casual garb, who appear engrossed in debate on a typical autumn day in rural Flanders. Color, style, and subject matter are only a few elements that render the Northern perspective on life in art so unique from that of the West. As others note, Bruegel’s use of “compositional inversion” casts his peasant figures into representations of conversation or dialogue rather than dogma. This scene of two peasants conversing at a social event emphasizes a trait that is very common in German and Flemish painting of this period. This down-to-earth imagery, set by a local tavern, contrasts with the tiny, framed and haloed Madonna that hangs from a nearby tree. A tiny church is visible in the distance, but the tavern looms large and near. The emphasis is on conversation rather than votive worship, or in Luther’s idea, false idolatry.
The energetic flow of the dancing mass and a passing lord contributes to the profundity of Bruegel’s message. Partiers drink and celebrate to a rhythmic pace, mouths agape, and apparently paused in mid-song or sentence. All of them, even the two conversing men, appear purposefully oblivious of an upper-classed man, donned in black, who gazes scornfully at the scene before him. As this masterpiece depicts overindulgence and disrupted peace, it clearly negated the standards set for Italian painters of the Counter-Reformation. Bruegel’s treasured scene reveals the typicality of Northern landscapes to the representation of religious sentiment in German and Flemish art.
On the other hand, The Peasant Dance bears none of the ceremonial, luxurious extravagances that Botticelli emphasizes for Boccaccio’s novella, Decameron, in Marriage of Nastagio degli Onesti, Part IV, c.1483, now at Palazzo Pucci, Florence. Botticelli’s lush Ravenna pine forest scene, like Bruegel’s, is in a rural area amidst a celebration. The daughter of Paolo Traversari had recently spurned Nastagio’s marriage proposal, but changed her mind. Despite the horrifically gruesome details of Boccaccio’s eighth story from Day V, in which sad stories end well, an elegantly set long table offering every type of fine food imaginable helps celebrate a royal marriage; there are waiters to attend the needs of the guests.
Although this four-part series emerged decades before The Peasant Dance, Botticelli’s masterpiece is an excellent example of the symmetrical and ordered arrangement of figures and objects in Western Renaissance painting as opposed to the more disproportionately arranged figures typical of Northern works. Most significant, in the background, Classical Corinthian columns decorously portray the Classicist style in Renaissance art before the Council of Trent took place. The pilasters and capitals infer the theology of the Roman Corinthian Order, an order that preserved writings of the Roman Canon – the religious laws surrounding the Eucharist. Moreover, Botticelli’s lush, delicately stroked pine trees signify both mortal and eternal peace, longevity, wisdom, and fertility – the most fundamental values of humanism.
Historically, the acanthus leaves recall leaves the sculptor Callimachus etched on capitals at Corinth, Greece, to commemorate the Greek Corinthian Order. Moreover, Botticelli’s columns illustrate the symmetrical definition of the entire height of the column, which is a multiple of six Roman feet in volume measurement. Often, the abacus of a column may vary, and contain rosettes on each side of the capital. Botticelli creates a valid boundary between illusion and reality, for this architecture appears suspended against the backdrop of the dense pine forest.
There is a large socio-political gap between the rowdy, loud partiers of The Peasant Dance and the polite, dignified guests in Marriage of Nastagio degli Onesti, Part IV. Bruegel’s choice to play up the daily attributes of a common peasant mass rather than a wealthy donor link to the theological direction of art led by Luther’s Reformation. But these are only a few of the great many details that set the Northern Renaissance artists apart from Western artists; this theme will continue into next month’s focus on the religious iconography of Italian Renaissance painting.
This discussion of iconography and iconoclasm during the Reformation of Europe is far from complete, as space and time restricts the inclusion of many of the most ingenious artists of the Protestant Reformation movement in the Renaissance. Whatever conclusions will be drawn from this discussion, one may be that a productive, constructive way to cope with socio-political change and delusion and spread awareness is to focus on the positive attributes of the past and present. Therefore, the study of past artists engulfed in the turmoil and controversy of their times who used creativity to spread important message is a constructive way to move forward and embrace the new complexities of modern society.