The Bible during the Renaissance, a questioning of the image?

At the end of the Middle Ages, a new questioning about God and his images emerged, coming from Germany and Switzerland in particular, denouncing the abuses of the Christian religion and opening directly onto the many wars of Religion…

Do you know that Aleteia lives only thanks to the generosity of its readers?


Aleteia really needs you

The humanism born of a return to the sources of Antiquity and the highlighting of man within nature will, from the 16th century, notably influence the sacred arts. The thunderclap resulting from the denunciations posed by Luther and the development of the Reformation will, in fact, have decisive consequences, in particular on the reading of the Bible with the sola scripturaonly Scripture counts…

This return to the literal meaning of the Scriptures will be accompanied by a distrust of the image

The excesses of indulgences, the immense temporal power united in the sole hands of the Pope and the princes of the Church will generate a radical and complete criticism of Roman Christianity to impose a new reading of the Bible on the part of the Reformers wishing to prune everything what bothered him. This return to the literal meaning of the Scriptures will be accompanied by a distrust of the image which joins the biblical prohibition of the worship of idols imposed by Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. This rigorism was thus going to have irreversible consequences on the sacred arts of this time with a new wave of iconoclasm (destruction of images) that the West had not known for centuries…

Reformers versus Catholics

This radical split between reformers and Catholics was, in fact, to generate one of the most important schisms that Christianity had known since the separation with the Orthodox. Luther followed by Calvin will thus denounce the worship of images that was current within the Church, not to refuse art as such, but the abuses to which it had led in Christianity. It was indeed common practice at that time for prayers to be recited in front of sacred images in return for indulgences granted by the Church against payment of sums of money.

This commercialization of the image and of the faith distanced, according to the reformers, the faithful from the true path. Without prohibiting any image – the Bibles illustrated by Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein the Younger testify to this – Luther does not however intend to make these a medium for evangelization and preaching the Word. The faithful must be initiated directly into the very sources of the Bible and not, according to Calvin, by its sacred representations, hence the vast movement of translations of the Bible into current languages. Only oratorical arts and sacred music were tolerated to accompany this priority given to the Word.

A relative condemnation

Thus, contrary to popular belief, the reform movement within Christianity will not totally banish religious art and images as such, but will lead to a new questioning about them. Certain sacred images are radically removed from the Reformed temples, in particular all those relating to the Marian cult and the intercession of the Virgin Mary and the saints, but also those evoking the fear and dread of the suffering Christ. On the other hand, allegorical images – such as those depicted by the great German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder in his Allegory of the Law – will be tolerated insofar as they encouraged the faithful to pursue and nourish their teaching of the faith. The baptism of Christ, the representation of God the Father and of the Trinity and many other themes leading not to adulation, but to the meditation of the faithful will then develop within Protestantism which will always privilege, in any state of cause, the musical arts more propitious in this non-figuration of God.

Saint Pierre Moissac

We wish to say thanks to the author of this write-up for this incredible material

The Bible during the Renaissance, a questioning of the image?

Check out our social media profiles as well as other pages related to it.