Protestant Art And Literature Cont’d

There is something tantalizing in the previous post about Peter Escalante’s description of art in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions. Here’s a quote,

“But art is not exclusively or even primarily religious in the Catholic sense. Catholics like to think so, because such a view mirrors, in the poetic realm, the Catholic construction of a fantasy “supernatural” over and above the created order. Hence they would rather paint faux-angels or conjectural images of saints than landscapes. But the iconoclasm of Protestantism actually freed art. Having broken the “iconic”, the fake-representation of the non-representable or not-to-be-represented, liberated the God-given human instinct of mimetic poiesis to turn to the real, God-given theater of His glory: the creation. Thus, all modern “secular” art, from the Reformation on, is really Protestant art- though you have to be able to think in two-kingdoms to be able to see that.”

The iconoclasm of Protestantism of course brings to mind Geneva’s whitewashed cathedral and the similar sparsity of many Protestant buildings. But did Protestantism break the “fake-representation” of icons? Here I think we would do well to recall Filippo Brunelleschi (depicted above) who is credited with introducing linear perspective into painting in Italy and throughout Europe in the early 1400s. If Brunelleschi didn’t smash the old way, he put a very big crack in it. Moreover, this was not some isolated instance, Brunelleschi was arguably beginning the Renaissance by using perspective in painting. By the 1430s Jan van Eyck has gone even further with his “willingness to forgo classical idealization in favor of the faithful observation of nature.”

I’m not sure how Escalante would respond here but I think that the evidence here is pretty forceful in suggesting that art (commissioned either for sacred or secular purposes) had freed itself from the tyranny of iconic representations almost a century before Luther nailed anything to the door of any cathedral. Perhaps the response here may be that Protestants were more eager to embrace this kind of art or that the Renaissance was somehow anticipating Protestantism and so on so we can salvage calling modern art Protestant. The irony here is that one has to obscure quite a bit of detail and paint art history with a broad brush, thick lines and bright solid colours dividing Protestant and Catholic – in other words, paint an icon of art history.