The Reformation of the Image
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The Reformation of the Image

Joseph Leo Koerner

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eBook - ePub

The Reformation of the Image

Joseph Leo Koerner

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With his 95 Theses, Martin Luther advanced the radical notion that all Christians could enjoy a direct, personal relationship with God—shattering years of Catholic tradition and obviating the need for intermediaries like priests and saints between the individual believer and God. The text of the Bible, the Word of God itself, Luther argued, revealed the only true path to salvation—not priestly ritual and saintly iconography.But if words—not iconic images—showed the way to salvation, why didn't religious imagery during the Reformation disappear along with indulgences? The answer, according to Joseph Leo Koerner, lies in the paradoxical nature of Protestant religious imagery itself, which is at once both iconic and iconoclastic. Koerner masterfully demonstrates this point not only with a multitude of Lutheran images, many never before published, but also with a close reading of a single pivotal work—Lucas Cranach the Elder's altarpiece for the City Church in Wittenberg (Luther's parish). As Koerner shows, Cranach, breaking all the conventions of traditional Catholic iconography, created an entirely new aesthetic for the new Protestant ethos.In the Crucifixion scene of the altarpiece, for instance, Christ is alone and stripped of all his usual attendants—no Virgin Mary, no John the Baptist, no Mary Magdalene—with nothing separating him from Luther (preaching the Word) and his parishioners. And while the Holy Spirit is nowhere to be seen—representation of the divine being impossible—it is nonetheless dramatically present as the force animating Christ's drapery. According to Koerner, it is this "iconoclash" that animates the best Reformation art.Insightful and breathtakingly original, The Reformation of the Image compellingly shows how visual art became indispensable to a religious movement built on words.

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Art General


6 Actions

Sometime between 27 January and 5 February 1522, six months after their preacher, Luther, had disappeared without a trace, a mob of Wittenberg citizens entered the City Church and set about stripping altars, breaking images and burning the debris.1 The exact date of this, the first significant Protestant iconoclasm, is forgotten. But a specific one had been fixed by Wittenberg’s city council in an effort to keep church cleansing under its control. On 24 January the council, on its own and without princely or episcopal consent, issued a new church ordinance (Kirchordnung) decreeing that ‘the images and altars in the church should be removed, in order to prevent idolatry, for three altars without images are enough’.2 And to the dismay of the Saxon court, the council acted ‘zealously and energetically’3 toward this end, setting an immediate schedule for the images’ removal (no copies of that decree survive). After the turbulence, the council explained that such actions ‘should be done by the authorities, who, prepared, suited, and fit, are alone entrusted with that task, and no one should lay a hand on anything unless he has been ordered to do so’.4
In Wittenberg, then, iconoclasm was sanctioned from above, and for the first time in the Latin West. But in the event, things got out of hand. On the day decreed, or perhaps before it, zealous burghers stormed the altars unauthorized, embarrassing the council and prompting an apology to the prince. At least one man was punished. Municipal balance sheets for 1522 record a fine paid by ‘a tanner, who on his own and uncommanded, scandalously tore the picture in the City Church from its panel’.5
It is impossible to reconstruct what happened in the mother church of Protestantism. Who led the rampage in the City Church, whether council members took part, and exactly what was destroyed and how: all this remains a mystery. No panel painting or movable sculpture from before 1521 has survived in situ, which suggests that the damage was great – although on 13 February, just after the tumult, the Saxon court ordered that surviving ‘images remain in the church’,6 indicating that not everything had yet been eradicated. And as late as 1524, the council ordered the removal of a certain image of the Virgin set before the high altar, along with the ‘priest’s altar’, probably a remaining side altar documented by 1442 and originally fitted with a retable with Mary, St Gregory, and several other holy figures.7 It is highly probable, though, that the altar where Cranach’s panels now stand had been stripped in the first attack. Altarpieces – of which there were at least nineteen in the City Church before the Reformation8 – were especially disliked by iconoclasts. Again, not a single one, nor even a fragment thereof, survived in this church beyond 1524. Wittenberg’s most vociferous image-breaker, Andreas Karlstadt, assumed the role of city preacher during Luther’s absence. In the second sentence of his manifesto against church pictures, he stated ‘the carved and painted oil-idols standing on the altar are that much more damaging and devilish’.9 Moreover, the City Church, or Great St Mary’s – originally built to serve Wittenberg’s expanding citizenry, who formerly crowded into the nearby Castle Church – was constructed around an earlier pilgrimage chapel devoted to the Virgin, and retained her as its titular saint. Its high altar would probably have been dedicated to her, and must have featured, within the retable once attached to its rear, painted and carved effigies of her. Promising intercession, and symbolizing the Church itself as Bride of Christ, Marian icons were among the church pictures most vilified by Protestant reformers.10 Because of its subject and its placement, then, the altarpiece originally behind the City Church’s high altar would have been a prime target of iconoclastic wrath.
This is speculation, however. In Wittenberg, as in most sites of iconoclastic destruction, church cleansing left no record of things removed or broken. Eventually all that remained were empty spaces. And it was in one such void that, by 1547, the citizens of Wittenberg chose to erect a new altarpiece to commemorate their purifying efforts. This chapter is about the conditions and motivations of that prior, enabling void. I attend to this partly because the blanks that iconoclasm engenders often stand as icons of its passion to purify the church. As in some performance pieces by John Cage, in which the ambient noises of a silenced auditorium divulge music of their own, the void that Cranach’s figured panels were made to fill was itself already a figure. Mainly, however, I attend to blanks because Cranach, too, in his post-iconoclastic icons, keeps emptiness on display. In the bare walls of his predella’s interior setting, in the engineered unreality of the crucifix there visible, and in the upper panels’ showing routines (which were observable in the real church), Cranach preserves the blank he fills. In his work the iconoclastic gesture is simultaneously celebrated and suspended.
I will try first to freeze-frame the hammer while it strikes, in order to observe in it what Cranach cancelled and what he sustained. Actions, then, are the initial topic of this chapter, and not merely those that image-breakers performed. Iconoclasts directed their actions against other actions they deemed abominable. ‘Idolatry’ stood for the sum of all the false, superstitious and devilish practices fostered by the Roman Church; iconoclasm was more a war against these than against the things toward which they seemed directed, since in the image-breaker’s view the idols were nothing. Against an unregulated multitude of customary practices, of rites, routines, gestures and poses that had come to constitute Christian piety by 1520, Protestant reformers sanctioned alone those actions reckoned to have been mandated by Christ. Rule-bound and radically reduced, these were also actions of a particular kind. Articulated in Scripture, they were chiefly articulations of Scripture: communicative actions of giving and receiving God’s word.
Motivating iconoclastic action, then, was a concept of action itself, which I study in the present chapter. Luther’s initial call to faith alone had already repudiated works as a means of salvation. It had sought to replace deeds with an internal affair of understanding and belief. To reformers sympathetic to this call, sacred images exemplified an activistic religion. As the focus of practices unsanctioned by the New Testament and forbidden by the Old, church pictures made ‘works-righteousness’ concrete in patronage, production and prayer. Moreover, the words and gestures constituting the pious use of images were deemed to travesty communicative action, for they treated things as if they were persons. In the next chapter, I focus on the beliefs invested in actions: on one hand, the convictions implied by – or read into – iconophile behaviour; on the other, the creed of iconophobes themselves in their certitude that they know what iconophiles believe. It turns out that the religion of sola fides required for its reduction a counter-idea of ‘mere’ belief. To this end, Protestant reformers held up for scorn the naked facts they claimed to uncover behind the fictions: the wood and stone that idols really are. Fictions – the topic of chapter 8 – stand both for the icon thus unveiled, and for the rhetoric necessary to its unveiling. The fiction which iconoclasm chiefly unveiled was that of mediation, of a middle ground of acts, objects, institutions and persons that spoke on a person’s behalf. The fiction that iconoclasm engendered – by way of new mediations – was that of speech itself. By turning sacred rituals and objects into acts of language, image-breakers sanctified communication. The detour through church cleansing’s void thus passes to chapter 9 on communications, both as the ideal of a word-based faith, and as the reality of stubborn admixtures of words with images, objects and acts that communicate the ideal. Chapter 10 treats Luther’s response to the image-breakers in his city, which I regard as the general and specific brief for Cranach’s altarpiece.
In Wittenberg’s iconoclasm, as with most, the first questions are causal. Who initiated the 1522 iconoclasm and why? In the aftermath, backtracking authorities, as well as Luther on his return from the Wartburg, singled out Karlstadt for blame. In the pamphlet On the Removal of Images, published in Wittenberg on 27 January 1522, Karlstadt had indeed raged against an idolatrous Church, summoning all Christians to read God’s lips: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.’ But when attacked for his opinions afterwards, he retorted, and not without reason, ‘I did not undertake this alone, but rather, the three councillors and many of their people decided it and afterwards took their head from the noose and left me standing alone.’11 For the ordinance of 24 January was certainly drafted and approved by the council in consultation with university theologians, including (along with Karlstadt) those quintessential ‘moderates’ of early Protestantism, Philipp Melanchthon, Nikolaus von Amsdorf and Justus Jonas. The earliest extant document concerning the iconoclasm in the City Church – an ‘Instruction’ by the Saxon court chancellor – accuses preachers (in plural) of ‘wanting to excite the common folk to rebellion or impassioned feelings’, and of giving iconoclasm ‘cause’ (Ursach).12 This points the finger not only at Karlstadt (whose pamphlet probably summarized sermons he had delivered), but at other reform-minded clerics as well, such as the young firebrand Gabriel Zwilling, whose preaching, as we will see, stirred rowdy crowds in Wittenberg and Eilenburg. And there was talk, too, of trouble from outside: student radicals from Erfurt, self-styled ‘prophets’ in flight from Zwickau, and a smuggled treatise, perhaps containing Cornelius Hoen’s ‘foreign expositions’ of the Mass.13
The image-breakers expressed themselves with hammers, not words. Although inspired by sermons and encouraged by decrees, their actions unfolded unpredictably and left no explanations behind. Besides the cleansed church, we possess only a protocol of breached protocol: belated enquiries by the Saxon court, nervous assurances from the city, finger-pointing among the theologians. Wittenberg’s iconoclasm from above seems to have both excited and reacted to impulses arising from below, from the unarticulated passions and tactics of the ‘common folk at Wittenberg’, hence the princely council’s bewildered demand to know from the perpetrators ‘why you’ve undertaken these reforms’.14 As such the event has become a model of iconoclasm as expressing social tensions between the people and the ‘authorities’, here the magistrates and the princes.15
Even in the absence of explanations, however, image-breakers in the City Church had precedents to follow. Just one week earlier, on 10 January 1522, a group of monks led by Zwilling had stormed the Augustinian cloister, seizing ‘wooden altarpieces … and all other panels, painted and carved images, crucifixes, flags, candles, lamps, etc.’, which they heaped in a pile and burnt.16 Before that, on 3 December, students from Erfurt had destroyed a wooden altar in Wittenberg’s Franciscan friary.17 And on Christmas Eve, crowds had vandalized both the City Church and the Castle Church, breaking windows and destroying utensils.18 And prior to Wittenberg, iconoclastic incidents are recorded in 1521 for Erfurt, for Zwickau and for the Holy Blood Chapel in Treptow (Pomerania).19
Historians tend to distinguish iconoclasm from isolated cases of vandalism recorded throughout the Middle Ages. Typically, drunks and gamblers perpetrated acts of the latter sort, as a boisterous blasphemy akin to cursing.20 In a woodcut by Hans Weiditz, the motif of a soldier vomiting on a crucifix goes with the scene of gaming, as the sacrilege that goes with sin (illus. 34). Sometimes, though, it is hard to draw the line between drunken profanation and religiously motivated image-breaking. What clerics and councils before the Reformation condemn as ...

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