Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 7, 2004
Joseph Leo Koerner The Reformation of the Image Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 464 pp.; 16 color ills.; 260 b/w ills. Cloth $48.00 (0226450066)

Anyone familiar with Joseph Leo Koerner’s book on Albrecht Dürer, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), will approach this new work with high expectations. The earlier one offered a philosophical, yet also poetic, interpretation of one of the best-known artists of the Northern Renaissance. With its powerfully articulated thesis—that Dürer’s self-portrait of 1500 was responsible for creating “the age of art”—supported by engaging, erudite, and convincing arguments, this book is a landmark in the historiography. Together with Erwin Panofsky’s monograph on this artist, The Moment of Self-Portraiture constitutes our contemporary understanding of Dürer’s achievement.

In Koerner’s new contribution, The Reformation of the Image, the author uses Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Wittenberg Altarpiece as an allegory of the Lutheran reformation of images. He continually returns to this example of reformed image-making as a way of imposing unity on a book that ranges widely through the history and theology of the Lutheran church. Each chapter addresses an aspect of reformed thought that is related to the altarpiece’s iconography. Where the Dürer book was a paean of praise to an artist who self-consciously asserted himself as the representative of a new age of cultural production—one who closed the chapter in which the artist was an artisan, and art the servant of religion, and inaugurated another in which the artist was genius and his products “art”—this book is dedicated to an artist who deliberately forsook the concept of genius and who sought to erase the notion of “art” from his work.

Koerner claims that this indifference to the idea of “art” has made Cranach’s work anathema to academic art historians. A discipline that grew up in the shadow of Enlightenment aesthetics—one that subscribed to the notion that there might be universal value in artifacts created under a variety of different historical and cultural circumstances—found it hard to tolerate an artist who seemed to have nothing but contempt for the notion of “disinterested contemplation.” Furthermore, if the pedagogical aim of art history was to “explain” visual images by translating them into words, reformed images seemed to elude this project altogether by containing within them the very means required for their elucidation. Far from being alienated from language, reformed images are transparent to it. By including their own explanatory texts or by illustrating so meticulously and literally the texts to which they refer, reformed images rendered the art historian superfluous. Koerner writes: “Reformation images look less like bad art than bad art history…. Art, it is hoped, leaves unsaid an unexchangeable something, distinct from the currency of meaning, which insures that, however much is explained, a minimum deposit will remain” (26).

Koerner argues that Cranach’s Wittenberg Altarpiece illustrates and exemplifies the Lutheran theology of the image. While railing against Catholic “abuse” of images as “mere” outward observance that had nothing to do with a religion founded on faith alone, Martin Luther soon adapted his message in the face of reformed extremists who advocated iconoclasm and who posed a threat to the status quo. Luther’s changing attitude toward religious images was part and parcel of a larger intellectual evolution by which the firebrand reformer gradually but inexorably identified himself with the social hierarchy of his day. Perhaps it was the trauma of the Peasant War, in which the “common man,” the focus of Luther’s early preaching and writing, misunderstood his calls for reform as license for revolution, that forced the theologian to amend his views. By 1525 he was already calling fire and brimstone down on the heads of those who had taken it into their heads that religious images must be purged. After first questioning their validity in Christian worship, Luther ended up advocating their use for educational purposes and sanctioning the continued use of altarpieces against which his original concern about idolatry had been directed.

Koerner points out that Luther’s ambivalent attitude to religious images is a symptom of his theological position as a whole. Having based his message on the dogma that salvation was to be obtained by faith alone, the reformer nevertheless had to establish mechanisms by which doctrinal and ecclesiastical discipline could be enforced if the new faith was to construct an identity within the theological turmoil his rebellion against the Catholic faith had unleashed. This need eventually led to what has often been called his “two world” theology, according to which the Christian was free to pursue the dictates of conscience free of all temporal demands, yet at the same time he or she was absolutely subject to the legal and social codes of secular government. Every assertion of uncompromising freedom is carefully and calculatedly balanced by an equal but opposing insistence on the compromised and determined nature of human subjectivity. In Koerner’s words: “Although its beliefs and rituals seem to concern a spiritual order, under scrutiny religion in fact serves to place individuals within their natural and social worlds, and to cause them to accept those worlds to be the true ones” (419–20).

Cranach’s Wittenberg Altarpiece exemplifies the paradoxical dilemma into which Luther delivered Christian consciousness. In separate chapters Koerner explicates the iconographic subject matter, pointing out that the Baptism (left wing) and Last Supper (center) were the only two of the seven Catholic sacraments that Luther accepted. The Last Supper, with its institution of the Eucharist, embodied the very heart of Lutheran doctrine. While preserving the Catholic belief that, in the distribution of the Eucharist, the flesh and body of Christ were physically present in the bread and wine, Luther insisted on the “ubiquity” of this presence. In an effort to have his cake and eat it, so to speak, the reformer claimed that the real presence transcended time and place and therefore could not be associated with any one of its manifestations. In doing so he managed both to invest the new faith with some of the respectability of the old, while questioning tradition in the most radical terms. According to Koerner: “Simultaneously affirming and denying what it shows, Cranach’s retable navigates the narrow channels of theological controversy. On the one hand, because Christ’s presence distinguishes the altar from elsewhere, the retable affirms and celebrates its place. On the other, it negates sacred geography, revealing church as activity, not place” (74). The right wing represents Confession, which, while not a sacrament, was an important means of enforcing ecclesiastical discipline in an age of sectarian conflict. Knowledge of the Lutheran catechism was an indispensable prerequisite to full participation in the life of the church.

In representing subjects that echoed the rituals performed before the altar every day, Cranach endows the images with a pedagogical function. Rather than depict an “other” world, one distinct from that in which the devout worshipper was located, the images act as a kind of mirror of Lutheran practice. The artist has done everything possible to confuse past and present. Some of Luther’s closest associates are shown taking part in the rituals represented in the wings, and Luther himself is witness to the Last Supper. The historical status of the Last Supper is thus compromised by the collapse of historical horizons implied by the presence of the reformer (as well as the artist’s son, who serves as his cup bearer).

The predella attracts most of Koerner’s attention. Christ on the cross occupies the center, with the congregation on the left and Luther preaching from a pulpit on the right. Koerner points out that the space depicted in Cranach’s image corresponds almost exactly to that of the church in which the altarpiece was placed. He argues that this correspondence underscores the pedagogical function of the image. The work represents the rituals enacted in front of it, thus justifying the practices of the new church with mechanisms borrowed from the old. Luther believed that the central message of scripture was Christ, so that it is appropriate that Christ’s crucified presence should constitute the center not only of the reformer’s attention, but also that of the congregation. Furthermore, in his increasingly enthusiastic defense of images, Luther argued that images were ineluctably associated with the use of language: “Whether I want it or not, when I hear the word of Christ, there delineates itself in my heart the picture of a man who hangs on the cross, just as my face naturally delineates itself on water when I look into it” (160, quoting Luther’s Against the Heavenly Prophets of 1525.) Finally, Luther insisted that the Bible was to be at the disposal of all believers, and he devoted much of his life to translating it into German. More important even than a knowledge of the Bible, still susceptible to conflicting interpretations, the Christian should know the correct way to approach its understanding. The key to correct interpretation was provided by means of sermons addressed to important texts.

Throughout this encyclopedic treatment of the role of the religious image within reformed theology, Koerner has important things to say about style. Cranach, he argues, cleansed his style of anything that might distract from the message his images were trying to convey. Their transparency to the word—the divine word—was so important that any visual interest they might have had was deliberately denied. This is a well-known thesis about the art of the Reformation but one that Koerner expands and enriches in a number of different ways. Stressing the pedagogical function of Cranach’s paintings, he argues that they are not so much representations that require explanation as explanations of their own status as representations: “Shaped less as a picture to be interpreted than as the interpretation of a picture, the Reformation image mirrors the interpretative enterprise in which it here stands” (14), or, “Confronting the Wittenberg parishioners with an image of themselves, Cranach’s altarpiece metabolized iconoclasm by reducing figuration almost to zero. Redundant, the Reformation image returned representation to the lay beholder, making him or her the centre of a religion without representatives” (429). Finally, the radical reductivism to which Cranach submits painting itself is seen as a maneuver in the creation of new meaning: “… the theological idea that all Christians share an internal image of Christ, indeed that Christ and his message are the same for all believers, is expressed though the routinization of painting itself. Serving and constructing a new communicative model, Lutheran art communicates differently, transforming the medium as much as the message” (246).

Koerner’s text is also characterized by a number of close readings of specific images. For example, in an analysis of the predella cited above, the author observes that the lighting contrasts with that of the lighting of the panels of the altarpiece, and that a miraculous breeze causes Christ’s loincloth to flutter. Arguing that these gestures are meant to deny any illusionistic implications the image might have, he writes: “Cranach … paints under erasure. Like an iconoclasm launched from inside the image’s resources, the fluttering loincloth stamps the crucifix with a ‘not’: not here, not this” (181).

As powerful and convincing as this reading of Cranach’s style appears, there are lingering misgivings that must haunt the consciousness of anyone familiar with the art of this period. The process of simplification and abstraction that is a characteristic of Cranach’s mature work is discernible in his production long before the Reformation took place. It may be observed, for instance, in his early commissions for the Saxon princes, such as the Saint Anne Altarpiece in Frankfurt, dated 1509. Why, at a time when Cranach was being asked to illustrate the catalogue of the relics accumulated by these deeply pious Catholic rulers, would he seek to eliminate all vestiges of illusionism from his artistic vocabulary? Along the same lines, one wonders why all aspects of the visual culture he executed for the Saxon princes, such as a long series of nude or seminude heroines, or tournament and hunting scenes, should have been subjected to the same radical simplification as religious images? Without a pedagogical function, or a need to make them transparent to a literary text, why would Cranach have applied the same stylistic protocols to their creation as he did to those produced in the service of the new faith? Indeed, one might argue that it was precisely in those paintings of half-clad Venuses or Judiths that the marks of “artistic” facture should have been most prominent, since they were inspired by the ambitious artistic culture of the Italian Renaissance.

Finally, a word about the book’s appearance: despite having been produced by the same press as his last, this tome leaves much to be desired. At approximately five hundred pages, it could never have been a small book, but the press has endeavored to minimize its size in a way that not only fails to do justice to the work’s ambition, it also has particularly unfortunate consequences for the illustrations. The quality of reproduction is often poor, and the small scale of the images sometimes makes them unreadable. These shortcomings are especially disturbing in view of the fact that the book was awarded a Millard Meiss Publication Grant by the College Art Association.

These reservations, however, in no way detract from the scale of Koerner’s accomplishment. Despite its length and repetitiveness, The Reformation of the Image makes a major contribution to the study of German art in the sixteenth century. It provides us with a picture of a complex cultural situation marked by enduring theological speculation. Koerner has done all scholars and students of this period a service in offering us a profound meditation on the intellectual implications of its visual manifestations.

Keith Moxey
Barbara Novak Professor Emeritus, Barnard College/Columbia University