Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 17, 2001
Paul Corby Finney, ed. Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Artists and the Calvinist Tradition Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. 539 pp. $65.00 (080283860X)

With the collection of nineteen essays in Seeing Beyond the Word: Visual Arts and the Calvinist Tradition, Paul Corbey Finney promises to provide a revisionist account of the relationship between Calvinism and the visual arts by challenging the presumed, prevalent view that Calvinism had either no impact or a purely negative effect on the development of the visual arts. Rather than focus on acts of Reformed iconoclasm, Finney calls his readers to examine the positive contribution that Calvinism made to the visual arts. Discovering the gift offered, however, remains a daunting task, for according to the editor, the nature of this contribution is “chameleon-like” and “liminal” in character. Instead of manifesting itself in a distinctive manner, Calvinist art is claimed to be a subtle reworking of existing artistic practices. Consequently, it is said to have a certain ambiguity, for it can and cannot be rightly called Reformed.

On one hand, Finney’s comments seem unnecessary. Unless one is willing to succumb to what Gombrich has aptly described as the “physiognomic fallacy,” no pure relations in the history of art exist. Visual images need not be symptomatic of Calvinism to suggest a connection between them. Furthermore, no artistic innovation can start from scratch. It should come as no surprise, then, that Calvinism and the visual arts do not possess a simple correspondance.

On the other hand, Calvinists have continued to search ad fontes for a pure identity since the sixteenth century, and their efforts can be seen quite readily in numerous areas of life, including politics and economics. In a sense, this is also true in regard to the storm against liturgical imagery. Iconoclasm appears to have played a significant role in developing Reformed identity and may have helped shape a distinctively Calvinist aesthetic (if such a thing exists). The idea of a “liminal” Calvinism seems odd at best. Such ambiguity, for Calvinists, might resemble Nicodemism, an irresponsible attitude of accommodation and compromise unanchored by Christian principles. The form and function of particular visual images may have been open-ended enough to meet the expectations of Calvinist observers, but this does not entail that such imagery is Calvinist in character, chameleon-like or otherwise. After all, people with different faith commitments regularly share numerous cultural practices. Why should this not also be true of works of art?

Although the geographical scope and the historical breadth of the material covered in Seeing Beyond the Word is to be lauded, it is sometimes difficult for the reader to know what is meant by terms like “visual arts” and the “Calvinist tradition.” The book never clearly defines the parameters of Calvinism. It also includes many different kinds of images seldom considered “art.” Perhaps, the book would be better if subtitled “Visual Culture within Reformed Communities.” Moreover, when considering its encyclopedic character, the twentieth century is conspicuously absent from the text; no mention of Donald Bruggink’s scholarship on contemporary Reformed church architecture is found here. In addition, the efforts of Calvin Seerveld and Nicholas Wolterstorff in developing a distinctively Reformed philosophical aesthetics are never cited.

Like most collections, the quality of essays is mixed. Daniel Hardy’s introduction is not very helpful and somewhat pretentious. For instance, his discussion of R. G. Collingwood’s aesthetics seems out of place and is difficult to take seriously. By contrast, Philip Benedict provides a good discussion of the early twentieth-century confessional apologies of Abraham Kuyper and Emile Doumergue that promoted the visual arts in Reformed communities. Benedict also offers prudent admonitions against efforts to pigeonhole artifacts according to the religious affiliation of their makers by reminding readers that many Calvinist artists produced images for Catholic churches with sacred iconography contrary to Reformed theology.

In another essay, Raymond Mentzer presents a compelling analysis of the unique ways in which French Huguenot temples redefined sacred space by appealing to early Christian models and the temple of Jerusalem. Besides addressing church architecture and liturgical furnishings, Mentzer provides a fascinating description of communion tokens (méreaux), images used that summoned believers to partake in the sacrament while controlling access to the Lord’s Supper.

By contrast, George Starr’s essay on Hungarian Reformed art and architecture is not persuasive. His interpretation of grave markers found in Calvinist cemeteries seems farfetched. Starr claims that “primitive” appearance of wooden headposts in these graveyards reveals that Calvinists adopted Turkish imagery and that the absence of inscriptions on the tombs reinforced communal solidarity rather than individual pride. Unfortunately, Starr does not offer any proof that the graves interred the Calvinist dead. In addition, if Reformed Hungarians hoped for anonymity, why mark gravesites at all? After all, Hungarians had earlier examples of such practice within Calvinism to imitate.

James Tanis suggests that seventeenth-century Dutch prints developed the way they did not in spite of the Reformation but because of it. In his essay, Tanis effectively shows how Hendrik Hondius’s modifications of prints by Hendrick Golzius provided Calvinists with powerful visual propaganda against Catholicism. At times, however, his interpretations are overstated and too apologetic in tone. Rembrandt, for instance, is praised for rejecting traditional religious imagery in aspirations of discovering a more personal response to the Word. Tanis makes no reference to lessons learned from Rubens and Italian artists. Furthermore, Rembrandt was not the first to evoke an empathic response to biblical narratives. Netherlandish artists practiced such visual rhetoric long before the Reformation. Visual images participated in the battles between Catholics and Protestants for Christian bodies and souls. Nonetheless, we need to be cautious not to overlook more ecumenical instances.

In one of the finest essays in this collection, Reindert Falkenburg argues for a more subtle approach to the relationship between Calvinism and seventeenth-century Dutch landscape pictures. He argues that the rise of “realism” in Dutch landscapes is not specifically connected with the religious convictions of Calvinist artists and that such imagery is open-ended enough to accommodate the expectations of Catholic and Protestant viewers. Landscapes may have triggered certain confessional associations among Calvinist observers, but this does not foreclose other possible interpretations.

James White provides an interesting account of how Calvinist principles of church architecture have been appropriated by Catholic parishes in America and how the “plain style” of Reformed meetinghouses in New England, often associated with Calvinism, lost favor among American Protestants after the 1830s (who have since preferred churches with explicit stylistic references within the history of architecture). Unfortunately, he implies that looking for the sacred in the ordinary is a Reformed innovation, failing to recognize that this idea is already prevalent in the Middle Ages. The interpenetration of the sacred and domestic is not Protestant in origin, and the “plain style” of Reformed meetinghouses has medieval precedents, such as the Cistercian abbey of Fontenay. Simply put, Reformed principles of church architecture are not divorced from the ideas of Bernard of Clairvaux and Jean Gerson. They remain tinged with the Catholic.

Gretchen Townsend Buggeln offers an illuminating essay on church renovations in Connecticut. More specifically, she looks at the move from a preference for the plain style to a neoclassical one. She argues that this stylistic transformation does not mark the waning of Reformed theological principles but rather a change in emphasis. The neoclassical style continued to advocate the Calvinist notion of moderation in all things, but also offered an alternative way to temper luxury and ostentation through elegance and grace.

Few visual images and objects outside the context of specific Reformed churches were made exclusively for Calvinists, and as the editor rightly notes, these images were made by appropriating preexisting artistic traditions. The stylistic diversity of the objects addressed in Seeing Beyond the Word, however, need not, as Hardy suggests, express the freedom at the very heart of the Reformed tradition. Such visual variety could in fact have little to do with Calvinism. In the search for artistic expressions of Calvinism, not only are sophisticated images often reduced to simple allegories of theological doctrine but also the power of such images to affect others is neglected.

In closing, the Finney’s premise that Calvinism affected the visual arts in positive ways is somewhat top-heavy. Contributions typically participate within an economy of exchange. Debtors often return favors. Perhaps, the book would have better if it had also consistently addressed possible ways in which visual images may have contributed positively to the development of Calvinism. Otherwise, it might appear that precious little was given after all.

Henry M. Luttikhuizen
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Calvin College