500 years of the Reformation (1517-2017) the two first symposiums of Paris and Strasbourg

Reports in English

Summary of the Congress in Strasbourg (15th may 2017) : The Contribution of the Reformation to a Theology of the Arts.

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Cranach, Jésus bénit les petits enfants (détail), 1537
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Marie-Odile Lafosse-Marin, Maitre et serviteur, sculpture

1. The two works of art that are reproduced on the poster for the congress in Strasbourg represent in and of themselves an apt summary of the theme in question (both works of art were « « projected » » onscreen)
-  A painting by Cranach from the 16th century and
-  a contemporary work from the21st century (The Artist, Marie-Odile Lafosse-Marin, is present with us for this Conference)
Also a narrative painting depicting a Biblical scene, and a work that fits more under the category of “signs”, of symbols, which depicts emptiness and absence as the trace of another form of presence. The first is representative of Lutheran esthetics, whereas the second reflects Calvinist or Reformed esthetics.

2. The following points were highlighted from the era that preceded the Reformation in the Germanic sphere, in particular along the Rhine River :

-  The Reformation means return to the Biblical texts, including those of the Old Testament. The Old Testament (OT), places value on “seeing God” : in the OT, as in the rest of the Bible, what is visible is valued as forming a part of the human dimension, but is claimed by God as well as a means for revealing Himself. And yet “seeing” in the Bible does not always lead to esthetics, but rather to ethical behavior.
-  Rhineland mysticism (Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Henri Suso, Hildegard of Bingen) played an important role in introducing the ideas of the Reformation and of pietism, the latter having greatly influenced the art of German romanticism (K.D. Friedrich),on the one hand, because of the value it placed on sentiment (image substituting for concept), and on the other hand by favoring a sort of “mystical union” between God and the believer, and finally by being attentive to the believer’s internal mental images. One must “pass through the images to get beyond them”. Johannes Tauler said, with regard to mysticism, “it doesn’t see anything ; it sees God”.
-  The city of Strasbourg was one of the most important cities of the Reformation. It was located at the crossroads of three sources of influence : German (Luther), Swiss (the reformers of Basel, Berne and Zurich) and French(Calvin, who spent 3 years in Strasbourg). The primary reformer of Strasbourg was Martin Bucer, a former Dominican priest and humanist, whose ideas were particularly open.

3. The Reformation and the arts. Three perspectives were emphasized :

a) Strasbourg was a very important city with regard to the development of printing. A great number of printers reproduced not only texts (Bibles and theological treatises), but also artwork, in particular in the case of anti-Catholic pamphlets, which were sometimes very virulent. Woodcut images played an important role, and were produced by major artists (Baldung Grien, Vogtherr).

b) Lutheranism did not condemn the visual arts, but rather put them to the service of teaching and catechism. The same was not the case for the Swiss and French Reformation(Calvin), which adopted a much stricter attitude on the question of artwork. And yet it was Calvin, the “mystical theologian”, who first developed a theological esthetic : for him, it is possible to contemplate traces of the presence of God in the works of creation ; mean while the invisibility of God is nonetheless visible for those who possess “the eyes of faith”. Hence, Calvinism gave rise, paradoxically, to a very rich artistic tradition (Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Mondrian, Le Corbusier).

c) Finally – and more widely known – Protestantism gave rise to a rich musical tradition, both within Lutheranism (with its chorales and cantatas) and Calvinism (the Psalter of Geneva).

4. After the Reformation. Once again, three areas were explored.

a) Baroque Art, very heavily marked by the Council of Trent, which was to a certain extent a response to the Protestants. This art form highlighted what the Reformation had refused. However, baroque esthetics cannot be reduced to this aspect alone. It possesses its own language, which values the body and sensuality, staging and theatricality.

b) In the English-speaking sphere (the UK and North America), Calvinist esthetics, under the influence of the Puritans, was not conveyed by an emphasis on empty space (albeit empty in appearance only), or on nature, literature or poetry.

c) Finally, we must not forget the specificity of Anglican esthetics, typical of its via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, as it swung alternately towards the former and the latter. In England,William Blake, an atypical artistic figure of the 19th century, played an important role in the development of a modern spiritual esthetics, emancipated from dogma and from the Church, of which traces can be found in the video art of Bill Viola.

J. Cottin