The Art of Evasion

"Those who seek in scholarship nothing more than an honoured occupation with which to beguile the tedium of idleness I would compare to those who pass their lives looking at paintings." John Calvin

Growing up Protestant often entails embracing a symbolic, rather than a representational approach to the divine. This approach emphasizes the use of symbols and metaphors to understand and connect with the divine, rather than relying on physical representations or images.

In Protestantism, there is a strong emphasis on the belief that God is beyond human comprehension and cannot be fully represented or captured in any physical form. Instead, Protestants often rely on symbols such as the cross, the dove, or the flame to represent different aspects of the divine. These symbols serve as reminders and aids in worship, helping believers to focus their thoughts and deepen their spiritual connection.

The symbolic approach to the divine in Protestantism encourages individuals to engage in personal interpretation and reflection. It allows for a more flexible understanding of religious concepts, as symbols can hold different meanings for different people. This approach encourages believers to explore their own relationship with God and develop a deep personal understanding of their faith.

At the same time, the symbolic approach in Protestantism also emphasizes the importance of scripture and the Word of God. The Bible serves as the ultimate authority and guide for believers, providing them with a framework for understanding the divine and its symbols. Here, there is no relying on Catholic paraphernalia to undersrand the divine. Through studying scripture, Protestants seek to discern the deeper meanings behind the symbols and metaphors found within it.


From Calvinism and Visual Culture: The Art of EvasionAngela Vanhaelen

When studying the influence of Calvinism in the arts, one must consider "the seeming impossibility of reconciling Reformed interdictions with a burgeoning of the arts." Pictures proliferated in post-Reformation Europe. In spite—or perhaps because—of Reformed Protestant prohibitions, the visual arts flourished even in places that embraced Calvinism, with its noted distrust of the image.

In the Dutch Republic, for instance, the Reformed faith was adopted as the public confession, yet a lively and prosperous art market was a dominant feature of the so-called Golden Age of cultural and economic vibrancy. The central claim of the author's chapter on visual culture is that Calvinism generated an art of evasion and, in so doing, it brought about significant—and often unanticipated—changes to cultural life."

From Calvinism and the Arts, Susan Hardman Moore

In 1540 Calvin wrote to a young student to praise his devotion to study, but also to deliver a warning: ‘Those who seek in scholarship nothing more than an honoured occupation with which to beguile the tedium of idleness I would compare to those who pass their lives looking at paintings.’ This spur-of-the-moment remark, committed to paper as Calvin settled down to answer letters (as he did everyday), is revealing. Calvin backed up his opinion that study for its own sake is pointless with an unfavourable reference to those ‘who pass their lives looking at paintings’.

Calvin: austere, hostile to the arts? Calvinism: corrosive to human creativity and delight in beauty? Calvin’sreputation for austerity, some suggest, stems in part from his context in Geneva, where the strifetorn citizens were too hard pressed and poor to support patronage of the arts in the style of wealthy Basle, or of the kind Luther enjoyed in Wittenberg. To counter Calvin’s dour reputation, scholars highlight his affirmation of the arts: ‘I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible […] sculpture and painting are gifts of God’; ‘among other things fit to recreate man and give him pleasure, music is either first or one of the principal […] we must value it as a gift of God’.

Calvin’s writings also show appreciation of the splendours of Creation. In the natural world, God ‘shows his glory to us, whenever and wherever we cast our gaze’.5 For Calvin, God’s glorious gift of beauty shows – like his gifts of food and wine – how God gives not simply what is needed, but what will stir up ‘delight and good cheer’, ‘gladden the heart’.6 Calvin was in fact quite a bon vivant who enjoyed meals with friends and colleagues; he particularly liked fish, fresh from Lake Geneva. He gave his dining companion Laurent de Normandie (a publisher and refugee, who like Calvin came from Noyon in Picardy), a fine rock crystal cup with chased silver T page 76 rim and handles. Calvin valued human artistry, the natural world and everyday pleasures as gifts of God.

The key to the value Calvin set on the arts was this: nothing should be an end in itself. As his Genevan catechism put it, ‘What is the chief end of human life? That men should know God by whom they were created.’ Calvin’s keenest desire was to stop artists subverting true knowledge of God. ‘Only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing: let not God’s majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes, be debased through unseemly representations.’ Calvin took the view that fallen human beings would inevitably worship what had been created, instead of the Creator. So images and idolatry went hand in hand; the arts had no place in church.

Calvin’s convictions draw attention to cultural changes that accompanied the theological upheavals of the Reformation. A shift from the visual to the verbal – from eye to ear, from seeing to hearing, fromimagestowords– is commonlysaid to havehappened,particularly in the Reformed tradition.

From Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism

Calvinism did not develop an art-style of its own, like other schools or religions. Kuyper explains why. He begins by looking to the New Covenant and how God has given His people a more glorious mode of worship than what can be found in the Old Covenant. The current mode is a spiritual one. He says, “But when this ministry of shadows has served the purposes of the Lord, Christ comes to prophesy the hour when God shall no longer be worshipped in the monumental temple of Jerusalem, but shall rather be worshipped in spirit and in truth. And in keeping with this prophecy you find no trace or shadow of art for worship in all the apostolic literature” (p 147). Kuyper further explains that Aaron’s visible priesthood gives way to the invisible priesthood after the order of Melchizedek (p 147). Kuyper also describes it this way: “The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical” (p 147).

Kuyper argues that the older forms of religion were symbolic and ornamental because that was the more immature way to worship. He says, “Originally Divine worship appeared inseparably united to art, because, at the lower stage, Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form” (p 148). He then points out how God matures his people: “The more, on the other hand, Religion develops into spiritual maturity, the more it will extricate itself from art’s bandages, because art always remains incapable of expressing the very essence of Religion” (p 148).

Kuyper then uses an analogy to show how Religion and Art started out looking very similar to each other but when they are more mature we can see how very different they really are. He says this is like two babies who look the same when they are in the cradle but when they reach adult maturity, you can tell that one is a man and the other is a woman. He says, “And so, arrived at their highest development, both Religion and Art demand an independent existence, and the two stems which at first were intertwined and seemed to belong to the same plant, now appear to spring from a root of their own” (148).

Kuyper concludes this point saying, “Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life” (p 149).

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