What would Jesus' favorite swear word be?

From the liberation of images - a slightly different view of the reformed iconoclasm

Lecture as part of the interdisciplinary series of events "Johannes Calvin and the cultural influence of Protestantism" at the University of Zurich on the occasion of the 500th birthday of Johannes Calvin (1509 - 1564)

“So Protestantism has now given up its hostility to images?” A journalist asked a while ago when he heard that the Evangelical Church in Germany has a cultural representative. At first I thought this question was just an expression of the religious half-education that I encountered again and again on the part of a media representative in the German capital, who has long since ceased to care about the details of confessional differences, but who poses his questions to the church all the more confidently. We talked for a while. He gave scraps of his Max Weber readings from the Sociology proseminar to the best, thought out loud about the relationship between moral rigorism and cult hostility, quickly mistaken cult and culture elegantly and patted himself on the shoulder for this profound play on words. At the end he gave a thesis on the productive bigotry of Catholicism. Here, he said, celebrate the Pope like a pop star and then do what you want. Religion creates glamor, art creates freedom of the spirit. Both would need strong images, and because the Protestants would have to do without them, they would only be left with disdainful morality. Since then I have come across this tone of self-confident naivety time and again. On the cultural-political parquet, reasoning about the Protestants 'alleged hostility to images is a popular way of starting the conversation for remarks critical of religion about the churches' alleged lack of culture. With a flute of champagne in hand, the firmly entrenched clichés can be excellently trumpeted. One may reduce these encounters to anecdotal levels and ridicule the interlocutors in front of an audience with more religious knowledge or mourn the decline of decent criticism of religion.

I admit that I am not immune to the latter reaction in particular. Tonight, of course, I'll take a different approach. I take seriously the circulating images of Protestantism's hostility to images, including the fact that it is no longer possible to differentiate between Protestantism and Calvinism, and I try to work on the cliché. If one takes seriously the definition that clichés are prejudices that result from strong opinions, this attempt is worthwhile because from here something like an inventory can be made that asks what remains of Calvinism beyond theological or historical scrutiny stayed. The question that guides me in my deliberations is not so much which description of the Calvinist variety of Protestantism is historically correct, not even the dispute about the appropriate interpretation of its cultural, political, legal or economic consequences, but the question of which Effects unfold what rumors about Calvinism still prejudice opinions and determine the sense of direction of quick judgments. In addition, I concentrate on the subject of hostility to images. Alternatively, the famous thesis of the birth of capitalism out of the spirit of Protestantism could also be looked at in one way or another. Because this thesis also proves to be much more persistent than its refutation in terms of religious studies or economic history. My contribution is divided into two parts. On the one hand, I recall various aspects that theoretical and applied iconoclasm, the iconoclasm, had in the phase of the “second Reformation” (Hans Schilling).

Of course, this is not about a systematic reconstruction, but about forgotten moments of a mental movement that had major cultural consequences. I want to tell you my assumption now, because it will lead to the second part of my lecture. As painful and problematic as some of the corruption of pictures was, the religious abstinence from pictures did not indirectly damage the free development of art. On the contrary, it made possible pre-forms of a modern art market and the aesthetic freedom of artistic activity in the first place. The image criticism of the Calvinist movement - I also include the Puritan movement a bit vaguely - was not culture-destroying; on the contrary, it was immensely culture-productive and also promoted theoretical reflection on the power of images. I would like to illustrate this thesis using the great Dutch painter Rembrandt as an example.

1. Religious image criticism as cultural criticism

In 1524, the Zurich Reformation escalated in a spectacular action of great symbolic power: the reformer Zwingli moved into the chapel of the Great Minster with two people priests and the decision-makers from the guilds and guilds. Zwingli points to this picture and that principal piece. First the gentlemen remove the pictures. Then the altar will be torn down. A year later this unusual procession is repeated. The city council also collects the valuable head reliquaries with the church treasure. Two acts that are commonly remembered as an iconoclasm. On closer inspection, however, these two actions have little in common with the acts of barbarism that we associate with iconoclasms today. As early as the 16th century, the act of clearing churches, cathedrals and chapels of religious images, altars, reliquaries and sculptures was remembered primarily as a spontaneous act of violence by the mob: Angry new believers break open church portals, rushing at Mary in a furious frenzy Saint Bartholomew or the Pantocrator and scratch the eyes out of the faces. Heads are chopped off, legs amputated - the chroniclers of the iconoclasms use metaphors that come from the world of slaughter and assassinations. The sociogram of the actors caught speaks volumes. "Loses Volck", "lose rotte", "das gepofel" was to blame for the outbreaks, according to contemporary witnesses. The iconoclasts are clearly decreed at the bottom of the urban society. The iconoclasm as a conflict is defamed ex post as a conflict with the urban authorities. Iconoclasm and social unrest tend to be identified in this way. There have been such excesses of violence, no question about it. The Reformation also seduced radicals in various parts of Europe to take fundamentalist actions against the religious art treasures of the Old Believers. Cultural assets were destroyed and aggression was symbolically turned against what gold is and what shines.

Even with these acts of barbarism, the reasons for this are manifold and can only rarely be reduced to a demanding theology program that is critical of images. Often enough, solid political or social interests are involved, in which the illegitimate removal of pictures and statues functions as ideal symbolic politics. Anyone who is defamed as a mob here is the bourgeois authorities of yesterday or tomorrow, depending on the outcome of the conflict. Power struggles between the council and opposition citizens can also be in the background, as can conflicts between rulers and people, in which the Reformation movement acts as a catalyst. Volker Reinhard has impressively described this meltdown of different conflicts in the Calvin Reformation in Geneva. Detailed studies of iconoclastic actions in the 15th and 16th centuries also show how social upheavals, preferably in urban settings, are combined with the ideas of the second Reformation that were critical of images. Conflicts of images are to a large extent indications of crises, in which the dispute over the image only condenses symbolically because other questions arise in relation to the question of the image. The iconoclasm literally turns into a proxy war. This is also reminiscent of the fact that the controversy over the image did not concern Christianity for the first time in the 16th century. Since the iconoclasm of Byzantium in the 6th and 7th centuries, constellations have been repeated in which questions of the religiously appropriate sensual representation of God are combined with questions of political representation.

Zurich is a good example of the enrichment of many conflict situations that find a symbolic solution in the theological reassessment of the images in religious spaces. It is quite remarkable that the iconoclasm is the most sensual of all Reformation upheavals. The picture critics, of all people, rely on strong pictures, on pictures whose afterlife lasts until the imagination of contemporary Berlin journalists. Anyone who removes images in public can be assured of public attention. The new doctrine of the Lord's Supper may be too complicated to teach the new understanding of the church, but when the images of saints, the statues and the high altars disappear, the piety culture of the so-called common people also changes. The iconoclasm in Zurich's Großmünster is therefore paradigmatic for many clean-up actions in the course of the second Reformation. This iconoclasm has nothing in common with a spontaneous excess, it is, as it was later in Brandenburg and in many free cities, an iconoclasm from above, which is organized, sometimes even regulated by law and is not carried out against, but with the participation of the urban leadership elite . The symbolic effect is not necessarily smaller, but the association of the barbaric act of rage is mostly misleading. The iconoclasm in Zurich also has - if you follow the clichés - a real Calvinist punchline: the head reliquaries, this epitome of the “holy fuss”, are removed, but by no means sunk in the river or even destroyed. In Zurich they knew how to distinguish between symbolic value and real financial value.

The latter was certainly appreciated. That is why the valuables were stowed in cellars or even sold. Max Weber would have been delighted with this story, but he too would owe us the answer to the question whether the spirit of the Reformation or the merchants' soul was the driving force behind such respect. The altar panels by Hans Leu were neither burned nor smashed. Rather, the city leaders appointed an artist to paint over the city saints with the cityscape they had covered - a process that led the artist Anselm Kiefer to overpaint classic pictures in the 1970s. His “icon controversy”, as he calls the cycle, makes him famous. The act of overpainting once again condenses the social upheaval associated with the Reformation movement: the medieval landscape of saints is now overlaid by the image of an up-and-coming city with an impressive silhouette.

In spite of the fact that image-hostile excesses of genuinely theological initial questions have become independent, one should not make it so easy for oneself to look for reasons other than religious ones for the “clean-up” in churches and prayer rooms and thus abandon one's theological responsibility. The fact that other than religious motives actually lead to upheaval, that religious motives are therefore only advanced in order to cover up other, usually political interests, is a popular figure of thought that we like to bring into play at the moment when it comes to the hot spots of the world where religion plays a role. Whether in Palestine or Afghanistan, it is repeatedly said that religion is only an excuse, in truth it is about poverty or oil, the humiliation by the West or the struggle for sovereignty or more independence. Religion thus becomes a fire accelerator for supposedly religiously distant problems and thus a suitable means for an unholy purpose, which is usually indicated with the emotionalization of the masses. This argument obscures the power of religious beliefs as well as the fact that religious movements always have cultural, social, and political implications, just as the cultural, social, and political context has implications for religious beliefs. To differentiate between “actual and improper consequences” is problematic in my opinion. It is more helpful to indicate a bundle of mutually reinforcing causes. This also applies in the early modern era. The impact of the visual criticism presented with prophetic verve, as it followed Zwingli, Calvin and other reformatory masterminds, can ultimately only be understood with a genuinely theological model of argumentation.

In his work “Protestantism as Critique and Design”, Paul Tillich reminds us that the Calvinist criticism of images in the time of the Reformation awakening was by no means a secondary issue that was far behind the question of predestination or the pious way of life. In the broader sense, it is part of the major theme of the Christian way of life and is systematically related to the criticism of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. The suspicion of idolatry, idolatry or magic can only arise when much, perhaps too much, is trusted in images. Calvin's theoretical iconoclasm therefore leads right into the question of the legitimacy of the sensual representation of God through external signs in which God can be thought of as a sovereign and free God despite his connection to the signs of the world. Only when the manifest connection of the archetype to the image, of the signified to the signified, is assumed, as happens in the Catholic Eucharist through the idea of ​​real presence, the image can develop the power that Zwingli and Calvin want to break. The suspicion of magic brings the reformers onto the scene. Lutheranism also reacts sharply, but with a different strategy of disempowerment. Luther educates the images. He literally hangs them lower and denies their rank as the material bearer of a divine energy or presence. In this way he "profaned" them and turned them into useful media for religious education. Pictures become biblia pauporum, an illustration for people who are unfamiliar with reading. This is only more image-friendly at first glance. The search of the Wittenbergers for a Protestant picture program, as it appears e.g. in the paintings of Cranach, shows that the theology of pictures in the east of the empire takes a different direction. It speaks of a greater serenity in dealing with the sensual intuition of faith. Whether this friendly action of "hanging down" was more art-friendly in terms of its effects is a matter of dispute today.

Calvinism provokes, if you will, a religious crisis of representation and at the same time seeks a way out of the pictorial concepts of the Middle Ages in abstinence from images. Now one has to defend the Catholic image theories of the late Middle Ages against the practiced popular piety in retrospect, but the practice in dealing with depictions of saints, figures of Mary and devotional images actually had a magical claim: in what was depicted was worshiped what was depicted. The saint, to whom tears and wishes are directed, before whom one kneels and whom one kisses, is as real as one's own hand in the eyes of pious Christians who are not interested in the complex medieval theories of signs. If God could already be present in a piece of bread, how much more so in an image of a saint, which with its painterly tricks makes illusion and reality barely distinguishable for the human eye. A lot of faith may still be required in the Eucharist. The picture is self-evident, it is self-evident. In the “sacramental show” of devotional practice, the sacred image is an apotropaic object, a kind of magic image that lives from the physical connection between the observer and the observed, presented as energy or flowing material.

Much alchemy has flowed into this conception of the picture, one more reason for the Calvinists to want to break this spell - for the sake of the inability to represent God, that is true. However, it is underestimated how much the interruption of this sacred view also changes people's visual behavior as a whole. To put it emphatically: the images are desacramentalized and now as worldly artefacts to what they could not be under the spell of the sacramental gaze: images that enable a worldly view of the world. Therefore, the image criticism of Calvinism as a mass medium for better contact with God also has a power-critical punchline. When devotion comes from listening, the inner images that arise are radically withdrawn from the corrective grasp of pastors and fathers. The supposed desensitization of the places of worship leads, as can be proven in brain research, to a liberated, one might say almost unleashed, imagination. Since people do not understand themselves and the world otherwise than through images and visual landscapes, because even the most trivial statements of language rest on images, the hostility to images in the sacred sense provokes the production of one's own ideas. The strict disciplining of the senses may therefore also be understood as a palliative against a dissolute imagination. Because once the images are freely available, they develop their own power.

The consequence of the cultivation of images inside the Reformed churches and prayer rooms is therefore by no means the creation of image-free zones. White walls act like projection surfaces for your own image cosmos. By the way, Tom Sawyer, the hero of my childhood, is the best example of this creativity that comes out of sensual emptiness. His best pranks come to him in the plain white wooden church while he sits next to Aunt Polly in Sunday school. Mark Twain has drawn the puritan world of his little protagonist in wonderful colors. The strengthening of the child's imagination from the spirit of optical boredom is nowhere more beautifully described than here. What was left of Calvinism many people learned as children with the flashlight under the covers, more probably than in the pronouncements of Reformed church federations.

2. From the magical image to the reflection image - the example of Rembrandt

Studies of the art scene in the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th centuries have shown that the Calvinist struggle against the religious image significantly promoted secular art production. The Calvinist prayer rooms may do without pictures, the Calvinist town houses adorn the masterpieces of the Dutch masters. And the city with the largest private art collections in Germany was for a long time Wuppertal. Apparently, the trend towards an inner image as an expression of religious freedom in the community corresponds to a trend towards internalization in art itself, which research traces back to Calvinist influences. This transformation process is most evident in the subjects that were formerly used as images of saints - images of Mary or the apostles, biblical scenes and martyrs. Rembrandt, the famous representative of Dutch painting of the Golden Age, whose technique still attracts artists to this day, demonstrates this change, which, as an indirect, alleged outflow of the Calvinist hostility towards images, leads to a new style of painting and a new image theory. Rembrandt, the favorite painter of the educated in the 19th century, was contrasted with the Catholic Rubens. While Rubens relies on the visible embodiment of Christian beliefs, Rembrandt's path, paradoxical as it sounds to a painter at first glance, leads to internalization.

The German-speaking scholarly republic of the 19th century, which was strongly colored by Protestantism, glued Rubens' painting with iconoclastic labels that tend to disguise his art. The favorite swear word was that of "externality", which shows belief as in the sensual-physical-vital. But the suspicion is distantly related to that of the Calvinists regarding the devotional images. Rembrandt's artistic profile shows itself in a hitherto unknown subjectification. He works neither for the church nor for the princes. As a freelance artist, he is exposed to fluctuations in the market, which his work honored or rejected. After 1624, the public's darling turned into a heavily indebted man. In sixty self-portraits, he reveals his denominations to the viewer and, with relentless openness, glimpses into his innermost being. The process of aging in particular remains an issue of life. In later pictures he often portrayed himself as the Apostle Paul and expressed his relation to “justification by faith alone”. The thought that God perceives the individual unadorned with crooked backs, sunken shoulders, wrinkles, scars and discoloration - and that the painter can therefore also show the great saints for what they are: people who have been tortured and loved by God. His Pauline portraits differ from everything that we have seen so far in the visual history of the West.

The great theologian, the dreaded polemicist, the challenged missionary, the martyr - in Rembrandt's pictures he escapes all stereotypes. Paul is no longer an extraordinary saint, he is a person whose face is written on the face of the events of the world. Rembrandt paints his Paul for us and we discover other faces in this face that are closest to us. The path from fixation on the saints to turning to one's neighbor, an argument that was brought up again and again in the aftermath of the image battles of the 16th century, comes into its own here in a fresh and new way. Rembrandt profaned the saints by turning them into people who touch and seduce them to a new way of seeing. His pictures appear worldly in a comprehensive sense. Everyday life and dirt and the ambivalence of human living conditions, ugliness and illness have just as much space as impressive gestures of mercy and closeness. The representation of the world could not be more secular.

So much has been said and written about the calculation of light in Rembrandt's pictures that every freshman in art history talks shop about it, but the reminder that light is the technology with which the representation of the unrepresentable is redeemed in such a way that the prohibition of images in the medium of the picture is redeemed, should be mentioned here. Today I would like to show you another picture that shows how the criticism of the religious image leads to new forms of art that are definitely a new theological challenge, precisely because they refuse the sacramental sense of the image. In 1646 Rembrandt van Rijn painted a picture with the title “The Holy Family Behind the Curtain”. Today it hangs in the state art collections in Kassel. In the picture we see a rod that runs parallel to the picture and on which a red curtain hangs, which is drawn to the right to reveal an obviously precious painting behind it with a frame reflecting the light: a picture within a picture. The pictorial space in which the Holy Family resides is a dark space. We only have a vague idea of ​​what is there. A fire burns in the foreground with a cat crouching next to it. In the background a man, Josef, is chopping wood. In the left half of the picture sits a poorly dressed woman holding a screaming child. Never before has the Holy Family been shown so poorly. "If this is not a profanation, what else would be", wrote Jacob Burckhardt in 1875. That the sacred appears in the everyday life of the world is an idea strongly advocated by the Reformation. The curtain in front of the picture reminds the viewer that he is only getting a picture of the Holy Family. It is not. The viewer is exposed like a voyeur who catches an illegitimate glimpse of his scene, which he is actually not supposed to see. The grandiose play with image and image deprivation leaves no doubt: the painter addresses the problem of religious images themselves. In his magnificent brushstroke he comments on the longing to capture a scene of God in the image, our striving for something sensually overwhelming that makes it easier to believe, at Rembrandt leads to everyday life in the world. There is nothing more sublime to be caught!