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Art Through Time: A Global View

Conflict and Resistance Art: Calvinist Iconoclasm

» Franz Hogenberg (German, ca. 1540– ca. 1590)

Calvinist Iconoclasm

Calvinist Iconoclasm
Artist / Origin: Franz Hogenberg (German, ca. 1540– ca. 1590)
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1566
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Etching
Medium: Prints, Drawings, and Photography
Dimensions: H: 16 ½ in. (41.9 cm.), W: 22 in. (55.88 cm.)
Location: Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany
Credit: Courtesy of Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY/Photo by Christoph Irrgang

For John Calvin, leader of a major Protestant reform movement in sixteenth-century Europe, art was about imitation and illusion.

Images, according to Calvin, held no religious relevance. Worse, images could lead to idolatry, the worship of the picture rather than the thing that it represented. In the summer of 1566, spurred on by the sermons of Calvinist preachers, zealous mobs descended on churches in the Netherlands, intent on ridding them entirely of their imagery. Many churches were literally white-washed.

Published in Michael Aitsinger’s 1588 De Leone Belgico, Hogenberg’s etching records this wave of Calvinist iconoclasm. In the print, guards stand before a church as iconoclasts seek out and destroy all forms of religious art within. Members of the mob are shown chopping up church furnishings, altarpieces, and panel paintings. They smash statues, lights, and stained glass windows. Others pull down the statues of saints from the tops of the columns running along the nave. Although its subject matter is the desecration of the house of God, Hogenberg’s etching is equivocal. To the left of the church, finely dressed on-lookers remark on the happenings taking place inside, while others stroll by without even noticing the destruction. However, to the right, the mob’s assault extends into the street, where participants begin to plunder local shops. Hogenberg shows both order and disorder in the events, which were prompted by conflicting attitudes about art and religion and helped to precipitate the Dutch Revolt against Spanish Catholic rule in the Netherlands.

Expert Perspective:
Freyda Spira, Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Iconoclasm is the destruction of images, which usually have a political or religious leader, and the image is usually endowed with some kind of mediating power. The fear is that people will begin to worship the image. Images needed to be cleansed from the churches and from religious worship. Most of the iconoclasm during the Reformation was happening in Southwest Germany and in Switzerland. In some cases literally crowds or masses came into churches with axes and pitch forks and destroyed the images with their hands. Most of them were white-washed and the images that were really incredibly important to certain societies or villages were kept and they were just covered over so that the power of those images were negated from the ritual of the church.

Iconoclasm is something that happens all over the world in all cultures for various reasons. We see it everywhere. With iconoclasm the images are at the center of the conflict and they become the main vehicle for expressing power or resistance.

Hogenberg’s print about iconoclasm is a reflection of what is going on in society. He did it as a way to chronicle the activities of Iconoclasm and what you can see in the print is really the two sides of it: the chaos and confusion and also the orderliness with which it took place. It was condoned in many societies as the right thing to do and as a way to move forward and progress away from the Catholic Church, but it was also frowned upon as an activity of the masses.”

Additional Resources

Besançon, Alain. The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm.Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Crew, Phyllis Mack. Calvinist Preaching and Iconoclasm in the Netherlands 1544–1569. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Eire, Carlos M.N. War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Koerner, Joseph Leo. The Reformation of the Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

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