The Native Tourist
reformed/biblical observations on Christianity and culture

Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Celebrating the Reformation's Liberation of Art
From Abraham Kuyper's Stone Lectures:

Religion also rises to that higher plain where it graduates from the symbolical into the clearly-conscious life, and thereby necessitates both the division of worship into many forms, and the emancipation of matured religion from all sacerdotal and political guardianship. In the 16th century Europe was approaching, though slowly, this higher level of Spiritual development, and it was not Lutheranism with its subjection of the whole nation to the religion of the prince, but Calvinism with its profound conception of religious liberty, which initiated the transition. In every country where Calvinism has made its appearance, it has led to a multiformity of life-tendencies, it has broken the power of the State within the domain of religion, and to a great extent has made an end of sacerdotalism. As a result of this, it abandoned the symbolical form of worship, and refused, at the demand of art, to embody its religious spirit in monuments of splendor.

The objection that such a symbolic service had a place in Israel does not weaken my argument, it rather supports it. For does not the New Testament teach us that the ministry of shadows, naturally flourishing under the old dispensation, under the dispensation of fulfilled prophecy is “old and waxeth aged and is nigh unto vanishing away? ”In Israel we find a state-religion, which is one and the same for the entire people. That religion is under sacerdotal leadership. And finally it makes its appearance in symbols, and is consequently embodied in the splendid temple of Solomon. 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 at 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. Aaron's visible priesthood on earth gives place to the invisible High-priesthood after the order of Melchizedek in Heaven. The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical.


Now of both these arts it is to be stated that, before the days of Calvinism, they soared high above the common life of the Nations, and that only under the Calvinistic influence did they descend to the so much richer life of the people. As regards painting, just recall the productions of Dutch art by brush and etching-needle in the 16th and 17th centuries. Rembrandt's name alone is here sufficient to summon a whole world of art-treasures before your mind's eye. The museums of every country and continent still vie with each other, to the utmost, in their effort to obtain some specimen of his work. Even your brokers have respect for an art-school whose returns represent so vast a capital. And even in our days the masters all over the world are still borrowing their most effectual motives and their best art-tendencies from what, at that time, demanded the world's admiration as an entirely new school of painting. Of course this does not say that all these painters were personally staunch Calvinists. In the earlier art-school, which flourished under the influence of Rome, the “bon Catholiques ”were also very rare. Such influences do not operate personally, but put their impress upon surroundings and society, upon the world of perceptions, of representations and of thought; and as a result of these various impressions an art-school makes its appearance. And, taken in this sense, the antithesis between the past and the present in the school of Dutch art is unmistakable. Before this period, no account was taken of the people; they only were considered worthy of notice who were superior to the common man, viz., the high world of the Church and of the priests, of knights and princes. But, since then, the people had come of age, and under the auspices of Calvinism, the art of painting, prophetic of a democratic life of later times, was the first to proclaim the people's maturity. The family ceased to be an annex to the Church, and asserted its standing in its independent significance. By the light of common grace it was seen that the non-churchly life was also possessed of high importance and of an all-sided art-motive. Having been overshadowed for many centuries by class-distinctions, the common life of man came out of its hiding-place like a new world, in all its sober reality. It was the broad emancipation of our ordinary earthly life, and the instinct for liberty, which thereby captured the heart of the nations and inspired them with delight in the enjoyment of treasures so long blindly neglected.