Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Exaltation of the Holy Cross – Piero della Francesca at Arezzo

Piero della Francesca, Detail of Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco 

"Jesus said to Nicodemus:
"No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
(John 3:13-15, Gospel reading for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross)

This “lifting up” of the Son of Man was accomplished through the cross. And as stated by Fr. Richard Viladesau, currently Professor of Theology at Fordham University, in his book The Beauty of the Cross: the Passion of Christ In Theology and the Arts, from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance, “From its earliest times, Christianity was distinguished as being religio crucis – the religion of the cross. The cross has always been its most obvious and universal symbol; and in the contemporary world, we are once again reminded that it is the cross and its meaning that set Christianity apart from other world religions.” Fr. Viladesau goes on to discuss the ways in which the cross of Christ continues to be “a stumbling block and foolishness(1 Corinthians 1:23), viewed with horror and mistrust by non-Christians and post-Christians. 1

The history and legends surrounding the Cross are extensive and far reaching in scope. However, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14 focuses on two documented events in the history of the True Cross.

The first is the dedication of the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on September 14, 335. Built, by order of the Emperor Constantine, on top of the remains of Golgotha and the nearby burial place of Jesus, the basilica replaced the Roman temple of Venus that had been built atop them during the reign of Hadrian, approximately 100 years earlier.

The second is the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Cross, when the Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius, returned the relic of the True Cross to Jerusalem in 628. It had been captured fourteen years earlier by the forces of the Sassanian Emperor of Persia, Chosroes II, as part of the long drawn out war between Persia and Byzantium that exhausted both empires and opened their territories up to eventual defeat by the armies of Islam in the later part of the 7th century. Heraclius deliberately scheduled this event for September 14th to tie it to the earlier, Constantinian event.

These real events not only formed the basis for the liturgical feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross they also became part of the iconography of the Legend of the True Cross. This iconography includes the actual events described above, mixed with folk legends and Old Testament typology. It consists of three distinct parts: The Finding and Proving of the True Cross, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Legend of the Tree of Life (the Lignum vitae).
The iconography of the True Cross has its most complete and notable example in the work done by the Quattrocento master, Piero della Francesca, in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo.  This cycle of paintings brings together all three strands listed above.

The Finding and Proving of the True Cross

The Finding and Proving of the True Cross combines elements of actual history with folk legends. It is known from documentary evidence that excavations at Jerusalem following Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity had located the sites of the Crucifixion and Resurrection underneath the temple of Venus and that this had resulted in the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dedicated in 335. 

It is also known from documentary evidence that by at least the year 340 AD a fragment of the Cross was being exhibited to pilgrims in Jerusalem. There is a very detailed account of this event in a letter recording the pilgrimage to Jerusalem of the nun, Egeria, dating from about 380 AD. 

The first mention of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, in connection with the finding of the Cross is a mention by Saint Ambrose in a funeral oration on the death of the Emperor Theodosius I in 395. 3   It is known that she was in the Holy Land, visiting sites associated with the life of Christ, during the later half of the 320s and that her Roman palace became the site of the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem) where fragments of the True Cross and other possible relics are preserved. But whether Helena was instrumental in finding the Cross or whether she was even there at that exact time is open to dispute. What is not open to dispute is that by the middle of the 4th century elements of what was believed to be the True Cross were displayed on particular feast days in Jerusalem and that by the end of the 4th century fragments of this relic were being distributed to other churches throughout the Christian world. On this historical base were woven a series of legends and poetic extrapolations from the Old and New Testament. 

Piero della Francesca, Finding and Proving of the True Cross
Italian, c. 1452-1455
 Arezzo,  Church of San Francesco
St. Helena is shown twice.  At the left she directs the removal of the Cross from the ground in which it was buried.  On the right she kneels in adoration as the Cross is proved to be the True Cross-- by raising a dead boy to life.

The Legend of the Tree of Life

The Legend of the Tree of Life is such a development from biblical typology. First stated by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:22, the typological thought runs that: just as Adam is the first man, the first to disobey God’s commands and the first to bring death into the world, so Christ is the new Adam, a sinless sacrifice in accordance with His Father’s will, whose death brings eternal life. 

In the legend, the Archangel Michael gives a seedling of the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden to Seth, one of Adam's sons.  Michael instructs Seth to place the seedlings in Adam’s mouth before his burial and, when his father dies, Seth complies.  This seedling grows into the tree from whose wood the Cross would eventually be made.

Piero della Francesca, Death and Burial of Adam
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco
This fresco reads from right to left.  At the right we see Adam as he dies. On the left we see his burial.  Between these two scenes and shown in perspective is the meeting between Seth and Michael the Archangel.

Having grown for many years the tree dies in the time of King Solomon and its wood is made into planks for a bridge. On her journey to visit Solomon, the Queen of Sheba comes upon the bridge and, in a flash of revelation, recognizes that it will bear the Savior of the World. She kneels before it in adoration. On her arrival at Solomon’s court, she tells him that his glory will be diminished by his descendant, who will hang on a cross made from the wood of the bridge. 

Piero della Francesca, The Queen of Sheba Venerates the Wood and Meets with Solomon
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo,  Church of San Francesco
In this picture we see the Queen of Sheba twice.  On the left, she is venerating the wood of the Tree of Life, which forms a bridge over a stream.  On the right, she is shown greeting King Solomon.

In order to prevent this from happening, Solomon orders that the wood be drowned at the bottom of a well. But in the time of Jesus it is found and removed just in time to be made into the Cross.

Piero della Francesca, Burial of the Wood
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo,  Church of San Francesco

The Exaltation of the True Cross

The Exaltation of the Cross is a real event (see above) but, as recounted by Jacobus de Voragine in the Golden Legend (ca. 1260), has added elements that make it read like a medieval romance.4 

Pier della Francesca, Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco 

The Legend and Piero della Francesca at Arezzo

Although there are individual works of art that touch on parts of the Legend, there are also a number of cycles of monumental church decoration focusing on the legend. The greatest of these is the cycle by Piero della Francesca in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo, located in Tuscany, between Florence and Rome. 

Overview of the Chapel of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Much ink has been spilled over this particular fresco cycle. It was painted sometime between 1452 and 1466, the specific dates being unknown as there is no known written documentation. The time frame is presumed from documents that establish that it was not in existence in 1452 and was finished in 1466. The church of San Francesco in Arezzo is a Franciscan foundation and there is a history of this subject matter in Franciscan churches.

The chapel in which the cycle is placed was the donation of the Bacci family and it is they who paid for the cycle, although the Franciscans probably advised, or perhaps even dictated, the subject matter.  The cycle includes episodes from the Legend, beginning with the death of Adam and the placing of the seeds of Tree of Life in his mouth by his son, Seth.

The scenes in the cycle are not arranged as a continuous narrative. Instead they are shown in related pairs, positioned across the width of the room from each other. Thus the beginning and ending of the cycle, the Death of Adam and the final Exaltation of the Holy Cross by Heraclius are positioned at the top of their respective, facing walls.

 In the middle tier, the interventions of the two queens, Helena and Sheba, face each other.

At the bottom, we see two small pictures of miraculous annunciations.  The first is the annunciation to Mary that resulted in the birth of Jesus the Savior,

Piero della Francesca, Annunciation
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

The second is the annunciation of the Cross as a symbol of victory in a dream of Constantine.  This resulted in the conversion of Constantine, his victory over Maxentius and the eventual acceptance of Christianity by the Roman Empire.

Piero della Francesca, Vision of Constantine
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Beside them, on the long walls, are two large battle scenes (that of Constantine over his rival Maxentius and that of Heraclius over Chosroes II).

Piero della Francesca, Victory of Constantine over Maxentius
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

While difficult to see in the picture above, the association of this battle not only with the sign of the cross, but with the form of the Holy Cross itself, is made explicit when one looks at the detail of what Constantine is holding in his outstretched hand.  

Piero della Francesca, Victory of Constantine over Maxentius (detail)
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Piero della Francesca, Victory of Heraclius over Chosroes II
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Piero’s solid, rounded figures and geometrically arranged spaces produce an effect of almost dreamlike activity.  They seem almost doll-like, as they stare gravely with open eyes into space or toward heaven or with adoring intensity at the Cross.

Piero della Francesca, Detail from The Queen of Sheba Venerates the Wood and Meets with Solomon
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo,  Church of San Francesco

Piero della Francesca, Detail from Finding and Proving of the True Cross
Italian, c. 1452-1455
 Arezzo,  Church of San Francesco

Piero della Francesca, Detail from Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Even when they are gathered into conversational groups it is difficult to imagine that they are actually talking.

Piero della Francesca, Detail from Meeting of Solomon and Sheba
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Piero della Francesca, Detail from Meeting of Solomon and Sheba
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Even the battle scenes appear to take place in an atmosphere of extreme quiet, as though all the figures were holding their breath, even as they act. Each person seems wrapped in his or her own meditation.  They do not even react to injury.

Piero della Francesca, Deatail from Battle of Heraclius
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Piero della Francesca, Deatail from Battle of Heraclius
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Piero della Francesca, Deatail from Battle of Heraclius
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Born in the small Tuscan town of Borgo San Sepolcro, Piero learned his craft as a painter in Florence in the workshop of Domenico Veneziano. This was during the period in the mid-15th century when Florentine painters were learning to manipulate the principles of the new found technique of perspective and Piero became deeply involved in the development. In later life, he wrote treatises on mathematics, geometry and perspective. This study is reflected in the perspective that is evident in his True Cross cycle of paintings in Arezzo. He was also a student of the effects of light passing over solid objects. This is most obvious in the fresco of “The Dream of Constantine” which studies the effect of light in a nighttime scene. But it is also found throughout the cycle.

Piero della Francesca, Detail from the Vision of Constantine
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

Piero della Francesca, Detail from the Vision of Constantine
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco

This cycle, therefore, stands at a special point in the history of Renaissance art, the point at which artists have begun to assimilate the use of perspective and the effects of light, but have not yet mastered these tools. Piero’s work points the way to Raphael, Caravaggio and Vermeer.

© M. Duffy, 2011, pictures revised and new material added 2022
1. Viladesau, Richard. The Beauty of the Cross: the Passion of Christ In Theology and the Arts, from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance, Oxford and New York, 2006, pp. 7-9. Some sections are available on the internet at:

See also his The Triumph of the Cross: the Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts, from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation, Oxford and New York, 2008. Some sections of this book are also available at:

2. Baert, Barbara. A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image, Leiden, Koninklijke Brill, NV, 2004, p. 1. Some sections are available on the internet at:

3. Baert, p. 2.

4. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.), Vol. 5, pages 60-65. It can be accessed on the internet at of the Holy Cross.

5. Baert, p. 11-12. Also, Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg in Piero della Francesca: The Legend of the True Cross in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo, Ed. Anna Maria Maetzke and Carolo Bertelli. Milan, Skira editore, 2001, pp. 27-37.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years After

It’s not possible to pass this day by without acknowledgement. It is too much burned into remembrance, even for those of us who weren’t there.

I was not in New York. I was in Ireland, visiting an elderly, ailing aunt. In fact, I got trapped there because planes weren’t flying. For a week I lived a strange life, visiting my aunt by day and up half the night watching CNN in my hotel room, trying to share, in some small way, the unfolding of multiple tragedies in New York. When I did get back more than a week later the city had recovered some, but not all that much.

The first morning back at work I immediately noticed the sadness on the faces in the subways and the quietness. Coming out of the subway that day, nine days later and two miles north of the site, I could smell it. Jet fuel. There was a hole in the skyline too, a hole where I had long since ceased to notice the towers that filled it. My office building had gone into near lock down conditions. It remains that way to this day.

And there were the posters, hundreds of them, everywhere, searching for information about the missing. That first day there was still some faint hope. Within a few more days it was obvious that the missing were now among the dead. The fires burned for months.

There was the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2002, when the entire parade stopped for a moment of silence and hundreds of thousands of people, in the parade and along Fifth Avenue, turned south to face the site and remember. In that same parade (and every year since) there was the shocking sight of 343 American flags, carried by the members of the Fire Department, reminding us all of how big a price they paid on that day.

I got involved in discussions on the future of downtown and my involvement in that discussion landed me in an article in the New York Times.
Members of the discussion group I participated in from the New York Times September 26, 2002.  I'm the woman in black.
The city recovered, mostly. The years have rolled on and new buildings are rising down there between Church and West Streets. The memorial is about to open at last and it may be that some of the discussions of which I was a part have resulted in a more dignified space than might have been otherwise.

I’ve recently done a search for art that might have resulted from September 11th. There has been some and I present a few pieces here. The first is an immediate response done by Morena Saenz in the nighttime hours of September 11-12, 2001, called “9/11 Broken Heart”. It is very typical of the immediate response art that appeared all over the city in the immediate aftermath of the event. It is emotional, somewhat makeshift, using whatever materials came to hand and almost always including a vision of the towers as they had been.

Morena Saenz, 9/11 Broken Heart,
Mixed media, 2001
New York, New York Historical Society

Then there is the triptych of paintings by Donna Levinstone called “Eternal Rest” from 2002. This is more removed, more refined, focusing on the eerie light effects of the enormous clouds of smoke that shrouded lower Manhattan that day. Clearly, some time has passed. Emotion has apparently been restrained visually although, once the context is known, it becomes apparent.
Donna Levinstone, Eternal Rest, 2002
Black and orange pastel on paper with deckled edges
New York, New York Historical Society

It is, perhaps, difficult to create art out of such a brutal and traumatic event. As stated on the website of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “September 11”, which opens this week at the museum’s Long Island City (Queens) branch, MoMA PS1, “The attacks of September 11, 2001 were among the most pictured disasters in history, yet they remain, a decade later, underrepresented in cultural discourse—particularly within the realm of contemporary art.”

Perhaps we are still too close, perhaps it is still unfathomable. Perhaps this kind of grief and shock can’t be processed visually. Maybe music is more the medium.

May all those who died on that beautiful sunny Tuesday ten years ago, rest in peace.

© M. Duffy, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

September 8th - Mary's Birthday

On September 8, 2006 I had the good fortune to be in Paris.  It was a Friday, I recall, and I spent the entire day at the Louvre.  By evening I was exhausted and decided to get on any bus going anywhere that would stop where I was standing. I planned to get off somewhere along the line that appealed. The bus I hopped on eventually turned onto the Pont Neuf to cross the Seine. Even though still tired I decided to get off there and visit Notre Dame.

 As usual, crowds were milling around in the space in front of the Cathedral (the Parvis).  It was a beautiful early evening and the facade of the cathedral had a lovely rosy hue.  On approach I discovered that the building was open and went inside. 

As I entered the cathedral I discovered that a Mass was in progress and that the cathedral was jammed with people. It turned out to be a special Mass celebrating two things:  the Nativity of Mary and the consecration of two auxiliary bishops for the diocese of Paris.  I decided to stay and participate.  It was a wonderful, moving experience and a reminder that no Catholic is ever a stranger in a Catholic church anywhere in the world.  With Jesus as the center of our lives and our worship, we are always at home and welcome. 

After the Mass I hung around for awhile, enjoying the beauty of the church and the awe I felt from its long existence at the center of so many historic events.  In my meanderings I observed that the famous 14th-century Madonna and Child that stands on one of the columns at the crossing of the church (where the nave or body of the church intersects with the transepts or wings) was bedecked for the feast with a bouquet of lilies and at her feet were other floral offerings. 

The uplift of participating in such a liturgy, so far from home yet completely at home, in such an historic place, was so great that, as I walked back to my hotel, I positively floated above the Seine, all exhaustion vanished.

For more about art for the Nativity of Mary, see The Birth of Mary .

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Did the Reformation Really Lead to the Rise of Portrait and Landscape Painting?

Joachim Patinir, St. John the Baptist Preaching
Flemish, ca. 1520
Brussels, Musées royaux des beaux-arts
Patinir has been called the "father of landscape painting"
It has become virtually an axiom of the history of western art, and of European history as well, that the Reformation, which began in 1517, encouraged the rise of two distinct genres of painting: the portrait and the landscape. The reasoning behind this adage is that the Reformation’s iconoclastic attitude to religious images turned the attention of artists and patrons toward secular subjects, such as portraits and landscape. This logic suggests that patrons were unwilling (or in some locations unable) to commission religious works from painters, and/or that painters were no longer willing to paint them. Therefore, presumably both artists and patrons turned their attention to other, less controversial kinds of painting, specifically to portraits and landscapes.

In my opinion, there is a very small grain of truth in this analysis in so far as it applies to landscape (and its offshoot, the seascape), but it is untrue for portraiture. It is also not correct that Biblical religious painting disappeared from the Protestant world. What did disappear were devotional works of art1.
Rembrandt, Supper at Emmaus
Dutch, c.1648
Paris, Musée du Louvre
In his landmark book on the beginnings of the English Reformation, The Stripping of the Altars, Professor Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University (no relation), reviewed the English government’s suppression of the material and emotional world of what he calls “traditional religion” or, in other words, late medieval English Catholicism2. Between 1530 and 1580 (with a brief period of respite under Queen Mary I between 1553 and 1558), the government ordered the defacing and/or destruction of altars, rood screens, statues, wall paintings, liturgical objects and altar furnishings, vestments, indeed anything related to the traditional, image-filled world of Catholic Christianity.

"Apostles" Monstrance
Swiss, Basel, 1340-1340 with 15th-century alterations,
Basel, Historisches Museum

Similar events occurred in all the areas of Europe where Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist form, became the dominant religion. Ten years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an exhibition of objects from the medieval Treasury of Basel Cathedral 3. The splendid liturgical objects on display survived destruction by an iconoclastic mob during the Calvinist takeover of Basel Cathedral by being bundled into a large box that was suspended in one of the towers. Overlooked by the iconoclasts, they did not reappear until the early 19th century, at which time most were sold off as objects d’art. Currently, the website for an exhibition of medieval religious artifacts from all over Europe, called “Treasures of Heaven”, which is at the British Museum until October, acknowledges the absence of similar objects in Britain4.

These anecdotes, from England and Switzerland, provide a glimpse into the sometimes violent change of religion that occurred in northern Europe, the Europe of the Germanic/Nordic language group, during the 16th century5. For a number of reasons the Reformation never gained much ground in the European countries that form the Romance linguistic group: Italy, Spain and France. Eventually, after several bloody conflicts, the lines between these two linguistic regions became (with the exceptions of Austria, Bavaria and Belgium) the lines between the traditional (Catholic) and new (Protestant) versions of Christianity.6

In the case of portraiture I see no difference between these two areas. Both regions have a healthy portrait tradition that existed well before 1517.  

Leonardo da Vinci, Cecilia Gallerani
Italian, 1483-1490
Krakow, Czartoryski Museum

Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Young Woman
Netherlandish, c. 1470
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This tradition bridges the Reformation period and extends long after it. While there are great examples of portraiture in the Protestant north, with Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt and Hals, for example, there is an equally great portrait tradition in the Catholic south, with Leonardo, Raphael, Titian and Velazquez as examples. Indeed, the portrait tradition remained strong in both regions as time wore on.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Nikolaus Kratzer
German, 1528
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Raphael, Baldassare Castiglione
Italian, 1514-1515
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Frans Hals, Paulus Verschuur
Dutch, 1643,
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Diego Velazquez, King Phillip IV
Spanish, 1644,
New York, Frick Collection

However, there do seem to be some very small differences between the regions when it comes to landscape.

In the pre-Reformation period landscape appeared in both the north and the south in two forms.

First, it appeared as background for the principal subject of the work of art, be it a Biblical, devotional, classical or secular scene.
Jan van Eyck, Madonna of Chancellor Rollin
Flemish, 1435,
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Giovanni Bellini, Transfiguration
Italian (Venetian), c. 1487
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

In the second form the landscape existed as an independent subject in its own right. This second form was found in the calendar pages of Books of Hours painted during the 15th and early 16th centuries, in the glorious sunset of the art of illumination before the printing press made the hand illuminated book a thing of the past.  The calendar pages included the list of feast days for that particular month and the illustration frequently depicted an activity associated with that month.

Limbourg Brothers, June calendar page,
From Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry
Flemish, 1412-1416
Chantilly, Musée Condé
The city in the background is Paris and you can see the Sainte Chapelle of St. Louis (see 
August 25th posting) rising high above the surrounding buildings.

Simon Bening, July calendar page
From the Da Costa Hours
Flemish, c. 1510-1520
New York, Morgan Library, MS M 399, fol. 8v

From these two foundations the landscape began to emerge as an independent subject for painters.

The “background” tradition continued strongly in the south, the realm of Catholic culture. Where landscape is present, it is usually present as background only.

Giorgione, Judgment of Solomon
Italian (Venetian), c. 1505,
Florence, Uffizi Gallery

Domenichino, Landscape with Flight Into Egypt
Italian, 1620-1623,
Paris, Musée du Louvre

This tradition continued well into the 17th century. Great landscapes were painted by southern painters, such as Giorgione, El Greco, Domenichino, Nicolas Poussin or Claude Lorraine, but a glimpse at the titles of these pictures makes it clear that, in all but a few, the landscape, though visually dominant, is secondary to the sometimes miniscule human figures in the foreground.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with Diana and Orion
French, 1660-1664
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Claude Lorraine, Noli Me Tangere
French, 1681
Frankfurt, Stadtelsches Kunstinstitut

In the north, however, Reformation culture prohibited devotional images and frowned on scenes drawn from classical mythology as well. Nevertheless, “far from being hostile towards images, a great many Protestant patrons continued to desire and commission religious art to decorate their houses” provided that “the imagery was modified where necessary to remove objectionable elements and used to express and support specifically Protestant habits of thought and behavior”7. This attitude restricted Protestant artists to portraying either purely Biblical or entirely secular scenes. The two paintings illustrated below by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, are typical of so-called "Lutheran art". 

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Law and the Gospel
German, 1525
Gotha, Schlossmuseum
Lucas Cranach the Younger, Crucifixion
German, 1555
Weimar, Stadtkirche

The development of landscape in the north initially proceeds exactly as in the south. Landscape is first perceived as background for a Biblical scene and then begins to dominate it. 
Johann Konig, River Landscape with St. John the Baptist
German, Oil on copper, c. 1610
Private Collection

However, artists in the north also turned to the “calendar page” tradition for inspiration and began to produce pictures that were truly “landscapes”, where the subject was the landscape scene.

Some of the earliest such landscape paintings show quite clearly their origin in the calendar pages of medieval Books of Hours.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Harvesters
Flemish, 1565
New York, Metropolitan Museum

Gradually, this was transmuted into what we would regard as true landscape painting. By about 1600 this development was complete in the north. During the 17th century it developed into a full blown genre, in both the northern and southern countries. 
Cornelis Hendrichsz Vroom, Pastoral Landscape
Dutch, c.1650
Private Collection

Canaletto, London: View of Old Horse Guards Parade and
the Banqueting House from Richmond House
Italian, 1749
 Private Collection

Jean Honore Fragonard, Mountain Landscape at Sunset
French, c. 1765
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art

John Constable, Dedham Vale
English, 1802
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

James Arthur O'Connor, The Mill, Ballinrobe
Irish, c. 1818
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland

Fredrich Edwin Church, Heart of the Andes
American, 1859
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

William Merritt Chase, Terrace at the Mall, Central Park
American, 1890
Private Collection

And the answer to the question posed in the title of this article "Did the Reformation Really Lead to the Rise of Portrait and Landscape Painting"?  In my opinion, the answer is "Not really".  Both genres were already developing well before the Reformation and continued their development afterwards in both the Protestant north and the Catholic south.  Some slight impetus may have occurred for landscape in the countries that accepted the Reformation, as artists sought new ways to make a living and patrons sought acceptable art to place in their homes, but this was probably not substantial enough to make a really significant difference in development.
1. A devotional scene is distinct from a Biblical scene in that a Biblical scene depicts an incident taken directly from the Biblical narrative, for instance the Annunciation or the Crucifixion, whereas a devotional scene portrays a scene involving a Biblical person, post-Biblical saint or sacred image not directly depicted in the Bible and presented for devotional meditation, as for instance the Man of Sorrows or an enthroned Madonna and Child.

2. Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1992, Part II, pp. 376-593.

3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Treasury of Basel Cathedral, February 28, 2001–June 3, 2001. Information and images may be found at{7ACE74C9-428D-11D4-937C-00902786BF44}

4. British Museum, Treasures of Heaven, Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, 23 June – 9 October 2011. Information and images may be found at

5. Christensen, Carl C. Art and the Reformation in Germany, Athens, OH, Ohio University Press, 1979. Among other things, Dr. Christensen’s book reviews the economic and psychological dislocation felt by many artists in Germany, beginning in the 1520s, as patronage for Catholic religious subjects ceased on account of the Reformation and the changed forms of religious painting permitted in Lutheran Germany, pp. 165-176. See also, Koerner, Joseph Leo, The Reformation of the Image, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004 for the development of Lutheran art.

6. I am not considering work from the Slavic and Hungarian language region in this essay, as I am not entirely familiar with it. In terms of the religious affiliation of this region, some inroads were made by the Reformers during the early stages of the Reformation. However, these were largely reversed during the Catholic Counter-Reformation and this area remained predominantly Catholic and/or Orthodox. In addition, during this period this region was subject to ongoing Turkish attack, following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It would take until 1683 for the Turkish threat to end.

7. Hamling, Tara. Decorating the ‘Godly’ Household, Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2010, p. 284.

© M. Duffy, 2011