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, Musees 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.
Rembrandt, Supper at Emmaus
Dutch, c.1648
Paris, Musee du Louvre

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.

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, Silver gilt, 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, Staatliche Museen

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, Musee du Louvre
Raphael, Baldassare Castiglione
Italian, 1514-1515
Paris, Musee 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, Musee 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, Musee Conde
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 buidings.

Simon Bening, July calendar page from
Da Costa Hours
Flemish, 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, Musee 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

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