Literature and Drama During the Protestant Reformation

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door at Wittenberg Castle. A new professor at an insignificant German university, Luther requested an academic symposium on suspect practices of the Catholic Church, chiefly, the sale of indulgences as authorized by Pope Leo X in 1514.

The resulting movement, later called the Protestant Reformation, emphasized the power of the individual to interpret the Bible–an avante garde idea with the seeds of Renaissance humanism simultaneously taking root. Christianity’s greatest revolution overhauled the entire structure of the faith—including its relationship to the arts.

The Protestant Reformers

The Protestant Reformation, although generally attributed to Martin Luther, was actually the combined work of several Reformers. In Germany, Martin Luther sought to reform the Catholic Church from within. In Zurich, Huldrych Zwingli called for a return to the simpler times of the New Testament, and purity of the Bible’s teachings.

In Geneva, John Calvin wrote The Institutes of the Christian Faith (1536), insisting that the Bible is the fundamental basis for the Christian faith. All theology should be defensible through the Bible. In England, Henry VIII sought to distance himself and England from the jurisdiction of the Pope, and create his own church.

The Reformed View of Art

The Protestant Reformation encouraged the re-examining of theology and personal reading of the Bible. Christians began to question their beliefs. Many developed a new interest in the First and Second Commandments against idol worship and graven images. Zwingli and Calvin took these commandments to mean that religious images should be abolished altogether.

Churches, according to Zwingli and Calvin, should rely on purity of image and simplicity, as opposed to the ostentatious nature of the Catholic Church. Early reformers adamantly caught on to these teachings, and violently destroyed images in the church. Much has been made about these iconoclasts. However, in How Should We Then Live, Frances Schaeffer writes that many of these images were not trashed necessarily out of violence. Many times the donors themselves smashed the images. It was a cathartic purging of a religion they now believed was wrong and full of lies.

In Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, Oxford theologian Alister McGrath writes that Reformed Protestantism had no problem with art, in itself. The objection lay with portrayal of religious subjects. “The Reformed hostility to pictorial representations of God was fundamentally theological in its foundation and did not extend to other subject matters,” Mc Grath writes. “No significant restrictions were placed upon the Reformed artists outside the specific sphere of ecclesiastical ornamentation.”

As a matter of fact, because of the Reformer’s alliance with hard work and capitalism, by the 1600’s, early Calvinists acquired significant wealth. They built highly decorated homes and buildings, and developed affinities toward high art.

However, still the Reformed had a difficult time comprehending God, or mysteries of the Divine, lacking visual stimuli. It was this tense dichotomy that the Puritans took with them to the Americas.

The Art in Lutheran and Anglican Churches

Martin Luther was a musician himself and had no intention of inhibiting creative expression. Luther realized the power of images and in 1545 even sponsored a woodcut series lambasting the Pope. It was the worship of art that disturbed him.

Further, the Anglican church created by the English Reformation, did not associate itself with the changes in the south. Its movement was political, and did not align with popular ideology. Both the Lutheran and the Anglican Churches continued to use religious imagery, drawing on their imaginative power to portray ideas and evoke emotion.

Schaeffer writes that many of the popular artists of the early 1600’s displayed Lutheran ideas in their work. He specifically points to Rembrandt’s Raising of the Cross (1633). A blue bereted painter—Rembrandt—raises Christ’s cross, representing Rembrandt’s own identification with his fallenness and sin. “Rembrandt shows in all his work he was a man of the Reformation,” Schaeffer writes. “He neither idolized nature nor demeaned it…Man was great, but man was also cruel and broken for he had revolted against God.”

The Christian church underwent massive changes during the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers, frustrated with the abuses of the Catholic Church, banned religious images, and threw the art out of the church. They had no problem with the secularization of art, but thought that creativity belonged outside the church walls. This separation would change the way Christian artists lived for the next 400 years.


Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History From the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First (Harper One, 2007).
Frances Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Crossway Books, 1976).

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