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Calvinism and the Arts
I think we'd have to say that there remains to some degree, even today, an uneasy alliance between organised religion and art today. It is uneasy both on an institutional and a personal level depending on the denomination and the individual. Both the artist and the clergy are wary of one another because neither is dependent on the other economically or symbiotically. Today, there is a strong Calvinist streak running through Protestant denominations in particular that, if not totally eschewing art and decoration totally, at least tend to use it sparingly.

Arising from the various excesses of the Catholic Church, the followers of John Calvin in Holland and northern Europe had a great deal of popular support. They were especially severe and dogmatic in banning the use of all imagery in places of worship. They considered it idolatrous and evidence of the corruption of the Catholic Church. Their preoccupation with this belief reached its militant height during the sixteenth century when they tore down and burned art from many northern cathedrals, leaving once magnificent interiors whitewashed and spartan.

By 1566, support for the arts from the Dutch Church had collapsed, and artists were forced to turn elsewhere for sustenance. Their economic salvation lies in the newly affluent middle class. The impact of this change was far more than economic however. A new market required a new art. Grand religious murals and enormous Biblical scenes were out. Modest depictions of everyday life amongst the common people were in. Portraits became the artistís bread and butter. Landscapes thrived. Artists like Gerard Ter Borch painted pictures entitled Boy Removing Fleas from his Dog. Genre had arrived.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
9 January 1998


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