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Luther and Art
In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, his objections to the Catholic Church and his later writings were to dramatically changed European culture, including public education, music, and art. Most particularly, what Luther and his followers objected to was the church's reliance on mystery and symbolism in art that was often unintelligible to the general public. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling was a prime example. Its core was Genesis of course, but even here Michelangelo took liberties with the scriptures, and once past that, its plethora of priests and prophets, sibyls and ignudi completely mystified and befuddled all but the most learned artists and philosophers of the time.

Artists working for the church in the 1500's were heirs to a vast artistic tradition involving technical formulas, ideal proportions, and perspective. During the so-called Mannerist period that followed, these elements were manipulated even further with emphasis on stylistic virtuosity and complex design over the principles of restraint, idealism, and equilibrium of the Renaissance era. Paintings such as Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino employed elongated body parts and exaggerated perspective over naturalism, resulting in a theatricality that was oddly lyrical, even erotic in the rendering of the Virgin and Child.

After the sack of Rome in 1527 by northern Protestants, the Counter-Reformation movement fought back against Protestant militancy. While the art of Rome did not change much until later, the church in the provinces began to rely not on classical artistic modes and symbolism, but on a directness of teaching in its artistic commissions aimed at even the humblest of peasants (so that they could understand the chief tenets of the faith). Art was to become first a teaching device, and only very secondarily a decoration for the bare walls of Romanesque cathedrals. Even the Church in Rome could not forever remain immune to this trend. Bowing to Protestant insistence that art serve Christ, not its own god, between 1559 and 1565, even the nude figures of Michelangelo's Last Judgement received a painted layer of drapery.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
3 February 1998

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