The Origins of Protestant Aesthetics in Early Modern Europe: Calvin’s Reformation Poetics

William A. Dyrness
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2019

Reviewed by Mark Mattes, Philosophy and Theology, Grand View University

That modern aesthetics is quite different from medieval is obvious. Medieval artists conveyed a deeper or higher reality which transcended the content of their works and thus honored an enchanted outlook on the world. In contrast, modern artists no longer assume a religious background, but do foster an ethical impulse urging artists and those who enjoy art to express their inmost selves. William A. Dyrness’s The Origins of Protestant Aesthetics in Early Modern Europe: Calvin’s Reformation Poetics describes how early modern Protestantism played a role in this story.

The standard narrative is to see Protestant art, poetry, drama, and other creative ventures as leading to European secularization. Dyrness challenges this stereotype and gives a compelling account of the origins of early modern aesthetics. In a word, he argues that early modern approaches to aesthetics shaped by Calvinism rejected an aesthetic formed by the medieval spirituality of mystical ascent and instead embraced the world as theater of God’s creative action. The focus of God’s action thus came to be expressed in ordinary life, through appreciating nature, the family, and daily work as means whereby God shapes the world. Hence, for Dyrness, the Protestant aesthetic itself did not lead to an unintended secularizing effect. (Dyrness does not take it as his task in this book to propose what factors did in fact lead to such secularization.)

Dyrness contends that Calvinism did not secularize the world, but instead expanded the orbit of divine activity by seeing God as unchained from a hierarchical and sacramental system and as active in ordinary life. No doubt, late medieval craftsmen such as Giotto embraced such a wide religious perspective that honors human emotions and various details within the world, but Protestantism, especially Calvinism, channeled this change and hastened its societal influence. Calvin encouraged the move toward direct aesthetic appreciation of nature and the commonplace because he was so convinced that the world in its entirety reflects God’s goodness. Dyrness’s presentation of Calvinism has striking parallels with Lutheran theology, which I will highlight in this review.

Dyrness challenges the canard that Protestants replaced images with words. Indeed, he repeatedly notes that iconoclasm as such preceded the constructive work of Luther and Calvin and that both Reformers opposed the wanton destruction of images (7). However, as an agent of social innovation, Calvinism did not merely challenge the medieval tendency to limit God’s presence to churchly venues, but also saw God as profoundly active in the details of creation, in nature, in history, and in everyday life. For Dyrness, the Reformed appreciation of creation as gift runs parallel to Reformed ethics in which believers should serve as Christ in their daily vocations.

Given that Calvinism was in part a response to Luther, Dyrness begins his discussion with Luther. Luther and the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder were close friends, and Luther often used the imagery of painting to describe how words are inherently image-laden, able to elicit specific human emotions and behavior. For Luther, the word images reality, and such imaging guides the imagination (42). And for Cranach, as for Luther, images are brought to life by means of believers’ faith. Unlike medieval craftsmen, God’s presence is not to be found in the spiritual power of images as such, but instead in the presence and response that viewers of images are called on to embody (40). Since God descended to humanity in Christ, Luther’s faith turned away from the medieval narrative designating life as a journey ever upward to God and instead centered God’s presence in the preached word and the sacraments. This change is celebrated in Cranach’s paintings with the theme of “Law and Gospel,” which depict the power of the gospel to deliver the sweetness of God’s mercy to sinners hungry for it. Likewise, his famous altarpiece at St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg celebrates not saints or donors, as medieval painters would have done, but instead ordinary people within the community as they receive God’s mercy in word and sacrament.

Calvin furthered Luther’s embrace of the Christian life as empowerment for service when life is liberated from sin. He rejected the mass as an elaborate drama and focused on preaching as able to convey the real presence of Christ, arguing that such preaching should shape congregations for living out Christ’s cross in the world. To be sure, for Calvin, God is already present in creation, but regenerate people have the ability to discern this presence and be grateful for it. For Calvin, the created order is a grand aesthetic display which permits God’s glory to shine on every side: “Calvin moved the spectacle [of God’s action] beyond the liturgy and into the city of Geneva and its world, even as he transferred the dramatic performance from the priest to the congregation” (63-65). More to the point, the viewer is no mere spectator of, but instead a participant in, the drama (72).

In Dyrness’s account, we find a Calvinism that highlights less the power of Christ to transform culture (as H. Richard Niebuhr put it) and more (similar to Lutheranism) Christ and culture working together in paradox. That is, the Calvinism Dyrness presents is less a movement seeking to take every inch of culture captive for Christ and more one which acknowledges that God is already working in creation even outside of the orbit of Christianity and the church. These trends need not be opposed, of course. But I see Dyrness’s presentation of Reformed social ethics as strikingly more Luther-like than other presentations of Calvinism. Dyrness does affirm the Calvinist goal of Christianizing culture, but this is less a centerpiece in his account. What is highlighted is an overlap between the Calvinists and the Lutherans which acknowledges that God is already active in the public square. This provides both social order and sufficient freedom for agency, even when God’s presence is not acknowledged by public leaders, artists, or intellectuals. That Christians should live as little Christs in the world is, for Dyrness, not a metaphor but instead a metonym: Christian living does not merely symbolize redemption, but rather enacts it (77). In other words, the daily vocations of Christians—to work, to parent, to contribute to the common good, to help the needy—put into action Christ’s redemptive agency in the world. Most importantly, in contrast to the medieval aesthetic ideal, the believer is not integrated into a timeless recurring event (the mass), but rather into the ongoing life of the world (81).

Dyrness also acknowledges that Calvin presents a view of language as performative. But it should be acknowledged that this, too, runs parallel with Luther, as highlighted by Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer. Given that Luther’s spiritual formation was largely mediated through Augustinian monasticism and Calvin’s through humanism, there are no doubt differences in how they understood this linguistic performative dimension. While Luther’s view of performative language was mediated through the words of absolution in the sacrament of confession, Calvin’s was mediated through an appreciation for the rhetoric embedded in classical and biblical literature. Dyrness notes that Luther’s “audible word” became for Calvin the “visible quotable text” (88).

The upshot is that, for Calvin, we deal with a participatory grammar and not just representation in language (103). Language is shaped by scripture centrifugally and not merely centripetally, and in a horizontal and not merely vertical manner (109). That is, language shapes humans for action in the world and appreciation of God’s presence in creation. In other words, Calvinist aesthetics, like Lutheran, is wired toward creation, unmoored form the medieval mystical ladder. Creation can thus be appreciated in all its uniqueness, specificity, and particularity. Most importantly, there is no “secular” approach, since it is all about the God who is not merely “up” but also within and about. Dyrness explores this Calvinist aesthetic in theater and also in Elizabethan portraiture, which sought not only accuracy in portrayal but also a presentation of the values of those portrayed (119).

This new Calvinist-inspired aesthetic moved artists away from the church and into the home and the town square, not in order to endorse faith as private but because God is to be found at work in the world. Dyrness notes that some Calvinists moved away from a focus on the world as where believers are to enact Christ and instead toward the inner life and its inner struggle to achieve security through grace (156), a move away from the theater of creation (159). But the overall trajectory of Calvinism was to propose how an alternative Christianity to that of the medieval world should be lived:

The medieval world with its novenas, processions, pilgrimages, and saint’s plays was disappearing. The question that faced Calvin was not how to dismantle that way of life, but what kind of world would replace it. More to the point, what sort of images would shape that world? (167)

Christ’s real presence, Dyrness explains, shifted from the Eucharist to the community (170). Naturally, for Luther, these need not be opposing alternatives. Luther’s point is to secure grace so that we need never succumb to inner struggle, and he finds the Eucharist precisely to do that. The promise of Christ’s forgiveness and presence is enacted by the tangible elements of bread and wine. For Luther’s aesthetic, God sacramental presence in the Eucharist secures a sacramental approach to the world; in a word, the finite can covey the infinite. Calvin resists this anchor, arguing that Christ is not present in the mass but instead in the faces of brothers and sisters (170) (to which a Lutheran is apt to respond that such presence is not always or clearly grace, but rather as often as not request or demand).

Finally, Dyrness maintains that the grand Dutch masters should be seen not as proto-secular but instead as true to the Belgic Confession of Faith in which the creation is described as an elegant book revealing God (183). And the well-structured gardens developed toward the end of the sixteenth century mimic impressions of the garden of Eden (196). All in all, acknowledging creation as a dramatic theater of God’s re-creation should lend itself to a chorus of praise (204).

Overall, this book is well researched, expansive in its knowledge of the arts, equally able in presenting theology and deciphering culture. Dyrness offers a helpful alternative to misconceptions from either Roman Catholics or secularists who mischaracterize Protestantism as secularism lite. The Origins of Protestant Aesthetics in Early Modern Europe sets a high standard in the genre of theology and culture studies.

Cite this article
Mark Mattes, “The Origins of Protestant Aesthetics in Early Modern Europe: Calvin’s Reformation Poetics”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:3 , 311-314

Mark Mattes

Grand View University
Mark Mattes is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Grand View University.