Much has been said about Calvin in this year of his 500th birthday celebrations, but, so far, I have not come across all that much about Calvin and the arts.
To many this may not come as a surprise. Calvin and art don’t sit easily together—or so popular opinion has it. So it’s worth having a closer look. What were Calvin’s views of the arts, and how do they fit in his broader theology of creation and culture?
In Calvin’s time the visual arts—painting, sculpture, engraving and the like—would have been seen as part of a much broader category of manual skills, including such practices as shoe making, blacksmithing and weaving. Along with the “liberal” arts such as philosophy, science or law, these were regarded very highly by Calvin. They are gifts from God to be neither despised nor ignored. In characteristically strong language Calvin asserts that “if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.”
Calvin also had a heart for music. Although not as musically gifted as his fellow reformers Luther and Zwingli, Calvin was passionate about the importance of congregational singing, and he oversaw the translation and versification of all psalms into what came to be known as the Genevan Psalter. The singing of psalms was meant for the edification of the church “so that the hearts of all may be aroused and stimulated to make similar prayers.”
So why do we assume Calvin’s attitude to art was so negative?
The primary reason for this assumption is undoubtedly his ban on the use of religious imagery, especially images of God but also those of the saints and other figures. Although Calvin did not approve of the wanton destruction of frescoes, altar pieces, statues and so on, he also rejected any use of images in the context of worship. For him, images had an inherent propensity to be used for idolatrous purposes. Knowing man’s nature to be a “perpetual factory of idols,” he believed that in devotional and liturgical contexts, visual images were always prone to being used superstitiously. (Institutes I:XI:8)
To be clear, Calvin did not reject images outside church: “. . . I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible. . . . because sculpture and painting are gifts of God I seek a pure and legitimate use of each . . . ” (Institutes I:XI:12)
Upon closer inspection, however, those “pure and legitimate” uses turn out to be rather limited. He could only see two purposes for paintings and sculptures: first, instruction (especially for the teaching of historical events), and second, pleasure—which, for him, basically meant idle amusement (Institutes I:XI:12). At least, this is how he talked about it in a 1540 letter to a young man whom he chastised for doing scholarship merely for pleasure:
Those who seek in scholarship nothing more than an honoured occupation with which to beguile the tedium of idleness I would compare to those who pass their lives looking at paintings.
We must be honest about the fact that (to put it mildly) Calvin did not have a very developed visual sense. He was primarily a man of letters, and had little feeling for paintings.
There is therefore no little irony in the fact that there are literally dozens of portraits—paintings, engravings, miniatures—of Calvin himself, some produced during his lifetime and many more based on images and sketches after it.
The following portraits, for instance, are considered to have been done during his lifetime:
- a portrait of Calvin as a young man by an anonymous Flemish painter in the 16th century:
- a portrait of Calvin aged 41 by an anonymous French painter, made in 1550:
- another portrait by an anonymous 16th century artist:
- an engraving of Calvin aged 53 by the French artist Rene Boyvin in 1562:
- and, last but not least, a portrait attributed to one of the most celebrated painters of his time and, some argue, of all times, the Venetian Tiziano Vecellio better known as Titian:
There is very little known about the origin of this last painting, but at least one source refers to the fact that when Calvin spent the winter of 1536 at the court of French Princess Renee in Ferrara, he would have met Titian. Having arrived incognito as a refugee, he had ended up preaching in the court’s chapel for an illustrious congregation of dukes, counts and other notables including Titian, and it is suggested that it was during that period that Titian painted Calvin’s portrait.
There is, to be sure, no historical evidence that Calvin would have actually sat for these paintings. They may have been produced on the basis of sketches done during his public presentations. This might also explain why—apart from such characteristics as the long face and beard, the scholars’ cap with ear flaps, and the serious expression—there are considerable differences between the detailed facial features in each painting.
Even so, he must have known about these works. And it would have been very interesting to know what he would have thought of them.
What, on his own terms, were they for? Instruction or amusement? Or might there, after all, be a risk that these “secular” portraits, even though used outside a worship context, could also be turned into objects of idolatry? At least some Genevans thought so. Some even blamed Calvin personally for allowing this to happen. As one critical voice commented shortly after Calvin’s death:
I ask, is it a sign of humility, a rejection of vanity, if one allows one’s portrait to be painted? Or if one permits one’s portrait to be hung in the public spaces of Geneva? Or if one allows one’s portrait to be dangle around the necks of certain fools and women who have made Calvin their God? . . . Since Calvin had issued a written mandate condemning and calling for the destruction of saints’ images along with those of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ himself, it could hardly be construed as an honor to Calvin to allow his portraits to be set up (and displayed) in public places or worn around (some fool’s) neck. At the very least Jesus Christ is fully worthy (of being venerated in this manner).
It is very likely that Calvin himself would have shared all these concerns. Of all people, Calvin was very aware of the temptation of self-admiration: “There is nothing man’s nature seeks more eagerly than to be flattered” he writes in the Institutes (I:I:2). He hated any adulation of himself as a person and, for that reason, never liked the term “Calvinist.”
Although I believe Calvin was misguided about the nature of religious images and paintings in general, I think his concern about human adulation is as relevant now as it was then. Consider, for instance, the hyped-up promotion of certain influential Christian preachers and leaders in today’s celebrity culture. In the program of one Christian festival this summer, I came across this announcement of a featured speaker: “X is huge. Enormous. One of the biggest names in Christianity at the moment.” We may be tempted to ask in reply, “But still behind Christ?”
Calvin, of course, would have turned in his grave. On the mention of graves: when Calvin died on May 27, 1564, his body was first laid in state, but because there were so many who came to see it, his friends moved it to an unmarked grave in the local cemetery in order to avoid any veneration of his remains and risk fostering a new saint’s cult. Calvin had left instructions to be buried without a tombstone, and it was not until the nineteenth century that a stone was placed on what was traditionally thought to be his grave.
All of this makes me think that perhaps the best way to honour Calvin is not by bestowing even more accolades upon him as a person, but by developing his theology in ways which bear fruit for life in our own times. For the arts, this means drawing on his positive view of creation and culture and working towards a more developed and nuanced position on images and art. Such a position would see these not only as instruments for instruction or amusement on the one hand or objects of idolatry on the other, but as God-given gifts with their own unique, irreducible and meaningful role. And that, in turn, may even give us a renewed appreciation of Calvin’s own portraits as portraits.