H.R. Rookmaaker - Calvinism and Art
Calvinism and art
by H.R. Rookmaaker
The question whether Calvin and the Reformation also had some influence on art has often been answered in the negative, in the sense that Calvin would have had no interest at all in the matter or, stronger still, would have been hostile to art. By now this standpoint has been shown to be untenable by the work of Doumergue, Wille, van Schelven, Wencelius and others. Such an aversion to art is sometimes encountered in Calvinist environments, to be sure, but it stems from a later time and is a Puritan inclination possibly traceable to Anabaptist influences.
Dr A. Kuyper has already discussed this question extensively in his rectorial address, Het Calvinisme en de kunst, where he comes to the following conclusion: ‘Calvinism, to the extent that it also put its stamp on our national life outside Calvinist circles in the narrower sense, rendered this undying service, that it restored art to itself, opened up for art a hitherto unknown world of common everyday life, opened the artist's eye to the beauty in the seemingly negligible, and fostered a love of freedom that stimulated the passion for art.’
It seems somewhat odd that Kuyper should go on to argue as he does here that Calvinism never developed a distinctive artistic style of its own. Yet I think the essential features of this art have indeed been formulated in this rectorial statement. Great freedom and openness to the entire creation, love for great and small, awareness of a certain hierarchy of vales, avoidance of pomp and circumstance, sobriety that on the one hand avoids all idealization and on the other brooks no glorification of sin, emphasis on the human without heroizing while nevertheless acknowledging the importance of inward and outward struggle and taking an interest in the more intimate aspects of human relations - all this is ever the fruit for art of an approach to life nourished by Scripture.
Besides our own Dutch seventeenth-century painters, one may also refer here to Albrecht Dürer, the later work of A. Altdorfer, H. Schütz, J.S. Bach, J. Cats, etc. Furthermore, a review of the writers concerned with the place of art in the Calvinistic or Reformational view of life shows that they have always avoided any form of aestheticism while granting art a definite yet modest place; here too we find respect for solidity and beauty but avoidance of all ostentation.
This is the introduction or first page of ‘Calvinism and art, an annotated bibliography’, published in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom.