Art and the Reformation in Germany

By Carl C. Christensen

The Reformation had considerable impact upon the world of art in sixteenth-century Germany, but that impact was not everywhere a uniform one. Some early Protestant leaders reacted to what they viewed as the idolatrous misuse of visual imagery in late medieval Catholicism with a demand for total abolition of paintings and figurative sculpture from the churches. Others, most notably Martin Luther, not only gave a qualified approval to much of the existing ecclesiastical art but actually encouraged the development of a new, specifically Protestant, religious iconography.

The sixteenth-century debate over images was formally inaugurated in Wittenberg, where Luther’s university faculty colleague, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, in 1522 published the first major iconoclastic treatise of the Reformation period. It also was in Wittenberg that the first documented destruction of religious art in the Reformation occurred. In addition to a discussion of these events, Carl Christensen presents a series of case studies showing how the problem of ecclesiastical art was resolved in three other German-speaking cities, Nuernberg, Strasbourg, and Basel, and he assesses the broader historical and cultural significance of Reformation iconoclasm in Germany.

One of Luther’s responses to the iconoclastic disturbances in Wittenberg was to begin to develop a positive theological rationale for the retention and use of religious art. He especially emphasized its educational or pedagogical value, but also affirmed that it had a legitimate place in Christian worship. Working closely with Luther, artists such as Lucas Cranach created an interesting body of new panel paintings, altarpieces, and epitaph monuments. Considerable attention is devoted her to a description of the early Lutheran art works and to an iconographical analysis of their subject matter.

The last chapter examines in detail the question of whether or not the Reformation should be considered a major cause of that decline of art which occurred in sixteenth-century Germany. Also included, in the form of an excursus or technical appendix, is an extended essay on the controversial topic of Albrecht Dürer’s Four Apostles painting and its relationship to the Reformation in Nuernberg.


Carl C. Christensen is a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was a Woodrow Wilson and Fulbright Fellow and has made extensive scholarly contributions in the area of Reformation history. His articles have appeared in The Lutheran Quarterly, Renaissance Quarterly, Church History, and other journals. He holds a Ph.D. degree from Ohio State University.

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Art History · Art · European History · History

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