The Protestant Struggle with the Image

by David Morgan

David Morgan is a Ph.D. student in art history at the University of Chicago.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 22-29. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It is no wonder that the church and modern art have largely gone separate ways; the two do not see with the same eyes.

Among protestants the visual arts and Christian worship have often had very little to do with one another. Though most Protestant church interiors include a banner or a cross, perhaps even a sculpture or a painting, in most instances the art serves little more than an ornamental purpose. As a result, such works only reinforce a general indifference toward the place of art in Christian worship.

This attitude has been inherited largely from the Reformation. Following several years of confrontation with Andreas Karlstadt and his iconoclastic party over the destruction of images in churches, Luther concluded:

Images, bells, eucharistic vestments, church ornaments, altar lights, and the like I regard as things indifferent. Anyone who wishes may omit them. Images or pictures taken from the Scriptures and from good histories, however, I consider very useful yet indifferent and optional. I have no sympathy with the iconoclasts [Luther’s Works, American Edition, Fortress, vol. 37, p. 371].

Though Luther thought depictions of biblical narrative served a didactic purpose, and even included them in his German translation of the Bible, their place in worship remained "indifferent and optional"; they should not be destroyed, but neither should they be strongly recommended. indifference stopped short of the vigorous iconoclasm of Calvin, who claimed in the Institutes of the Christian Religion that the only images that belong in churches are "those living and symbolical ones which the Lord has consecrated by his Word. I mean Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, together with other rites by which our eyes must be too intensely gripped and too sharply affected to see other images forged by human ingenuity." For Calvin, images drew human eyes away from God and threatened to replace God’s sovereignty with idols. An intense rivalry -- indebted to Old Testament denunciations of idolatry and images -- existed in Calvin’s mind between the visual image and the spoken word. Indeed, Calvin premised God’s transcendence on the specially revealed word of Scripture and sacrament, God’s chosen means of self-revelation. The visual image was something humanity idolatrously fashioned in the vain attempt to represent God.

A subtler kind of skepticism regarding images manifests itself in the tendency to subordinate the image to the spoken and written word. A case in point is Luther’s use of his personal seal, which he regarded as "a symbol of my theology." In a letter to a friend he deciphered the meaning of the colors and forms. In accord with the tradition of emblems popular in his day, Luther assigned to each component of the image a theological significance:

There is first to be a cross, black [and placed] in a heart, which should be of its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. . . . Even though it is a black cross, [which] mortifies and [which] also should hurt us, yet it leaves the heart in its [natural] color [and] does not ruin nature; . . . Such a heart is to be in the midst of a white rose, to symbolize that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace; in a word it places the believer into a white joyful rose; for [this faith] does not give peace and joy as the world gives and, therefore, the rose is to be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and of all the angels. Such a rose is to be in a sky-blue field [symbolizing] that such joy in the Spirit and in faith is a beginning of the future heavenly joy; . . . And around this a golden ring, [symbolizing] that in heaven such blessedness lasts forever. . . Luther ‘s Works, American Edition, Vol. 49, pp. 358-359].

Without the key provided in this letter, a precise decoding of Luther’s seal would be impossible. This use of the image binds its visual components to the "higher" reality of their conceptual meaning. The visual remains unintelligible without the knowledge of its abstract code.

A more pictorial and naturalistic but no less conceptualized variation on this approach is the popular painting by William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (1851 - 1853) , in which Christ knocks at the allegorical door of the heart, waiting to enlighten it with his lamp of truth. The scene is an extended illustration of Revelation 3:20 ("Behold, I stand at the door and knock.") which Hunt attached as a legend to the picture’s frame when it was exhibited. As Hunt himself pointed out, nearly every object in the picture is imbued with a symbolic significance. The closed door symbolizes the "obstinately shut mind"; the weeds represent "the cumber of daily neglect"; the orchard signifies "the garden of delectable fruit for the dainty feast of the soul"; a bat flitting about is "a natural symbol of ignorance"; the lamp alludes to Psalm 119: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." Hunt even regarded the night as a biblical allusion: "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." Certainly Hunt’s image is a concretely optical one, a typically Pre-Raphaelite array of meticulously observed detail and rich color. But this dense collection of natural objects is organized in an allegorical scheme which renders it legible. If we fail to "read" this allegory, the picture will not mean to us what it meant to Hunt.

Such preference for the word or concept accounts in large measure for the meager presence of imagery in Protestant churches today. Church interiors are not generally designed to accommodate large paintings or sculptures, because they "speak’ less effectively than a preacher in a pulpit. Karl Barth went so far as to claim that ‘there is no theological visual art. . . . The fundamental form of theology is the prayer and sermon."

As Protestantism distanced itself from the image, patronage of the arts shifted to the marketplace. Linked to this change is the transformation in 19th-century art known as modernism. Modernism has modified how we see and understand images in ways that the church has for the most part either ignored or regarded with antagonism. Many Christians today see with eyes uninformed by modernist aesthetics; with their visual habits rooted in pre-modern artistic practices, they are incapable of interpreting an image as anything but a narrative or symbolic illustration of a written text -- or else as something approaching the idolatrous.

Despite some important continuities between 20th-century painters of Christian subjects and those of earlier centuries, the differences are significant. The historical precedent in treating Christ’s descent from the cross, for instance, is to infuse the deposed body with pathos. For centuries artists have evoked this feeling of graceful resignation by a diligent attention to gesture, facial expression, and carefully designed composition. Paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Rembrandt and Rubens exhibit a common reservoir of expressive devices such as poses, costume, and presentation of the scene.

Modern painters often depart from this practice. Édouard Manet depicted an emphatically dead Christ (1864) ; he refused to solicit traditional sympathy and restricted himself to nearly clinical observation. Christ’s eyes are glazed and sunken, his body limp and starkly lit. The spotlight technique which Manet borrowed from Spanish Baroque painters has the effect of the cold flash of a press photo or the glaring light of a morgue. The flattened forms and uncomplimentary presentation of the corpse leave the believer faced with the disturbingly physical reality of Jesus’ death.

Artists had treated the death of Christ in a stark manner before. Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (ca. 1511-1515) is one noteworthy instance. But no one had focused on the mechanics of human vision the way Manet did. His painting is very much about looking, about seeing a traditional subject in a way that eschews sentiment and convention for the sake of an unflattering, unaffected gaze at the hard facts. His brushwork and lighting do not allow the image to fade behind the subject, but deliberately affix it to the picture’s surface. In Griinewald’s smooth panels the paint does not intrude on our vision the way it does in Manet’s painting.

In addition to abandoning esteemed pictorial devices; modern artists have avoided treating subjects in a narrative, anecdotal, illustrative or allegorical manner. Such interests, they have claimed, reflect a literary or conceptual sensibility which subordinates the image to the written or spoken word. In fact, painters of the past century have done virtually everything in their power to short-circuit the discursive character of previous art and aesthetics. As a consequence, the image is no longer made to vanish behind its subject matter. The physical surface of the painting itself has become the focal point of the work of art. The art consists no longer in concealing the labor of the artist behind the description of an object, but in displaying the process of creation as an end in itself. The result is a degree of visual autonomy unprecedented in the history of Western Christian art. The image acquires a presence and an intimacy that refuses to defer to narrative or (in the case of nonobjective art) recognizable subject matter. Compare, for example, Albrecht Dürer’s well-known woodcut Crucifixion (1498) with Francis Bacon’s triptych of the same subject. (1965) Everything in Dürer’s print has historical or dogmatic significance. Bacon’s work, on the other hand, is a manifest challenge to the viewer. He makes certain concessions to visual traditions in format (the triptych has been the standard device for altar paintings since the Middle Ages) and in subject matter (the limbs of the "crucified" figure are wrapped in bandages, and a communion rail appears to the right and behind the central figure) , but these concessions actually accentuate his departure from tradition. The figures -- amorphous slashes of paint and brushwork -- occupy a bald, surreal, stage-like space. The scene is nightmarish in its combination of blank clarity and hideous obscurity. The picture is thoroughly at odds with itself. Its rigid compositional attempt to define a rational space is undermined by the floating figures and particularly by the raw application of paint, which sits on the surface of the canvas and reminds us of its autonomous nature as scraped pigment. The painting is unified only by the fact that the violent treatment of paint expresses the agony of these twisted sacks of flesh and blood.

Like a great deal of modern art, Bacon’s painting does not possess conceptual or discursive meaning. This is difficult for Christians looking at an image titled Crucifixion to understand. As a system of denotation, discursive language conveniently maps the world for us and refuses to leave any wilderness uncharted. But a vital source of power in the image -- whether visual or poetic -- is its ability to work beyond the scope of the word: to evoke, suggest, allude to or embody aspects of experience that elude discursive reasoning. And it is just this unnameable power, embraced by iconophiles and modernists alike, that clashes with Protestantism, a religion of the Word.

Protestantism has exempted from this censorship only ‘the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), Jesus Christ, and (among certain traditions) the sacrament of the altar. By referring to Christ as the image of God, Paul is taken to mean that just as a picture shares with its original something of its nature, so Christ shared God’s nature. Likewise, the elements of the sacramental host are signs that share mysteriously in the being of their supernatural referent.

Christian iconoclasts have perennially argued that images have no place in the church because images of human devising fall short of God’s self-revealed image in Jesus and the sacraments. Others, like Luther, are prepared to accept only those images encoded with discursive meanings. In both cases, the word is considered a full and undistorted disclosure of divinity. In ascribing a transparency to the word, iconoclasts maintain that revelation removes from both the incarnation and the Scriptures the deforming effects of human representation.

Yet the variation in the New Testament’s several resurrection accounts ought to be enough to dispel this hermeneutical naïveté. Faith, in the end, rests not on the authority of a pristine set of signs but on a community that offers in its symbols a distinctive identity, an overarching story, a collective self-image. And among the most powerful of these symbols are the unabashedly visual ones, whether in New Testament narrative, ancient creed, Renaissance fresco or Reformation hymn. Indeed, no religious faith operates without images of some sort -- pictorial, architectural or poetic -- whether their presence is acknowledged or not. As Luther himself observed, "It is impossible for me to hear or bear it in mind [the passion of Christ] without forming mental images of it in my heart." As obvious as it may seem, it is worth stating explicitly: the image is at the very heart of our experience and representation of our relationship with God. At stake is how the image fares -- whether it is repressed as idolatrous or inessential or whether it is celebrated for the major role it can play in shaping belief.

According to a modernist critique, the image itself is the means for envisioning one’s relationship with God. The image is no longer conceived platonically as a copy, nor does it intervene between viewers and object. Rather, the image shapes the nature of the vision itself. In other words, the task, as recent theological discussion has urged, is to create not images that purport to describe God, but images that articulate, by virtue of metaphor or analogy, a relationship with God.

Thus Bacon’s image conveys viscerally the dimension of suffering in the human condition that cries out for delivery, redemption. Even if Bacon did not intend an expressly Christian content, the Christian cannot fail to respond to this image as a longing for God. Sacred images in Christian art are finally images of a community’s search to understand its relation to its past, present and future; it is in these images that the community experiences its relationship with God. The purpose of the image is to embody this complex relation and give it a compelling presence and reality in worship.

Yet modernism can pursue this presence so singularly as to deny any notion of transcendent meaning. The signified vanishes beneath the surface texture of the image. Surely this is as unfortunate as the totalitarian domination of the word. And despite its dream to the contrary, modern art is ultimately no more capable of dispensing with words than iconoclasm is of eliminating images. The autonomy of the image is no less shortsighted than the autocracy of the word.

As the two chief sensibilities of representation, word and image are engaged in a dialectical relation. The church stands to gain by a critical awareness of both domains and by a readiness to accept what each can offer the other in the apprehension and evaluation of religious experience.