How History Shaped the Arts, The Role of Religion

2 minute read

–A blog series by Bill Rau–

Now, imagine if we could be transported back to the 1680s in Western Europe.

If you were to take a poll and ask citizens what was the most important public issue of the day, the great majority of the people would undoubtedly say the Protestant Reformation.

Now, I would like to believe that people could care less about what religion their neighbor practices. But in the 1680s throughout most of Western Europe, a person’s religion was of vital importance. It affected every single aspect of one’s social standing as well as their ability to earn a livelihood. Guilds and fiefdoms, and jobs and titles, were gifted and influenced by what religion one practiced.

To give you an example, in 1680 in most of Western Europe, if you wanted to be a silversmith, you must first join the silver guild. In France, this was a completely Protestant guild. Thus, if you were a Catholic, and desired to work in the silver field, you could not join that guild, and thus could never work in silver.

Both the furniture-making guild and the watchmaking guilds were mostly Protestant. Thus, if you loved watches, and clocks or furniture, and wanted to work in these fields, if you were Catholic, the doors would have been closed to you.

But it was much more than that. If you were a Protestant entrepreneur, and your liege-lord was Catholic, you would be highly reluctant to take any large financial risk because you knew your liege-lord possibly could come by and take potentially both your business and land away.

And even if you were a Catholic and your liege-lord was a fellow Catholic, this was still a potential problem. Because maybe the regional governor above your liege lord was Protestant, and maybe they would convince him or her to change religions- because people did change religions, whether for money, power, or spiritual reasons.  And if your Superior did change, and all of a sudden he or she was not your religion anymore, that person could possibly very much harm your livelihood.

The Protestant Reformation

Towards the end of the 17th century, two highly important events happened. In 1685, the French King, Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes.

This was the edict which had allowed Protestants to worship in France. And what happened then was that the overwhelming majority of the French Protestants fled their homeland.

For all of you that wear a watch, please look at your wrist for one second. I am willing to wager that many of you have a Swiss watch on, whether it be a Rolex or Audemars or Patek Phillipe, or even a Swatch. This is because the French watchmaking guild was all Calvinist, and after the Edict of Nantes was revoked, the watchmaking guild emigrated en masse to Geneva. They went to Geneva because that city was then the center of Calvinism. And thus the Swiss watch-making industry was born.

The furniture-makers and the silver-smiths mostly went to the two northern countries with a large Protestant population, England and Holland. The result was a classic trans-cultural diffusion.

In France, after the Protestants were evicted, the immensely talented craftsmen who had studied and learned the wonderful French ways of designing and building objects, left France, and they, of course, brought their knowledge with them. When they went to their new country, they typically continued in their line of work, whatever it be, making watches,  or furniture, or crafting silver. But now they made their goods in Switzerland, Holland or England, and they started improving their techniques and talents by working with the local craftsman, who shared their own region’s particular techniques, and methods.

The Rise of William and Mary

The second important event happened just three years later in 1688. That is when England’s last Catholic king, James II, was dethroned by his son-in-law and daughter, William and Mary.

James actually had been a pretty good king, but the English didn’t like him, for the simple reason that he was Catholic. So the English Protestant elite hired a bunch of mercenaries and then convinced the king’s son-in-law, the Dutch ruler, known as William of Orange, to use these mercenaries to invade England. James II didn’t even put up a fight; he just fled to Ireland. And through William wife’s claim to the throne, William became the king.

Prior to that time, there was no law stating that the English king had to be a certain religion.

But then the English did something very clever. They changed the law to state that from that moment on, the king had to be the head of the Church of England and thus, de facto, a Protestant.

With this second event, a giant sigh of relief emerged throughout western Europe. The reason for this relief was because, for the very first time, citizens felt comfortable that there were not going to be any more giant religious upheavals.  If you were a Protestant in England- or even if you were a Catholic- you would know where you stood. In England, Protestants no longer had to worry about the Catholics taking over. This allowed the tensions between the two religious groups to decrease tremendously.

In France, at this time, there were very few Protestants left. But even the Catholics in France now knew that neither their lands nor businesses would now be taken over for religious reasons.

One of the first consequences of these two important events was that, for the very first time in history, people felt secure enough to build large homes. And happens when you have a big home? You need art and objects to fill it.

The second important consequence of these two major events was that this transcultural diffusion, with one culture bringing its traditions and techniques and combining it with another, created far better objects.

It was these two events that directly led to the explosion in both quality and quantity in decorative arts, furniture, and of course painting.

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Now we finally get to some great art!

This extraordinary painting is by one of history's most important artists, Lucas Cranach the Elder. The high point of German art occurred during the German Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time in Germany, three artists stood above all others: Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, and Lucas Cranach the Elder.

It was during this Renaissance that the status quo of art, philosophy, sciences, education, architecture, and religion were challenged and fueled the emergence of both famed thinkers and achievers. One of these German Renaissance men probably changed the Western World more than any other European of his age, and that was Martin Luther. Our great painting by Lucas Cranach, has a direct tie to Luther’s legacy.

The painting depicts Frederick “The Wise,” who ruled as Elector of Saxony from 1486 until 1525. It was during this period that Martin Luther famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the church in the Saxon city of Wittenburg.

In the uproar that followed, Frederick protected Martin Luther against both the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. This was not due to his own religious beliefs; at the time, Frederick was in fact Catholic. Rather, the ruler protected Luther because he believed both in religious freedom and the principle that one should always have a fair trial.

Our Portrait of Frederick the Wise was commissioned shortly after Frederick’s death by his nephew Johann the Magnanimous, who had inherited the Elector of Saxony title. This portrait, which dates to roughly 1535, was one of series painted by Lucas Cranach to promote Protestant expansion during these early times of tension between the Churches. These rare portraits were distributed throughout Saxony and gifted to princes who sided with Lutheranism, in effect aligning Frederick’s and Saxony’s legacy with the spread of this new religion. Given the unusually large scale of our painting, for you that cannot see it - it measures a very impressive 26 inches wide by 32 inches high, this one likely would have been given to someone of substantial influence, if not held onto, by Johann himself.

Cranach was the official court painter and had known Frederick well. He was also friendly with Martin Luther, whom he had also painted.

This oil on panel is the artist at his finest. The details in this old master painting are superb, from the Elector’s fur cape to his detailed beard, and down to his ring. The unusual blue background makes the subject pop.

Cranach’s works grace every major Old Master-museum in the world, including The Louvre, The Getty, The National Gallery, The Uffizi, and The Prado. A much smaller version of Frederick the Wise by Cranach, only one fifth the size of ours, is prominently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

You have to keep in mind that, when this painting was created, the printing press was still a relatively new technology. But it, along with this painting, had a huge impact on the spread of Protestantism. In German towns that had zero printing presses, the great majority of its citizens remained Catholic. In cities and towns with a single printing press, the citizens tended to be close to a 50/50 Catholic and Protestant split. And in cities with more than one printing press, the citizens became overwhelmingly Protestant.

I love great art that becomes part of the story. This painting was created for a religious reason, and yet the reason associated with it is one that helped shape the modern world. It is a remarkable work of art both because of its legacy and because of its own merits.

Next: When Art Makes the Headlines



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