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Volume 8, Issue 2: The Puritan Eye

Calvinism and Art

Abraham Kuyper (1837 - 1920)

In this fifth lecture, which is the last but one, I speak of Calvinism and Art. It is not the prevailing tendency of the day that induces me to do this. Genuflection before an almost fanatical worship of art, such as our time fosters, should little harmonize with the high seriousness of life, for which Calvinism has pleaded, and which it has sealed, not with the pencil or chisel in the studio, but with its best blood at the stake and in the field of battle.

Here, however, every student of history knows that I founder upon a deeply-rooted prejudice. Calvin, it is said, was personally devoid of the artistic instinct, and Calvinism, which in the Netherlands proved guilty of Iconoclasm, cannot but be incapable either of artistic development or of real, noteworthy art-production. A brief word therefore about this strong prejudice is here in order. [I]t is beyond dispute that Luther was more artistically disposed than Calvin; but what does it prove? Will you deny Hellenism its artistic laurels because, devoid of all sense of the beautiful, Socrates boasted of the beauty of his giant nose because it allowed his breath to pass more freely? Do the writings of John, Peter and Paul, the three pillars of the Christian Church, in a single word betray any special appreciation of artistic life? Yea, be it asked reverently, is there any instance in the Gospels of Christ ever pleading for art as such, or seeking its enjoyment? And when these questions, one by one, must be an swered in the negative, have you therefore the right to deny the fact that Christianity as such has been of an almost invaluable significance to the development of art? And if not, why then would you accuse Calvinism on the mere ground that Calvin personally had little feeling for art? And when you speak of the Iconoclasm of the Beggars, should you forget that in the eighth century in the midst of the artistic and beautiful Grecian world the manly spirit of Leo Isaurus instigated a still more violent Iconoclasm, and should therefore the honor be denied to Byzantium of having produced the finest monuments?
We must not forget that the artistic instinct is a universal human phenomenon, but that in connection with national types, climates and countries, the development of that artistic instinct is most unequally divided among the nations. Who will look for a development of art in Iceland, and who on the other hand will not scent it, if I may so express myself, amidst the luxury of nature in the Levant? Is it then a matter of surprise that the South of Europe was more favorable for the development of this artistic instinct than the North? And when history shows that Calvinism was most widely received by the people of the North, does it prove aught against Calvinism, that in nations living in a colder climate and of poorer natural surroundings, it was not able to quicken an artistic life such as flourished among the Southern nations? Because Calvinism preferred a worship of God in spirit and in truth, to sacerdotal wealth,it has been accused by Rome of being devoid of an appreciation of art, and because it disap proved of a woman debasing herself as an artists's model or casting away her honor in the ballet, its moral seriousness has clashed with the sensualism of those who deemed no sacrifice too sacred for the Goddess of Art.
To view therefore from a higher platform the significance of Calvinism to art, follow me in the investigation of what flows from its principle for the nature of art.
Looking at two babies in a cradle you can scarcely tell which is boy or girl, but when, having reached the years of maturity, they stand before you, as man and woman, you see them both with forms, and traits, and modes of expression peculiarly their own. And so, arrived at their highest development, both Religion and Art demand an independent existence, and the two stems which at first were intertwined and seemed to belong to the same plant, now appear to spring from a root of their own.
Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality. This it was enabled to do because of the powerful pulse-beat by which at that time the religious life coursed through the arteries of mankind. And the fact that in these days our Calvinistic churches are deemed cold and unhiemish, and a reintroduction of the symbolical in our places of worship is longed for, we owe to the sad reality that the pulse-beat of the religious life in our times is so much fainter than it was in the days of our martyrs.
Second childhood, in your old age, is a painful, retrograde movement. The man who fears God, and whose faculties remain clear and unimpaired, does not on the brink of age return to the playthings of his infancy.
Excerpted and abridged from Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., a9 1987. Used with permission.

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