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
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.