Category Archives: Art

A Fitting Way to Spend October 31


I just finished putting together a chapter for a collection of essays edited by Ray Van Neste, director of the Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University. My chapter is on the impact of the Reformation on the art of Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The book will be part of a larger celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous act of impertinence, his nailing of the 95 Theses to the chapel door at Wittenburg, October 31, 1517. I was honored to be asked to contribute the essay, and I couldn’t help but think of the appropriateness of submitting on the 498th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses.

See the website for the Reformation 500 Festival at Union, a three day conference to be held March 9-11, 2015. Plenary speakers will include Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School, David Lyle Jeffrey of Baylor University, Peter Leithart of the Theopolis Institute, and Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary. Plan to attend if your schedule permits.


America as a Renaissance Idea

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, a bevy of artistic allegorical depictions of America were produced in Europe. Many of the engravings that came out of this period were to commemorate the centennial of the discovery of America in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. This piece, originally printed by Jan van der Straet in 1600 and later engraved by Phillippe Galle around 1620, is a fascinating work that depicts America as an integral part of the Renaissance. It is one of the first artistic depictions of America as more than merely a physical fixture on the map. Indeed, America is seen here as a symbol of a great advancement, a progression, a remaking of the world, a great leap forward in human civilization.


This particular piece, called Nova Reperta (Lat., “New Inventions”), served as the frontispiece for a bound collection of engravings celebrating several inventions and discoveries of the Renaissance. Jan van der Straet (1523-1605) produced this piece, along with nineteen others that served a didactic purpose, educating viewers about the death of the medieval world and the birth of a new world, filled with immeasurable promise.

Let’s notice a few details in the piece. Starting at the upper left and moving across to the upper right, you will see a young woman pointing to a map of America.


The map depicts the continents of North and South America as open, new, yet to be settled and civilized. The map’s position relative to the other details in the piece indicates that America is the first of all Renaissance discoveries. Thus, the discovery of America opens the door, not only to a new physical world, but a new intellectual one as well. The names of Christopher Columbus of Genoa and Amerigo Vespucci of Florence give credit where credit is due: not only to the individuals who are most closely associated with the discovery of America, but also to the great Italian cities that produced them.

The young woman represents a youthful new world, and she is taking the place of an old man who is departing the scene on the upper right side of the map. The old man represents the medieval paradigm, who now plaintively looks back on a world that no longer recognizes him.


Notice an interesting detail that van der Straet includes in both the young woman and the old man. Both are grasping a snake which is devouring its own tail.

This depiction is called an ouroboros, and it is quite ancient. It appears in Western and non-Western art alike, but the symbol has various meanings depending on the cultural and artistic contexts. It is likely that van der Straet is depicting the ouroboros in the classic alchemist style–as a symbol of continuous destruction and continuous renewal. Here is depicted a world that is undergoing both a death and a rebirth.

Renaissance man, starting roughly in the late 14th century with the thought of Petrarch (1304-1374), looked back to the classical world of Rome and Greece and saw a golden age. But that golden age died with the fall of Rome, and the centuries following were regarded by Renaissance thinkers as a dark age. But Petrarch and others believed that a new order could be ushered in that was the culmination of classical Rome and Greece. The spirit of the classical age could be recovered by man’s own efforts, to put to death the dark age that dominated the last 1000 years and bring about a third age superior to that of anything that had gone before it.

The discovery of America was the harbinger of this third age. The ouroboros represents the death of the dark age, the medieval world. It is being displaced by the new ideas, inventions, and discoveries of the new world of the Renaissance. The dying old world depended on a priori assertions, on religious and philosophic authorities, and was suspicious of new ideas and innovations. It has habitually looked to the past and regarded the physical world as a fleeting and inferior reality, and anticipated the perfect spiritual world of heaven.

But the new world of rebirth sees great value in this life, and is willing to put off heaven to enjoy the riches and bounty of this world. It looks forward to the future with the expectation that progress is inevitable. New ideas and new technologies will replace those of the dark age, and the well-worn paths beaten down by mindless dependence on intellectual and spiritual authorities are about to be abandoned for new trails blazed by discoverers and scientists.

America is allegorically depicted here as the manifestation of the death of old ways, and birth of a new order.

As we continue to survey van der Straet’s piece, we see several new phenomena placed below the young woman and the departing old man. These are numbered I-IX.


The first, and most prominent discovery is America. The second, is the compass, pictured on the right and labeled with the name of Flavius Amalfitanus, the Latinized name of the Western inventor of the compass.


The third, labeled ignibus amata puluis, is gunpowder and the cannon.


Fourth, labeled imprimi volumina, is a printing press.


The fifth invention, the iron clock, is labeled roisge iugis indita hora ferreis.


Next is a medicine derived from guaicum wood, labeled hyacum.


Seventh, ab igne ftilla, is the process of alchemy.


The eighth, fila ferica, is the cultivation of silkworms,


and last is the saddle with stirrup, or staphaas: prisco operta cuneta faculo.


Since the sixteenth century, America has been regarded as a symbol of hope and progress. The United States of America, birthed at the apex of the English Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, embodied the promise of inevitable progress. Early American self-identification was laden with this notion in its founding mottoes–E Pluribus Unum, Novus Ordo Seclorum, and Annuit Coeptis, meaning “out of many, one,” “a new order for the ages,” and “God has blessed our undertaking.” And Americans have seen themselves as the “last best hope of earth” ever since. As recently as Thanksgiving Day 2013 (yesterday), one of America’s most prolific and respected writers expressed this very idea in the closing words of her editorial.

This piece also represents the beginning of American patriotic art. I realize that term is a bit of an anachronism. Still, this piece is indicative of American patriotism, even though it was produced long before the United States came to be. Nova Reperta is fascinating in part because it captures much of the essence of what later would be called “American exceptionalism”–the notion that America is in a class by itself. Exceptionalism means that America is more than a nation, it is an idea. America represents an intellectual, political, practical, and emotional break with the old world and the old way of things.

This has been, for many, the reference point in making sense of providence and the flow of history since the flag of the dual kingdoms of Leon and Castille were planted in the sands of San Salvador over five centuries ago.

Christian Art: Tapestry of Creation, Girona Cathedral, Spain

I’d like to devote some posts to featuring various pieces of Christian artwork over the centuries, to look at how the Church has communicated its beliefs through architecture, sculpture, stained glass, frescoes, tapestries, paintings, mosaics, and other media. The study of Christian art is fascinating–for centuries, visual art was one primary way in which the common people, who could not read, gained understanding of the narrative of Scripture and history. Christian art was laden with powerful and poignant symbols that, strangely enough were widely used and understood for many years, but often appear quaint and mysterious to us today.

Stairs leading to entrance to Girona Cathedral, Catalonia, Spain

In this post, let’s look at the Creation Tapestry in Girona Cathedral in Spain. This tapestry was produced in the eleventh century and it depicts the creation account found in Genesis 1 and 2. It is a collection of panels produced by needlework on a wool groundcloth. The eye is first drawn to the center of the tapestry, then is drawn to the 9 o’clock position on the wheel, clockwise to the 12 and 3 o’clock positions respectively. This upper half of the wheel depicts some of the events of Genesis 1. As the eye continues clockwise down around to the 6 o’clock position, Genesis 2 comes into view.

God is depicted in the center of the wheel, who is the Creator of the universe. In the circle surrounding God is the Latin phrase, Dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux, And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen 1.3).At the 9 o’clock position, notice the circle of blackness, representing the earth “formless and void” (Gen 1.2). Moving clockwise to the 11 o’clock position, we see darkness covering the face of the deep (Gen 1.2), represented by an angel over the dark space. Next, we see the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the deep, depicted as a dove brooding over the space of the waters (Gen 1.2). At the 1 o’clock position, God says “Let there be light” (Gen 1.3), which is here portrayed as an angel bringing light to the world–the Latin word Lux (light) stands above the angel. Then, at the 3 o’clock position, God divides the light from the darkness, calling the light Day and the darkness, Night (Gen 1.4-5). The sun is depicted on the left as a man wearing a crown of light, and the soft moon is represented by a woman.

As our eyes move down to the 4 and to the 6 o’clock position, we are taken to Genesis 2. Adam is here naming the animals, birds, and fishes of the world (Gen 2.19-20). Finally, as we arrive at the end of the wheel, we see God drawing Eve out from the side of Adam (Gen 2.21-22).

The animals and fishes being named by Adam. See also Eve being made out of Adam’s side in the upper left portion.
Here is the whole tapestry, or what is left of it. The images on the outer border of the tapestry starting in the upper left corner (moving left to right) represent Geon, or earth, followed by Samson, Summer, Autumn, Annus, or Year, Winter, Spring, and Cain. Down the left side, starting just under Geon, are the months: Iunius (June), Maius (May), Aprilis (April), and Marcius (March). In the bottom left corner is Dies Solis, the Sun, representing the first day of the week, Sunday.Down the right side are the other months, but only Iulius (July), Augustus (August) are still there. In the lower right corner is Dies Lunae, the Moon, representing the second day of the week, Monday. Looking to the inner border surrounding the wheel are the four winds. The bottom row probably contained a narrative of Christ’s Passion.

The tapestry is Romanesque, which was known for its two dimensional depiction of scenes as well as flat and simple portrayal of human beings and animals. Romanesque art is clearly distinguished from later Gothic art, which saw its height in the high middle ages (13th century). It measures 3.65 x 4.70 meters and was originally used as the canopy overhanging the Altar of the Holy Cross in Girona Cathedral.

The detailed needlework, the colors, the symbols, the majesty of the artistic depictions, and the adoration of God that is sewn intricately into the fabric of this tapesty is astounding. What have we now to compare to such art today?

Rembrandt’s Conversion Evidenced in His Art

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is perhaps the quintessential Reformation artist. He began his artistic career following in the footsteps of his contemporary painters. His style in his youth was not unlike that of the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640): dramatic, sweeping, and idealized. As the circumstances of his life darkened, and his faith was tested, the changes that took place in his spirit became evident through all his paintings. Rembrandt had experienced a true turning point in his life that forced him to begin to take his faith seriously, rather than use his faith as a mere tool from which to obtain motifs for his paintings. While Rembrandt was not as overtly influenced by the Reformers as Bach evidently was, the Reformed notions of the person and work of Christ, salvation, and the centrality of the Bible stand out clearly in his work.
Rembrandt’s maturation as an artist can be traced alongside the circumstances of his life. During his early years, he was influenced by his contemporaries, especially Lastman, his tutor. Lastman developed his style in Italy, using motifs from history and the Bible. The art of the Counter-Reformation, with its emphasis on idealizing the subjects of the Bible, was dominant in Flanders during Rembrandt’s life, and this style had a powerful influence on Rembrandt at first. Rembrandt in his youth was attracted to the Bible not primarily because of its spiritual worth or because of its authority in the faith of the Church, but because it offered a plethora of dramatic themes fraught with heroes and villains and dazzling victories and ignominious defeats.
In the years after the death of his wife, Saskia, and his impending financial collapse (1648–1656), Rembrandt’s shift in style became more apparent. Rembrandt faced a crisis of faith, and his attitude toward his standing with God changed dramatically. He realized that he was in no position to pridefully assert himself, in no position to find his security in his wealth. No longer did Rembrandt look to the Bible simply as a sourcebook for new themes for his artwork. The Bible became his link to God, and the source of his spiritual vitality as well as his art. Instead of merely painting the subjects of the Bible, he interpreted the Bible in his art, much as Bach had interpreted the Bible in his music.
Abraham’s obedience on Mt. Moriah, as recounted in Gen 22, is a favorite subject of Rembrandt’s. The first time that Rembrandt depicted this theme in 1635 (The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God), he was a young and wealthy artist living in Amsterdam. He had not yet made his shift from idealism to realism—the Reformation standard of depicting God’s world without theatrics had not yet made its impact on Rembrandt. It is remarkable to compare his first depiction of this theme in 1635 with his second depiction of 1655. In the first example, shown below, we have the earlier painting, and Rembrandt’s dramatic portrayal of the biblical event is clear. Abraham has stretched his son out upon the altar, clasping the boy’s face and widely exposing his neck for the slice of the knife. Rembrandt captures the moment when the angel stops Abraham, so the viewer sees the knife drop from his hand and the look of surprise and amazement on his face. The typical Baroque obsession with the drama of the miracle and the movement of the subjects is evident in this piece.
The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God
But compare this work with the second piece (Abraham’s Sacrifice), painted in 1655, when Rembrandt’s wisdom and the influence of the Reformation ideal of faith and simplicity are more obvious. The emphasis in this later work is upon Abraham. This earthly father who has been confronted with a crisis of faith without comparison is about to offer the supreme act of obedience to God’s command. The conflict that raged with Abraham’s spirit is depicted in this etching. It is the inner reality that Rembrandt emphasized in this work, not the outward dazzle of the intervention of the angel of the Lord. Isaac, in contrast to the earlier painting, is not stretched out on an altar, but kneels humbly at his father’s side. He is not a muscular, superhuman figure as he is in the 1635 depiction, but is a small boy in the later one. The angel comes from behind Abraham, and is invisible to him, rather than revealing himself in splendor. Note that Abraham’s eyes are darkened, likely demonstrating that his faith is blind. Abraham, as Rom 4:3 reveals, was a man who believed God, and God accounted his faith to him as righteousness. The stark differences between the two works are evident even in their titles. The 1635 depiction has a long and descriptive title, one that underscores the drama of the miracle itself. In contrast, the title of the 1655 depiction is a simple one, leaving the viewer to find its meaning in the work as well as the biblical text.
Abraham’s Sacrifice
Rembrandt van Rijn’s life presents us with a powerful example of how Christ fundamentally alters one’s perspective on life. Having been given new life in Christ, Rembrandt saw himself under His gaze, and his response was to humble himself and to become Christ’s servant. Hundreds of years later, we are still benefiting from the devotion of Rembrandt to Christ that is reflected in his art.

[This is part of a more extensive article I wrote entitled “The Impact of the Reformation on the Fine Arts with Emphasis Upon Selected Works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Rembrandt van Rijn.” Faith and Mission23 (Spring 2006): 31–54.]