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Protestant Art and Iconography

The Bible has shaped the history of Protestant visual culture more than any figure, movement, or technique. Protestants love the Bible. They love to read it, think about it, underline it, write inside it, hold it, and pray with it. Protestants also love to see the Bible. They construct their visual worlds with biblical ideas, figures, words, and imagery. Despite Protestants’ long love affair with the Bible, it would be a mistake to consider the Bible of Protestant art as a monolithic entity. Protestants often describe themselves as “people of the Word,” but many Bibles have emerged in Protestant art and iconography. The Bible has served as inspiration for Protestant painters and printmakers. Protestant artists have attempted to visualize the Bible’s textual content. Protestant preachers have used pictures and charts to illustrate the meaning of their sermons. Protestant Bibles have included pictures, often to clarify narrative or doctrinal meaning. Some Protestant Bibles contained pictures on every single page, seamlessly weaving text and image together. The Protestant love of the Bible has produced a remarkable variety of images throughout history. Making images, seeing images, and interacting with images has also helped Protestants define what it means to be people of the Word.

The Bible and Protestant Art: Negotiating between Word and Image.

Complex interactions between the shifting categories of “word” and “image” created the many Bibles of Protestant art. Protestants care deeply about the meaning of biblical texts, which they hold to be authoritative in matters of religious belief and practice. In Protestant circles, the text of the Bible almost always holds more official religious authority than images. This position derives from a strict reading of Exodus 20:4–5: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath” (KJV). For a few radical Protestant groups, the Bible’s prohibition against “graven images” led them to outright condemnation of all images or to violent iconoclasm. However, such groups strayed far from the center of Protestant history. Most Protestants incorporated images into the heart of their religious practice. While images may never have held the same official status as the Bible, they almost always found their way into Protestant homes, churches, and publications.

Image and word rarely displayed a simple antagonistic relationship in Protestant history. Most Protestants agreed that images were permissible as long as they did not impinge upon the supreme authority of the Bible. But Protestants had no easy way of determining whether images were dangerous or benign or religiously beneficial. As a result, images often became flashpoints for broader debates about the proper interpretation of the Bible and its role in religious life: one group’s special images became another’s heretical idols. Despite their general subjection to the authority of scripture, images took on many roles in Protestant communities. While the Bible’s textual meaning always held primary authority in official Protestant doctrine and theology, the lived reality of Protestantism betrayed complicated interactions between text and image.

Defining “Protestant art.”

Protestants have a strained relationship with “art.” For many art historians, the advent of Protestantism represents the single greatest tragedy in the history of fine art. Protestants destroyed countless artworks during the Reformation, and Protestant churches never patronized the visual arts as much the Catholic Church did. Coupled with Protestants’ self-avowed fondness for the text of the Bible and prohibitions on idolatry, many people conclude that Protestants are iconoclasts who do not abide any images. However, Protestant history strongly suggests otherwise. Images have played a major role in Protestant religious life since the time of the Reformation. However, the images that matter most to Protestants rarely fit within the established realms of fine art: mass-reproduced prints of Bible scenes, Bible frontispieces, and Bible comic books rarely stand alongside Rodin’s sculptures in museums. Consequently, scholars of Protestant images must frequently engage theoretical debates about the nature and function of art—what art is, what images can do, and how to study seeing. Similarly, scholars must determine what makes art Protestant—do Protestants have their own particular style, is Protestant art just the creation of Protestant artists, what role does reception play in defining Protestant art, etc. These sorts of questions remain open in the field.

Most religious studies scholars and cultural historians prefer to use the term “Protestant visual culture,” rather than “Protestant art,” to describe the images and visual practices of Protestantism. These scholars consider “art” to be a loaded term. The term “art” invokes standards of taste, implying that some images are art and some are not. It connotes museums and private collections, proper and improper ways of accessing images. It suggests that scholars must contemplate the aesthetics of a work disinterestedly. Drawing on the work of theorists like W. J. T. Mitchell, Hans Belting, and David Freedberg, many scholars now prefer to discuss Protestant “visual culture.” The study of visual culture focuses not just on visual images themselves, but rather on the whole cultural complex of seeing. Scholars of visual culture examine all the kinds of things people look at, whether “fine art” like paintings or “low art” like mass-reproduced prints. They investigate the culturally conditioned act of seeing, observing how people look and how images look back. They explore how vision relates to other bodily senses like touch. They interrogate the powers attributed to images at different times and in different places. The turn toward a visual culture approach has proved particularly useful for analyses of Protestantism. Protestants rarely placed much stock in geniuses, masterworks, and art museums. However, they reproduced some images by the millions, found religious power in images, and developed unique ways of seeing. Even Protestant iconoclasm provides fertile ground for visual culture scholars: how and why Protestants destroyed images reveals much about the visual worlds they inhabited. Because of the many lines of inquiry it opens to scholars, the study of Protestant visual culture remains a growing project.

Recent studies of visual culture have reshaped scholarly understandings of the Bible’s role in Protestant life. For analysts of visual culture, the textuality of the Bible stands as just one of its facets in religious life. The objecthood of the Bible has garnered significant scholarly attention in recent years. These works examine the changing nature of the Bible as an object and the implications of those changes for Protestant religious practice. As much as the translations they used or the doctrines they found within its pages, the size, shape, weight, cost, location, look, and feel of Bibles reveal how Protestants lived their religion. Certainly, Protestants read their Bibles. But they also interacted with them as objects in the visible world. Some saw a hefty, leatherbound Bible thumped against the pulpit as a sign of a preacher’s authority. Some prefered the simplicity of a King James Version without many illustrations but insisted that their Bibles include a map of Israel at the front. Some looked to the pristine gilt pages of a folio-sized family Bible as a mark of social respectability. Others took a few words from the Bible, etched them in stone, and put them on the lawns of American courthouses. Some evangelicals tattooed scriptural references or Hebrew words into their flesh. Instead of treating these phenomena as mere curiosities or as vulgarizations of genuine Protestant doctrine, visual culture scholars mine them for information about Protestant social life. Visual culture scholars study the Bible as an object of Protestant gaze, as a technology that makes certain ways of seeing possible, as a source of inspiration for Protestant artists and advertisers, and more. These scholars examine what Protestants see when they look at Bibles, but also where they see, how they see, why they see what they do, what they refuse to see, etc.

Words and images during the Protestant Reformation.

During the Protestant Reformation, words acquired new power. Gutenberg’s printing press flooded Europe with words. Cheap pamphlets, broadsheets, tracts, and Bibles brought words into the foreground of everyday life. Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the other Protestant Reformers articulated new doctrines to account for the new place and prominence of words. For the Reformers, words expressed the abstract thoughts of the rational human subject and provided access to concepts beyond the surface of experience. The printed words of mass-reproduced Bibles carried deep truths about God. With the doctrine of “sola scriptura,” the Reformers argued that the Word of God alone provided sufficient knowledge for salvation. They insisted the Bible’s meaning was clear and available to all. They claimed that people should be able to read the Bible in the familiar words of vernacular languages. They insisted that anyone who could understand the Word of God became a priest of God; all believers who spoke or read the Word bore the power of God. As the Reformation sought to harness the power of words, images lost their once-stable positions in Christianity. Where images formerly held prominence in Catholic life, Reformers disputed about the powers that remained to images in the new world of words.

The changing power of images during the Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation brought significant changes to the way people conceptualized, engaged, produced, and consumed images. The art historian Joseph Koerner has described these upheavals with the phrase “the Reformation of the image.” The “Reformation of the image” describes at least two realities about the changing visual culture of sixteenth-century Christianity. First, it captures the fact that images experienced major reshaping during the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation changed the nature, function, and look of images in Christianity, not just abstract theologies. The phrase also implies that Protestantism took shape as people grappled with new conceptions of what images were and were not, what they could and could not do, where they should or should not be. Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics—and other Protestants—by their theologies of images and by the actual images they produced.

Early Protestants simply could not ignore the question of images. For centuries before the Reformation, images held a central role in Roman Catholic piety. Pictures of the saints offered windows into Heaven for devotees: looking at the saints’ images gave access to the spiritual power of God’s intercessors. Adorning the interiors of grand churches, images provided the primary sites for adoration of the saints. Icons created a nexus between Heaven and earth. The likeness participated in the spiritual reality it represented, putting people in the presence of God’s blessed. The sacred was present in the image that represented it. Many images, like the statue of Our Lady of Altötting in Bavaria, offered the promise of miraculous healing. Praying, fasting, and making offerings at the image, devotees sought the succor of Heaven. In strictly economic terms, offerings made before the icons of saints provided vital revenues for churches.

Given the significance of images in Catholic practice, Reformers had to determine what role—if any—images would play in their renovated religious communities. As the words of the Bible obtained new religious power, the Reformers usually stripped images of their sacred aura and authority. Protestants would almost never again look to images as manifestations of divine presence, as sites of contact between Heaven and earth. But Protestants did afford images new roles, many of which persist in their communities today. Images became bearers of meaning, “illustrations” of ideas contained in texts. Images became aesthetic objects, things beautiful to look at but removed from life’s pressing needs.

Early Protestant iconoclasm.

Protestant iconoclasm possessed deep roots in Christian history. In the eighth century, iconoclasts and iconodules battled for control of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Theologians like St. John of Damascus (ca. 645/676–749 C.E.) defended the veneration of images, while others opposed it. Iconoclasts whitewashed sacred images. Some recombined mosaics depicting saints into plain crosses. Iconodules responded with their own polemical images, depicting iconoclasts as recrucifying Christ. Though ostensibly a religious war of images, political and social factors fueled the conflicts.

Protestant iconoclasts in the sixteenth century waged wars against images in many ways and for many reasons. Like the Reformation itself, iconoclasm occurred in myriad local variations. Image destruction happened on a large scale in Switzerland and southern Germany during the 1520s, in France among the Huguenots, in Scotland after 1559, in England after 1536, and in the Low Countries in 1566. Iconoclasts often focused their wrath against the economy of sacred images and the purported “idols” inside Catholic churches. Because the church had large holdings in land and property, outbursts against images inside churches often went hand in hand with political and social instability outside church walls. Images presented visible markers of the church’s wealth and its alleged corruption, offering rich sites for symbolic attack. By removing images from inside churches, Protestants struck at the economy of pilgrimage and offerings to the saints. They compared their foes with moneychangers and themselves with Christ cleansing the Temple (Matt 21:12–17).

Protestants frequently removed images from church interiors, but this does not mean they always engaged in the total destruction of images. Sometimes, images simply migrated from church alcoves to private collections in homes. At other times, the destruction of images bolstered the new power of words. Iconoclasts often removed the faces of holy icons but left the statues or paintings themselves in place. In so doing, they sought to expose Catholic sacred images as merely inert things. By committing sacrilegious acts of defacement, they practically dared the saints to retaliate with divine force. If divine power did indeed reside within the image, Protestants challenged, God should strike back against iconoclasts. Leaving vandalized images in place, Protestants aimed to give a tangible argument to the common people about the inefficacy of the old ways. If images were just ordinary things and not loci of divine presence, people ought to look to the Bible for God’s help.

Andreas von Carlstadt (1486–1541) wrote an early Protestant theology of iconoclasm. A colleague of Luther’s at the University of Wittenberg, Carlstadt took a hard line against all images in his essay “On the Removal of Images and That There Should Be No Beggars Among Christians” (1522). Carlstadt argued that all images in churches stood as idols, violating the First and Second Commandments. He considered it an insult to Christian martyrs when people said that a saint was present in an image, for the saints had turned from pagan idolatry to adopt Christianity. He believed all images to be deceitful, having no legitimate place in Christian life. Carlstadt cited verse after verse from the Old and New Testaments to make his case against images. He insisted that the Bible carried the power of God and that images did not. He accused “the papists” of deceitfully twisting scripture in their defenses of the adoration of the saints. He argued that the economy of image veneration, particularly the practices of lighting candles and making monetary offerings, hurt the poor. He wrote that books are always useful, but “the very best image is good for nothing. They are certainly no good unto salvation” (On the Removal of Images, p. 110). Though he helped incite a few popular Protestant riots in Wittenberg, Carlstadt’s position never became a mainstream Protestant view.

John Calvin’s theology of images.

John Calvin (1509–1564) also strongly advocated for the removal of images from churches. His doctrine of total depravity, which stressed humankind’s profound sinfulness, placed a gulf between God and humans that no material thing could bridge. Images simply could not represent the mysteries of the holy, sovereign God. Rather than accepting God’s utter transcendence, Calvin lamented, sinful humans seek to give God material forms they can understand. He wrote that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.” Calvin here acknowledged that humans often think in images—but he also declared that, when applied to God, such thinking “substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God” (Institutes 1.11.8). However, outside the realm of religion, Calvin found no problem at all with images. He declared that images can be either (a) historical and useful for instruction or (b) pictorial/figural and useful for enjoyment. Portraits of historical Christian figures, like those made of Calvin himself, were perfectly acceptable. Calvin argued that the beautiful images adorning Catholic churches properly belonged to the category of figural images, not divine images: people should treat them as mere objects of enjoyment, not sites for engagement with Heaven. Calvin permitted only two “images” to remain in churches: the Lord’s Supper and baptism. He called these “living symbols” that have been consecrated by the Word of the God (Institutes 1.11.13).

Martin Luther’s theology of images.

Unlike Calvin or the radical iconoclasts, Luther did not endorse the destruction or removal of images. In fact, he eventually encouraged the production of church art. According to Luther, church images were only idolatrous when they advocated a salvation of good works or served as intercessors between believers and God. Luther argued that some images could actually help people learn the truth about salvation. He thought that church images should serve a didactic function: Protestants ought to harness the power of images to teach the truth. He advocated for the use of narrative images, which brought scripture to life in the minds of those who heard or read its words. An image drawn from the Bible, Luther reasoned, carried the truth of salvation almost as well as words themselves. “Pictures contained in these books,” he wrote of Revelation and Joshua, “we would paint on walls for the sake of remembrance and better understanding, since they do no more harm on walls than in books” (Against the Heavenly Prophets, p. 99). Luther even permitted people to retain their crucifixes and images of the saints, so long as they understood them to be nothing more than reminders of the Christian past. Like the law in his famous reading of Romans, Luther considered images to be “as nothing” to those who were saved, neither a dangerous hindrance to salvation nor an aid in its acquisition. In his rebuttal of Carlstadt, Luther explained: “whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart. … If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” (pp. 99–100). Images were simply inert things to Luther, acceptable insofar as they conveyed Protestant ideas about the Bible, church, and salvation.

Word always trumped image in Lutheran theology, and many Protestants began creating images that showcased the image’s subservience to the Bible. Where Catholic images revealed the power of Heaven, Lutheran images revealed their own powerlessness, their own impotent objecthood. They served only to teach verbal truth. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), an artist and friend of Luther’s, created an important painting for the altar in Luther’s Wittenberg church in 1547. On the predella, Cranach depicts Luther on the far right, preaching from the Bible to an assembled congregation of Wittenberg citizens. Between the preacher and the congregants, at the center of the image, stands an image of Christ crucified. The altarpiece visualizes Luther’s Protestant message: the Word alone has the power to reveal Christ, and only faith in Christ brings salvation. Nothing stands between believers and Christ. Instead of exerting independent power, Protestant images like Cranach’s symbolized the power of the Word of God. Instead of making saints present, such images carried meanings and conveyed theological ideas. For the next four centuries, Protestant images usually served as symbols: they pointed away from themselves and toward words. Far more often than they performed miracles, Protestant images expressed narrative meaning or visualized doctrine.

Bible Illustration and Bible Making as Protestant Art Forms.

In the centuries after the Reformation, the Bible itself became an inspiration and a canvas for Protestant artists. Illuminated manuscripts and decorated Bibles had existed almost as long as Christianity itself, but Bibles became an especially significant site where Protestants teased out, complicated, and upended the their belief in word’s power over image. Though they had mostly banished images from their church interiors during the Reformation, new generations of Protestants permitted images inside the Bible. Believing in the divine power of the Word, Protestants altered the Bible’s status as a material object in the world. Being no mere thing, the Word of God carried special power wherever it went; being no magical object, the Bible never quite transcended its status as a physical thing. Because they so loved the Word of God, Protestants turned their Bibles into fascinating works of art—often, without acknowledging that they did so. They created Bibles full of images and depicted the Bible’s power using images. Protestants also elevated Bible production into a unique art form, creating countless versions of the Bible that incorporated images. Protestants of all varieties made the Bible their own by molding its physical form to suit their ever-changing needs.

Protestant Art and Iconography

The Wittenberg Altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1547). On the right, Martin Luther preaches from the Bible to his congregation assembled before the Crucifix.

bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, N.Y.

view larger image

The art of Bibles and the art of Bible making in nineteenth-century America.

Having come of age alongside the Gutenberg press, Protestantism proved remarkably adaptable to new media in the centuries after the Reformation. Changing print technologies brought with them new articulations of Protestant belief and practice. Steam-powered presses became engines of Protestant growth in places like the United States of America, where Protestants produced Bibles by the millions. As the advent of technologies like lithography, engraving, and photography allowed more and more elaborate images to appear on the pages of cheaper and cheaper books, the look and feel of Protestant Bibles transformed. As they always had done, Protestants continued to express uneasiness with images and to tout the power of the word—but the Word itself was often filled with pictures, explained by pictures, advertised with pictures, or treated like a piece of fine art. In nineteenth-century America, being a people of the Word did not always mean Protestants were a people of the unadorned text. As the century progressed, the words and content of the Bible began to lose their position at the center of American public discourse. Nonetheless, American Protestants found creative ways to love their Bibles in the rapidly changing world of industrial modernity. Despite many changes to the physical appearance of Bibles, the power of the Word always remained in the foreground of the Protestant visual imaginary.

The American Bible Society: Bibles in the age of mechanical reproduction.

The disestablishment of religion in the United States pushed Protestantism into the realm of private belief, personal choice, and voluntarism. No longer supported by the state, groups had to compete with one another for adherents in what many scholars have called a “religious marketplace.” Evangelical Protestantism, with its emphasis on personal conversion and emotional faith, thrived in this environment. Evangelical benevolent societies like the American Bible Society (ABS, founded 1816) seized the potential of the religious marketplace. As immigrants flooded the young republic and pushed its frontiers west, the ABS sought to convert them to evangelicalism—any kind of evangelicalism, whether Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist. To do this, they dispensed Bibles. The ABS created a vast production and distribution apparatus with the express goal of putting a Bible in every American home. Innovators in the publishing industry, they were among the first American publishers to adopt centralized production, stereotyping (for setting type), steam-driven presses, in-house binding, and national distribution networks of agents and colporteurs. By 1830, they were producing 300,000 copies of the Bible per year, far more than all other publishers. The ABS made cheap, sturdy little Bibles—about six inches by three-and-one-half inches, bound in low-cost leather. A full edition of the Bible, containing both the Old and New Testaments, cost as little as 45 cents in the 1840s, making ABS Bibles cheaper than most other books of the day.

The ABS aimed to create a united evangelical front to supply Bibles to all Americans, but their efforts fragmented the Bible market and led to a proliferation of Bible versions. ABS Bibles were rugged, inexpensive, little books. To distinguish their Bibles from ABS editions, other Protestant publishers began incorporating commentaries and illustrations on an unprecedented scale. They also made their Bibles larger, bound them with more luxurious materials, and sold them at higher prices. Though illustrations were quite rare in Bibles before the arrival of the ABS, more than half of American Bible editions contained pictures by the 1870s. The ABS goal to put a Bible in every American home ironically created a demand for many different kinds of Bibles: Protestants, it turned out, did not always want to have the same Bible as their neighbors. As the ABS tightened its grip on the market for mass, inexpensive Bibles, other producers began to create Bibles for niche markets.

Illustrated family Bibles.

In Victorian America, large family Bibles carried the standard in spiritual education and communicated the social respectability of their owners. Group Bible reading was considered an essential part of Protestant spiritual life at this time: the home, not the parish, was the cornerstone of Christian life. Depictions of families reading Bibles appeared frequently in American Tract Society publications, suggesting strong links between family Bible reading and good American citizenship. As the century progressed, images of family Bible reading increasingly focused on the spiritual duties of mothers. With more and more fathers seeking work outside the home in cities, mothers were placed in charge of the domestic realm. They were made responsible for training their children in the twin virtues of Bible reading and dutiful republicanism.

A high-quality, large Bible displayed in the parlor of the home stood as a symbol of domestic piety for Protestant families. Parlors mediated between the home and the outside world, so displaying a Bible in the parlor proved a family’s patriotic Protestantism to the neighbors. Publishers created Bibles especially for the needs of Protestant families, which contained charts to record births, deaths, marriages, and other major events. In keeping with sentimentalist principles of education, these Bibles frequently included illustrations that aimed to aid biblical interpretation and inspire moral emotions in children. In the early 1840s, the Methodist Harper Brothers published a popular family Bible called the Illuminated Bible. Weighing a hefty 13 pounds and protected by a heavy leather cover that could be embossed with a picture of one’s own church, the Illuminated Bible included more than 1,600 illustrations. Illustrations in the Illuminated Bible appeared directly beside the text of the Bible, competing with the printed words for interpretive authority.

Protestant publishers usually declared that the images in their Bibles aided in the process of interpretation. However, the lines between genuine interpretive assistance and calculated commercial appeal were not always clear. After Americans visited the Levant in the 1830s, Bibles began to include detailed topographical maps of Ottoman Palestine and anthropological or architectural drawings of sites in the Holy Land. Maps focused on scientific accuracy rather than biblical narrative content, encouraging readers to imagine continuity between the Bible’s mythic past and the geographic present. Later in the century, when Orientalism became fashionable, lavish illustrations by artists like Gustave Doré (1832–1883) set biblical narratives in the sensuous, mysterious lands of the East. Visions of biblical personages as veiled women and turbaned men fueled the Protestant imagination, combining the appeal of biblical history and exotic travel literature.

The visual culture of nineteenth-century premillennialism.

While many evangelicals filled their parlors with expensive illustrated Bibles, other American Protestants found an earth-shattering idea on its pages: Jesus was coming back within one generation. At a time when most evangelicals believed that the world would gradually improve until conditions were ripe for Christ’s return, groups like the Millerites insisted that Jesus would return very soon. Named for William Miller (1782–1849), a fiery preacher who led the group, the Millerite movement read the Bible as a roadmap of future events. Having experimented with deist thinking as a young man, Miller became convinced that the apparent rational inconsistencies of the Bible could be overcome by understanding scripture as an intricate system of intertextual references. For Miller, biblical prophecies only made sense when read in light of other biblical prophecies—the Bible’s many cross-references needed untangling before the text’s true meaning could be decoded. If prophecies were read against each other and just slightly reorganized, Miller realized, the Bible’s specific predictions about the future became clear. Based on his cross-readings of biblical prophecies, Miller determined that Jesus would probably return in 1843.

Miller’s belief in the imminent end of history impelled him into serious evangelistic efforts. To make the truth of their premillennial message plain for all to see, Millerites created elaborate charts and timelines. Showing ferocious beasts and terrifying monsters, these charts rearranged snippets of the Bible’s many prophetic books into a single, coherent image. Supposed inconsistencies in scripture disappeared in the chart’s unitary visual field. Passages of Daniel, Revelation, Matthew, and Ezekiel appeared alongside historical timelines and descriptions of fallen empires. Images held historical events and rearranged scripture together. By visualizing the imagery of prophetic texts in literal ways (as opposed to allegorical or rationalized renderings), Millerite charts could claim to remain faithful to scripture even as they reshuffled its contents. In short, images provided the scaffolding for Miller’s complex hermeneutical activity—and made complicated readings seem like common sense. Viewers of Millerite charts saw the prophetic truth about the Bible revealed before their eyes. Charts presented the Bible as it really was.

The Bible and Protestant visual culture in the twentieth century.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Protestants found themselves engaging images in ways their predecessors would never have dared to do. Images filled the pages of their Bibles, sometimes taking narrative precedence over words. Portraits of Jesus hung in their homes and churches. They even built grand temples to art. Debates about the historical accuracy and authority of the word consumed Protestants at the beginning of the twentieth century, but images escaped the intense scrutiny they formerly experienced in Protestant circles. As Protestants became divided over new methods of biblical study and new scientific ideas, images often managed to transgress new boundaries like “liberal” and “conservative.” By the twentieth century, Protestant images had become so commonplace that few people gave them much thought at all.

Images in the fundamentalism–modernism controversies.

Source critical methods of biblical study rocked Protestant communities to their foundations. This method of biblical interpretation treated the Bible as a collection of literary texts with human authors—not just as the Word of God. To those later called “modernists,” once-firm truths about the authorship of the Bible and the historicity of its narratives seemed to crumble under the weight of this new academic approach to the Bible: Protestantism had to adapt or die. Their “fundamentalist” rivals considered the new scholarly methods to be nothing but atheistic speculation: no matter what a few professors said, God’s authoritative Word was trustworthy down to the last letter.

Partisans of both sides in the fundamentalism–modernism debates used images to wage war. Fundamentalists proved especially adept at using images to undercut their opponents’ positions. In publications like Moody Monthly and The Sunday-School Times, the satirical cartoonist E. J. Pace (1880–1946) vilified modernism and proclaimed the Bible’s absolute authority. One of his most famous cartoons showed the modernist’s “descent.” A clean-cut young man stands on a staircase. The top step is labeled “Christianity,” and the young man progresses through life as he descends a staircase labeled with modernist ideas like “no virgin birth,” “no miracles,” and “Bible not infallible.” By the end of his journey down the stairs, the young man stands an old atheist, having aged into a professor wearing academic regalia. The cartoon’s message is clear: modernist thinking, which begins with a rejection of the Bible’s authority, ends in outright atheism. Such popular images drew battle lines within Protestant communities, declaring that the Bible needed to be read in particular ways.

A Protestant icon: The Bible and Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ.

The Bible’s absence from the most famous Protestant image of the twentieth century speaks volumes about how much the relationship between word and image had changed since the Reformation. Warner Sallman’s painting Head of Christ (1941) became the image of Jesus for an entire generation of Protestants. Reproduced hundreds of millions of times, Head of Christ appeared in formats ranging from framed prints, to desk lamps, to clocks, to prayer cards distributed to Allied soldiers during World War II. The picture hung in Sunday school classrooms, in businessmen’s offices, in kitchens, in bedrooms, and in YMCA clubs. In midcentury America, Protestants put Sallman’s picture everywhere. Sallman depicted Jesus in the three-quarter bust style of traditional portraiture: head and shoulders visible, Jesus gazes out of the painting and indirectly toward the viewer. Set against a plain, neutral brown background, light seemed to emanate from Jesus’s face. Removed from any biblical or narrative context, Sallman’s Jesus was free to confront people in their own environments. Extracted though he was from the text of the New Testament, many viewers still saw the Jesus of the Gospels in Sallman’s image. Others saw the Jesus they had always known and loved. Still others found that the image mediated the real presence of Christ, just like a Catholic icon mediated the saint’s presence. People claimed Sallman’s image performed miraculous healings, offered protection from bullets, inspired moral behavior, and produced dramatic conversions. Unencumbered by any immediate connection to the Bible, Sallman’s Jesus could be whatever Protestant viewers needed him to be and do whatever they needed him to do. Despite the fact that it resembled a 1940s yearbook photo more than a first-century portrait, people loved to insist that Sallman’s Jesus was “scripturally accurate,” a genuine likeness of the Jesus they knew from the Bible.

Legacies in word and image: Graphic Bibles and fine art.

By the late twentieth century, Protestant images had come a long way since the Reformation. Once a cause for concern among theologians, they had entered the Protestant mainstream. Constantly redefining the proper relationship between word and image, Protestants allowed pictures to occupy more and more space—and fulfill more and more functions—in their everyday lives. Two very different phenomena illustrate the legacy of the Bible’s winding history with images in Protestantism.

Some Protestants in the late twentieth century began to speak of art’s transformative power. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (1902–1981) served as the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A committed Presbyterian (a denomination built on the theology of John Calvin), he sought to elevate his fellow Protestants’ taste in art. Barr declared that nothing illustrated authentic Protestant belief better than abstract modern art. People had to think hard to understand abstract art, had to interpret its meanings for themselves. In this view, modern art adopted some of the roles formerly held by the Bible. As the pinnacle of Protestant civilization, modern art revealed profound truth about God, the world, and humankind’s true condition. Though abstract art could not replace the Bible as God’s revelation, people’s attempts to understand it mirrored their attempts to understand God’s actions in the world.

Other Protestants cared little for abstract art but thought it their duty to keep the Bible “relevant” in contemporary culture. Mixing popular culture and Bible production, the evangelical creators of The Picture Bible (1978) turned the Word of God into a comic book. The Picture Bible strips the text of the Bible down to its “essential” components and translates them into images. Containing far more images than text, it remains a Bible in the eyes of many conservative Protestants: though it uses few actual words, it is still the Word of God.



Primary Sources

  • Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989.
  • Carlstadt, Andreas Bodenstein von. “On the Removal of Images and That There Should Be No Beggars among Christians.” In The Essential Carlstadt, edited and translated by E. J. Furcha, pp. 100–120. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1995.
  • Luther, Martin. “Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of the Images and the Sacraments.” In Luther’s Works, edited by Conrad Bergendoff, vol. 40, pp. 84–101. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958.

Secondary Sources

  • Belting, Hans. Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1990. A sweeping history of religious images in what the author calls the “age before art.”
  • Coleman, Simon. “Words as Things: Language, Aesthetics, and the Objectification of Protestant Evangelicalism.” Journal of Material Culture 1, no. 1 (1996): 107–128. A groundbreaking anthropological article about the objectification of text in Swedish evangelicalism.
  • Davis, Edward. “Fundamentalist Cartoons, Modernist Pamphlets, and the Religious Image of Science in the Scopes Era.” In Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America, edited by Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer, pp. 175–198. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.
  • Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. A theoretical text about the nonaesthetic powers of images by an eminent art historian.
  • Gutjahr, Paul. An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. A cultural history of the Bible as object in nineteenth-century America.
  • Houtman, Dick, and Birgit Meyer, eds. Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. A collection of anthropological essays about the relationship between religion and things.
  • Koerner, Joseph Leo. The Reformation of the Image. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. A history of images’ changing roles during the Protestant Reformation.
  • Latour, Bruno. Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. A difficult text on the theory of iconoclasm, which suggests that destroying images and preserving/creating images often happens in the same iconoclastic gesture.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. A pioneering book on Christian visual and material culture in America, containing important contributions on parlors and family Bibles.
  • Meyer, Birgit. “ ‘There Is a Spirit in That Image’: Mass-Produced Jesus Pictures and Protestant-Pentecostal Animation in Ghana.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, no. 1 (2010): 100–130. An important anthropological study of debates about the nature of images in Ghanaian Protestantism.
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. One of the earliest works of visual culture theory by an art historian.
  • Morgan, David. Protestants and Pictures. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A seminal cultural history of Protestant visual culture in nineteenthcentury America.
  • Morgan, David. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. A theoretical work about Protestant visual culture.
  • Morgan, David. The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. A theory of embodiment and seeing in religious visual culture.
  • Morgan, David, ed. Icons of American Protestantism: The Art of Warner Sallman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. An edited volume of essays about Protestant artist Warner Sallman and his iconic image Head of Christ.
  • Promey, Sally. Spiritual Spectacles: Vision and Image in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Shakerism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. An important study of visual culture among American Shakers.
  • Promey, Sally. “Pictorial Ambivalence and American Protestantism.” In Crossroads: Art and Religion in American Life, edited by Alberta Arthurs and Glenn Wallach, pp. 189–231. New York: The New Press, 2001. A brief historical survey of American Protestant attitudes toward images.
  • Promey, Sally, and David Morgan, eds. The Visual Culture of American Religions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. A diverse collection of historical essays about religious images in America.

Further Reading

  • Belting, Hans. An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011. An interdisciplinary theoretical investigation of the nature of images.
  • Engelke, Matthew. A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. An ethnography of Zimbabwean Protestants who do not read the Bible, focusing on the materiality of Protestant belief.
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. A collection of essays about visual culture theory by a leading art historian.
  • Wharton, Annabel Jane. Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. A history of the city of Jerusalem in Western visual culture.

A. T. Coates

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