In Hegel’s formidable system of aesthetics, fine art fulfills its highest calling when “it has placed itself in the same sphere as religion and philosophy.” Philosophy, religion and fine art are modes of what Hegel called Absolute Spirit, by which he meant that each in its different way is capable of expressing “the deepest interests of mankind, and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit.” Despite his exalted view of art, Hegel felt that humankind had begun to outgrow it, and that it no longer provided “that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it.” Thus he spoke grandly of the End of Art, which meant, in the long history of antagonism between philosophy and art, that a philosopher had once again found a way of putting art out of the way. Plato notoriously consigned art to the realm of shadows and illusions, and found no place for artists in the ideal society. Hegel, for his part, thought art belonged in the museum, where it would do no harm and function as an object for historical research. Since it is limited to the senses, Hegel argued, art is philosophy’s inferior when it comes to addressing the ultimate issues of being.
Much the same iconophobia inflected religion’s attitude toward art in the West, beginning with the Second Commandment, which assumes that we are unable to visualize things without worshiping the images. It was the genius of Catholicism to find a way of incorporating the impulse to visualize by monopolizing the production and use of images, which then made images natural targets for that religion’s critics. Iconoclasm–literally, the destruction of images–was a natural first impulse of church reform. “Church pictures,” Joseph Leo Koerner writes, “were accused of exciting idolatry, breaking the biblical law against graven images and ignoring the early Christian martyrs’ repudiation of pagan effigies.” Koerner’s subject, in this remarkable study, is “the reformation of the image”–how the artists of the Reformation, working closely with its thinkers, managed to reconfigure the devotional image to suit the needs of their religion, when the initial impulse was simply to cleanse the churches of painting and sculpture. They did this by effectively turning religious images into “visual equivalents of confessional texts.” The history of art in sixteenth-century Germany could have become “a story of the image’s annihilation.” Instead it became the story of the image’s transformation into something that did exactly what Hegel prescribed for art “in its highest vocation,” namely to situate art in “the same sphere as religion and philosophy.” Far from being limited to the senses, the art of the Reformation probed the deepest questions of human life. The art was intended to be read, one might say, rather than merely looked at or worshiped. It showed what the reformers, and most particularly Martin Luther, said. It mirrored devotional practice.
Koerner concentrates on two Reformation altarpieces. One is by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Wittenberg, which commemorates and portrays Luther twice, as he would still have been remembered by the congregation that worshiped in his church. The other is Heinrich Göding’s Mühlberg Altarpiece of 1568. Both of these extraordinary works were unknown to me, as I dare say they will be to most readers of this book. I knew of Cranach, but mostly from his earlier paintings of luminous undulating goddesses, whose luscious bodies are revealed through diaphanous garments fluttering against black Mannerist backgrounds. These hardly prepared me for a work as complex as his Wittenberg Altarpiece, let alone the Mühlberg Altarpiece, one of the most amazing works I have ever encountered. It is amazing because it manages to be art, philosophy and religion all at once. It fuses verbal and pictorial meaning in such a way that members of the congregation would be able to grasp, in a single visual experience, what they needed to know in order to see what they believed and understand what they saw.