Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Reformation of the Image” (2008)

Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (U Chicago, 2008)

Ostensibly, Koerner’s enormous book is “about” an altarpiece painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder for Martin Luther’s parish in Wittenberg (1547). But this book offers far, far more than a history of one painting. Koerner offers a thorough examination of how images changed during the Reformation, how what people thought about images and did with images changed during the Reformation, and how the Reformation happened in images. He begins by noting that art historians have given short shrift to Protestant painting during the Reformation. If Protestants appear at all in histories of this period, they do so as iconoclastic villains. Cranach, whose career straddled the crucial years of Luther’s reforms, is said to have “declined” in genius when making his Protestant paintings—their clear messages and inclusion of texts too didactic to be great art. Rather than join the chorus of detractors, Koerner follows his sources carefully. He not only discovers that Protestants made images as much as they destroyed them, but that the question of images stood at the center of the Reformation. Early Protestants made images to demonstrate the impotence of images; they made images to show the power of the word, the invisibility of the true church, and the transcendence of God. While some radical reformers wanted to abolish images altogether, Martin Luther realized that doing so actually acknowledged the power of images. After all, if images don’t pose a threat, there’s no reason to destroy them. Instead, Luther thought that images could become vehicles to show the power of the Word alone, to reveal the inadequacy of mediations of the Word. By creating images to convey these ideas, Koerner argues, Protestants actually helped to create a recognizably modern understanding of “art”—in particular, the “art” of art historians, who will write endlessly about the meaning of an image, simultaneously declaring that the best works do not convey obvious meanings.

There’s far too much in this book to treat in a short blog post—one reviewer calls it “biblical” in length. So take my comments for what they are and read the thing yourself: it’s worth the effort. Koerner sheds important light on the material processes by which “religious belief” took shape in the modern world. Iconoclastic Protestants radically “linguistified” the sacred, which was “formerly manifested objectively, in special elevated things, places, persons and institutions” (151-152). Where before the actions of the church and her officers held efficacy by divine right, individuals now had to believe, to reveal understanding of the saving Word. The site of sacred action moved from objects to the subjects, to “the language-based activity of understanding and being understood” (152). For Luther, the preacher reads the Word, which reveals the image of Christ crucified, which brings saving grace to the listener who understands (see image above). Even in the most extreme cases, such as Karlstadt’s iconoclasm, “belief” did not just play out on the level of minds and spirits. Things, images, buildings, practices, techniques of the body allowed “belief” to emerge.

By A.T. Coates