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The Protestant aesthetics in art of German and Dutch painters of XVI-XVII centuries


The Protestant aesthetics in art of German and Dutch painters of XVI-XVII centuries

Dear colleagues and guests of the conference! As you know, the Reformation became the event, which was beyond the borders of theology. The Reformation had a great influence on the history of culture. Its contribution to cultural development is huge, and it is traced in the history of literature and languages, history of music, and of course in the history of art. I would like to tell how the Reformation created new thinking in the field of culture and art. Ideas of the Reformation inspired German artists, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht DQrer. In the XVII century Dutch artists under the influence of Protestant ideas had made the cultural breakthrough, which later called the Golden Age of the Dutch painting.

Protestants believed that the Reformation gave the impulse for development of creativity and ingenuity. It helped a European man to leave the dark centuries of medieval Catholicism, which was associated with ignorance. Somehow, the Reformation was intellectual revolution resulted in the reformation of mind.

Almost all cultural phenomena of that time occurred under the Reformation influence. And not least, it applied painting and fine arts. Basically «art reformation», was a new view on a church, especially on its internal interior. Martin Luther did not deny religious art in churches when it considered ornament and did not become an idolatry subject [1]. The first changes in an art paradigm happened in alma mater of the Reformation, in Wittenberg Stadtkirche. The matter concerns the altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach the Elder is famous for his portraiture. He was the author of the well-known portraits of Martin Luther, his wife Katharina von Bora, his parents Hans and Margarethe, Philip Melanchthon. His portraits are gorgeous examples of Danube school of art, which was the top achievement of the Northern Renaissance ideas in Germany. Besides the Gothicism, the Reformation and Protestantism became the spiritual basis of the Northern Renaissance in Germany since the second quarter of the XVI century. The Cranach’s altarpiece represented a new paradigm in church painting, influenced by Reformation ideas. Unlike Catholic

altarpieces, Cranach’s altarpiece has no portraits of the saints. In the lower painting, we can see Luther’s preaching for parishioners. In the center of the painting is Crucifixion, this is the artistic realization of one of the Reformation doctrines "Sola Christus”. In the central painting there is the Last Supper, where Martin Luther holding a Chalice is painted among apostles. It symbolizes the Protestant innovation — the Eucharist including unleavened wafers and wine. Albrecht DQrer was another German artist represented the idea of the Eucharist including unleavened wafers and wine in his engraving "Last Supper". This engraving shows that DQrer was solidary with the Protestants about the Eucharist question.

It is known that DQrer was enthusiastic about the ideas of the Reformation He had personal meeting with Luther, and even presented him some engravings [2, p. 104]. Luther’s doctrine exempted DQrer from "the great fear". He died as a "good Lutheran". Being the Catholic, DQrer as nobody else brought spirit of pagan antiquity to the Northern Renaissance. His conversion to Lutheran changed his art thematically and stylistically. He almost stopped painting the secular scenes, except scientific illustrations, notes of travelers and portraits. DQrer refused "decorative style", paying more attention to religious themes. Lyrical and mystical elements gave the way to spiritual courage in the images of apostles, evangelists and Christ’s sufferings. His style was transformed from dazzling magnificence and freedom to restrained but surprisingly expressive simplicity [1].

Anyway, the influence of the Reformation on fine arts can be more brightly seen in Dutch painting of the XVII century. When we talk about Netherlands we mean Republic of the Seven United Provinces. The birth of the Republic was indissolubly connected with Protestantism. That period in the cultural history of the Netherlands is called the Golden Age of the Dutch painting. It has the impress of Reformation. As it is known the vast majority of Dutch people in the XVII century were followers of Calvinism. Unlike Luther, Calvin had more radical view about church art. Such phenomenon as iconoclasm was widespread in the Calvinist countries. Destruction of church icons in the Northern Europe was the large-scale phenomenon and many paintings were simply destroyed. At the same time some paintings were taken out from churches to rescue and were placed in beautiful halls later.

Protestants changed the place of storage for paintings or sculptures which were transferred from a church to a museum. But they lost their sacral meaning there and became simply a work of art. Most of Catholics and Orthodox Christians pray looking at icons. Protestants consider icons as just pictures, and do not consider it is necessary to look at icons during a prayer. Many experts hold the opinion, that museums got the modern look thanks to the Reformation. The concept of the museum as the empty room to exhibit various objects appeared after the Reformation, so the different paintings and sculptures no having related to religion anymore were the first exhibits in such rooms. First museums and first private collections appeared in Northern Europe were formed thereby. For example, the formation of the famous Wallace Collection in London is closely connected with the history of the Reformation. The collection includes many icons and church sculptures which were rescued in the period of iconoclasm. Inside the protestant churches the word won against the image.

Soon museums and private collections were filled with the new exhibits. Secular painting was widespread and developed in the Netherlands. Protestants expanded the borders of preaching outside the church walls. Protestants helped people to realize that worshipping was not only on a Sunday mass with the aid of priest’s prayers, but in every day and every minute, with the aid of own faith.

Art experts agree about the opinion that the key moment in development of the Dutch painting was a change of a customer. With the change of a customer the requirements to art changed. During Catholicism era, the Roman Church was the main customer of paintings. Works ordered by Church were usually on religious themes. Reformed church did not need the same paintings. The growth of a number of successful prosperous citizens caused the increase in demand for works of art. Sculpture fell into decay because church had no necessary for it any more. Moreover, it would take too much living space in private houses. Therefore, the oil painting reached impressive development. The addiction of a new class of customers, which was formed by Calvinist doctrines and by spirit of the independent Republic, became the reason to change the theme of painting. Portraits of kings, the Greek-Roman mythology, icons of saints were not interesting for independent Dutch people. Religious art did not disappear in the Netherlands, but ceased being a dominating genre. It opened ways for new genres.

Instead of paintings on religious themes, protestant artists began to paint household scenes, portraits, still lifes. Protestant painters separated art from religion and laid a foundation for modern secular culture. Dutch artists began to derive inspiration for paintings not from biblical scenes as painters in the Middle Ages did it, and not in antiquity as Renaissance painters did, but from the world around them, and from ordinary life. It is the distinctive feature of the Dutch Golden Age painting. It took place because all kinds of human activity were filled by Protestants with religious sense. Luther and Calvin often wrote about the vocation. Work and labor are vocations for each person. Everyone was predetermined for performance of the suitable work in concordance with their talents. Luther said that best pray is a work [3, с. 175]. John Calvin’s work ethic filled everyday work with religious sense. It changed social attitude to work. It created a concept of rational vital behavior, based on idea of professional vocation [4, с. 218]. Conscientious performance of work was conscientious performance of task, which was given by God. Work and faith were inseparable.

Changes in social attitude to work would not be impossible without the doctrine of predestination widespread among Calvinists. The doctrine transferred the answer to the difficult question about man’s salvation to absolute solution of God. An average man did not need to be tormented with guesses how to search a way to salvation anymore. As a result, a man could focus on the professional improvement. It is also necessary to say about such new doctrine as the universal priesthood or the priesthood of all believers. This doctrine yielded two very important results. First, ordinary people began to take part in church management. Secondly, work of ordinary people became not less significant than work of priests or kings. Not only work of clergy, but also work of each believer was equally pleasing to God.

If we take it into consideration, we can understand why Protestant painters derived inspiration from ordinary life. They saw religious motives, where a modern man will be able to see only a secular scene. The Lace-Maker by Caspar Netscher (1662) is a good example of a new religious and social values, is. It is the beautiful painting, partly because it painted with the Protestant aesthetics. The room with empty plastered walls, and very modest interior, which reminds the bleached churches of the post-iconoclastic period of Protestantism. The mollusc shell lying on a floor is the symbol of lust, one of seven deadly sins. The mollusc shell painted in the corner of picture, and girl does not look on it, she works diligently. It symbolizes moral purity of the Protestant girl, her indifference to carnal joys.

Of course, the legacy of Dutch Golden Age consist not only Netscher’s works. Jan Vermeer, Cornelis Troost, Frans Hals became the famous Dutch painters. Probably the best-known painter of that time is Rembrandt. On examples of his works, we can see a new purpose of religious painting. His painting Pilgrims at Emmaus (1648) represented a biblical scene, but was not intended for church. The purpose of this painting is calling thoughts about God and divine. Another Rembrandt’s painting Holy Family (1645) shows the shift of accents. Josef is working. Dutch painters were one of the first who began to depict the working people. They were the first who tried to combine labor and faith in own paintings according to Calvinist work ethics. Rembrandt created many another paintings which have to be mentioned here. In some Rembrandt’s paintings, the influence of Reformation's ideas is obvious. In The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669) the prodigal son is painted kneeling, back to a viewer. A viewer stood "in turn" for forgiveness of Father. In The Raising of the Cross (1633) Rembrandt represented himself among people crucifying Jesus. It emphasizes realizing of own fault in Christ’s death, and God's grace which extend on sinners of all times and nations. Not without reason Pharisees and soldiers are dressed in clothes of different eras and cultures [5].

On the other hand, the Calvinist principle of the absolute sovereignty of God the Creator and domination of His rules not only in church sphere but in all spheres of life moved Dutch Protestants to re-understanding the place of the surrounding nature in their life. The world is beautiful because was created by God. Some Calvinist theologians claimed that God gave for us two books, two revelations about Himself: a Book of the nature and Books of the Bible [6, с. 23]. As a result, we may see the impressive landscape paintings of Dutch artists which emphasizing harmony of the God’s world. The history of culture obliged to the Netherlands for consecutive and systematic development of landscape painting.

Influence of the Protestant vital principles can be seen in the group portraits. First, it was the aftermath of doctrine of universal priesthood. Secondly, it emphasized collective spirit. Calvinists put spirit of a community in the forefront. The earliest work in this genre is the painting of Dirck Jacobsz Group Portrait of the Amsterdam Shooting Corporation (1532). Usually in such paintings were represented members of some weapon guild. But not all paintings represented military people. Often the successful people wanted to depict themselves among equals. That returns us to installations of Protestant work and professional ethics. In such paintings work as vocation is the inner content. Also in composition of the painting works the principle of the equal importance. Chiefs and subordinated are painted together but not separately, everybody is equally important.

It is necessary to say about such genre as 'Vanitas'. 'Vanitas' painting was widespread in the Netherlands during the XVI-XVII centuries, especially in Leiden and Haarlem. It is essentially a religious works in the guise of a still life. The main object of the 'Vanitas' still lifes is a skull, as the representation of idea about vanity and transience of human life. Let us look at the Pieter Claesz's 'Vanitas' (1625) still life to realize the symbolism of 'Vanitas' objects. Besides a skull Pieter Claesz painted: a rotten fruit - the symbol of aging, a withering flower - the symbol of frailness, a burning-down candle - the symbol of soul, a mirror - the symbol of egoism and narcissism. A feather — the symbol of knowledge and literacy, a keys - the symbol of thrift. Dutch artists made such paintings for warning against the vanities of life and representation of the Calvinist morality of the day [7, с. 44].

The paradigm of style of the Dutch painters went out of the historical Netherlands and the XVII century. For example French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin lived in XVIII cenrtury. Chardin’s contemporaries spoke about him as the successor of tradition of the Dutch masters of a still life and household scenes of XVII century.

Thus, it is possible to draw the conclusion how the confessional culture of Protestantism influenced on the development of painting in Germany and the Netherlands. Reformation had an impact on the works of Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht DQrer. When Cranach and DQrer became Protestants, they began to paint in a different way, having planned a new line in development of German painting. In Germany art helped to bring the Reformation’s ideas for simple people. In the XVII century in the Netherlands, the paradigm of cultural development and art changed thanks to the Reformation. Inspired by the Protestant ideas Dutch artists created masterpieces of art. In some sense Calvinism formed the national character of Dutch people including their attitude to art and culture. The love of Dutch people to simplicity, restraint, modesty and diligence of them is visually shown in paintings of artists of the XVII century. Of course, cultural uplift of the Netherlands happened thanks to many factors besides the Reformation: lack of wars, and connected with trade development material welfare of most of citizens. But it is possible to tell with confidence that Dutch culture and Protestantism are intertwined very closely. It can be seen in widespread museums and private collections and in development of such genres as still life, landscape painting, group portrait and household scenes. A working man who was the artistic realization of the Calvinist vital principle of the secular asceticism became the main object of paintings. It is possible to say that in essence Dutch art was Protestant art. The Protestantism should be realized in a cultural context, because even Catholic Jan Vermeer represented Protestant aesthetics. The Dutch artists were from Protestant society. In Protestant society dominated such values as general work duty and equality of all before God. And artists represented the same values on paintings. Undoubtedly public life had bore the impress of Calvinism at that time [8, с. 80]. Painting became an obligatory element of citizen house interior, took a role of "deputy" of religious images. A man of XVII century cannot live in a house without paintings on the walls, which represented the grace of God, vanity of life and eternal truth [9, с. 223].

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Соловьёв Э.Ю. Непобеждённый еретик. Мартин Лютер и его время. - М.: Молодая гвардия, 1984

Барон Й. Российское лютеранство: история, теология, актуальность. - СПб.: Алетейя, 2011

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Бегичев П.А. Влияние протестантизма на искусство. Эл. публикация: www.protestant.ru/konfessii/denominations/history/protestantism-v-rossii-i- mire/istoria/article/90826

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Никифорова Л.В. Феномен голландской живописи XVII столетия // Мировая художественная культура в памятниках: Учебное пособие. - 2-е издание, испр. и доп. - СПб.: Изд-во РГПУ им. А.И. Герцена, 2012


Alexander Shipilov





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