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The Reformers and Art in Christian Devotion


*First published in WTB, Nov 2017; lightly revised and reprinted Sep 2021


One mark that separated the German and Swiss Reformations was their distinctive approaches toward religious art. It is often thought that Martin Luther was more congenial toward church art. John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, on the other hand, regarded the use of art in worship as damaging. It is this “iconoclastic” posture that obliterated art in the medieval cathedrals and allowed no room for a spirituality of images in the Reformed tradition.

Were one to read the magisterial Reformers’ approach to art as a 16th century reiteration of the 8th century Byzantine iconoclasm would be quite inaccurate, if not misleading. Perhaps, it is better to understand the debates over religious art during the Reformation as “iconoclash,” namely, “a clash between and about (the use of) of images” among the many individuals and parties.1

Iconoclasm, which involved the rejection of physical images and their claim to represent the divine was just the most radical reaction among the different types of iconoclash. Even within the ambit of the so-called Protestant iconoclasm, “it is one thing to preach against images, and quite another thing to smash an altarpiece.”2

With that caveat in mind, how different were Calvin and Luther on this question?


Luther on Art and Images

LutherIn 1521-22, when Luther was seeking refuge in Wartburg Castle, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt became the interim reformer in Wittenberg. There, he gave permission for people to go into an iconoclastic spree. Windows and doors with images, statues, altars with carvings, were all destroyed.

Luther came out of hiding and preached against such violence. He said that idolatry was, firstly, a matter of the heart. And since that was the case, it should be destroyed by the work of the Word and the power of the Gospel. Physical breaking of the images does not and cannot solve the problem of idolatry.

Karlstad eventually became involved in the Radical Reformation. With Thomas Münzer and the Anabaptists, their iconoclasm eventually led to the rejection of infant baptism, the sacraments, and the office of the pastor in the church.

What was Luther’s stance on images and art? For him, images are spiritually neutral things (adiaphora). It is not whether they are by nature good or bad, the value of art is to be judged based on use.3 Two examples of misuse would be: (1) when images of Mary are worshipped; and, (2) when church furniture is donated in order to accrue merit from God. The first is idolatry, the second works righteousness. But misuse of images also occurs when one destroys images violently as Karlstad did.

According to Luther, concepts as well as images help our understanding. He did not reject crucifixes and even encouraged a dying person to hold one to be strengthened in faith by the crucified Christ.4 In his morning and evening prayers, Luther genuflected and signed the cross.

For Luther, images of saints are permissible as reminders of the person, like the image of Caesar on a coin. As long as one does not make images of God and worship them, a “holy image” is not forbidden. Images of saints and Mary are not merely to be tolerated but act as memorials and witnesses. They are “praiseworthy and honorable.”5


Calvin on Art and Music

Calvin had a narrower range of spiritually neutral things (adiaphora), which made his approach towards the use of art in worship more cautious than Luther’s. When it came to music, Calvin saw the power of music to “move the heart” to good or evil. It follows that music must be strictly regulated so that it is useful and does not become “pernicious.” For him, worship is not a means to another end. We don’t worship to evangelize, entertain, or even educate. It is an end because in worship we meet God Himself.

Worship and salvation are critical to biblical Christianity and they are interlinked.  “Surely the first foundation of righteousness,” Calvin says, “is the worship of God.”6 Since the end of salvation is to restore our fellowship with God, worship of God expresses this reality the most. That is why our handling of music must be done with care.

How do we regulate worship? Only by obeying what God has sanctioned in His Word. In worship, obedience to the Word is critical. For Calvin, truth is more important than sincerity of heart. And since our hearts and minds are like workplaces for idolatry, we must be careful to uproot all seeds of lies from our mind since it is such a fertile ground for self-deception. According to Calvin, “every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.”7

We must, therefore, differentiate between music used at home and in public. Around our dinner tables, we can sing to entertain. But in church, music must “neither be light nor frivolous.”8 Although we reverence God in our worship, this doesn’t mean that music is to be dour and serious all the time. We should use the full range of our emotions when we relate to God. But we do everything in moderation.9

Then, there is simplicity, which Calvin considered to be very closely linked to spirituality. That is why showmanship and ostentation are to be avoided. We emphasize the spiritual because of the primacy of faith, and we don’t cater to the flesh. Calvin regarded the use of musical instruments and complex music, like Gregorian chants in the medieval church, as corruptions of simple New Covenant worship.

Worship in the Old Testament, with the use of harps and other musical instruments, was God’s accommodation toward Israel. Just like the ceremonial laws, Israel would eventually be weaned from the public use of instruments.10 For the church, we are not to use instruments in worship and should sing a capella.

For Calvin, singing the Psalms was pure worship, as the early church and the Fathers practiced this. There are two kinds of public prayer: word and song. Augustine remarked that when we sing the Psalter, we actually pray twice. When the Psalms are sung, “we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.”11   

Calvin recognized that we are integrated beings and that our inwardness toward God must be expressed through our outward devotion. But he was deeply suspicious of human desires and instincts due to the corruption of sin. And so we must adhere closely to Scripture for the right ways of worship. This is the rule that guides and disciplines our wayward thoughts, desires, and emotions as we relate to God. Calvin does not elevate spirit over body, but he is careful that our fallen soul and flesh are regulated so that our worship to God is pure. What characterizes pure, spiritual worship?


Is There a Reformed Aesthetic?



When we enter a Reformed church where the walls are totally white and the sun shines through clear glass without a single crucifix in view, we are struck by the emptiness of the place. Yet, this is not just a negative experience. It is not merely nothingness.

The interior of a white Reformed church is positively attractive. White churches are beautiful because they gleam and shine as sunshine spills through the windows into the interior, and the white walls contrast with the dark pews, railings and floor. In 1524, after the churches had been stripped and painted white, Zwingli declared, “The walls are beautifully white!”

At face value, we can appreciate the Reformed move of whitewashing murals, decorations, and art on walls as a response to the excesses of color, details, and embellishment, which detracted from true worship. The cynic might say that whitewashing was the most practical way to erase existing images in churches. Painting over was and still is fast and cheap.

But whitewashing was not just a knee-jerk reaction by the Reformers. There are deep beliefs that are expressed through the Reformed aesthetic. Whitewashed walls in a church do two things. The first, obviously, is to cover over existing images, whether carved or painted. So, the negative use of whitewashing is to remove and so deny images any religious use. Whitewashing means: God is God, and we are not. He is beyond all things created. Just as silence may mark the mystery of God, so emptiness points to the same truth. God is transcendent.

But Reformed walls are not just blank; they are also whitewashed. Whitewashing is also a positive experience, where one experiences an abundance of white. A natural analogy to this is waking up to the first snowfall of the season. Is it not a beautiful encounter when a blanket of white covers the world around us – roofs, trees, field, and roads? Similarly, watching a Charlie Chaplin movie doesn’t just negate the Dolby surround sound and Technicolor we are so used to. With some sensory adjustment, one soon appreciates the beauty of silence and black-and-white visuals.

Strictly speaking (at least in physics), white is not a color but contains all colors. Theologically, white is the best way to represent the divine light. And what is the divine light? It is God’s holiness and purity, and there is a beauty to it. Whitewashing symbolizes God as Spirit – pure, unpolluted, spirituality.12 The clear windows panes in a Reformed house of worship express this more literally.13

Protestant whitewashing is not just a painting over but a way of painting. This sort of Reformed aesthetic evolved and became known as the plain style, which highlights clarity and simplicity. Beauty is not just about the abundance of details, decoration, and colors but can also be found in clarity and contrast.14


God-Made and Man-Made Images

Calvin’s approach to art must be seen in the light of his affirmation of the good creation and its capacity to point to God. The natural world is the theatre of God’s glory. But we can only truly and rightly see God’s glory through the lenses or spectacles of God’s Word.

Good food, we can agree with Calvin, delights our taste buds and makes us happy. Flowers and fruits look and smell good. Apart from necessity, clothes also have the purpose of “comeliness and decency.” Why would God create beautiful things and make it unlawful for us to enjoy beauty? Didn’t God make things “attractive” and not just for “necessary use”?15

So, Calvin does not deny that natural creation, with its shapes, colors and materiality, could convey truths about God. When we wear our theological lenses and look at nature, they become living images. But he was much more suspicious about art or man-made things in conveying truths about God, for they are apt to be dead images. 16

If our minds, as he says, are like factories of idols, what more when we apply our imaginations to material things? Because of his deep ambivalence toward the fallen human nature, and in view of the excesses of art and images in the medieval church, Calvin was wary of representational art in church worship and teaching.

So, Calvin distinguishes God-made images from man-made images. In Christian worship, nature provides us with a host of living images; art is likely to proffer dead images. Although public art was removed from churches and urban spaces, there was still a place for religious art. That place is the home.

The magisterial Reformers – both German and Swiss – followed their medieval forebears in producing printed visuals in devotional materials and Bibles. With the printing presses, the reach of this art form grew exponentially. We might say that art in the churches found its way into the homes of ordinary folk.17

Illustrated images made church art portable, mobile, economical and accessible. (Perhaps, a contemporary parallel would be the evolution and miniaturisation of the mainframe computer into the mobile phone.) Through illustrated Bibles, art contributed to the personal growth and piety of the Protestant believer. When image and Word speak with one voice, even our fallen imagination can be purified. In this, Luther and Calvin were both on the same page.



      1 Introduction to Willem J. van Asselt et al., eds., Iconoclasm and Iconoclash: Struggle for Religious Identity, vol. 14, Jewish and Christian Perspectives Series, 1388-2074 (Leiden: Brill, 2007)., 4.

      2 C.M.N. Eire, War Against the Idols. The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, (Cambridge 1986), 105, as cited in Willem J. van Asselt, “The Prohibition of Images and Protestant Identity,” in Iconoclasm and Iconoclash: Struggle for Religious Identity, ed. Willem J. van Asselt et al., vol. 14, Jewish and Christian Perspectives Series, 1388-2074 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 299–312.

      3 Christopher Weimer, “Luther and Cranach on Justification in Word and Image,” in Timothy J. Wengert, ed., The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology, Lutheran Quarterly Books (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2009)., 292-309.

      4 Luther, Sermons of John, chs. 1-4, 1539; LW 22:147.

      5 Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW 40:91-96

      6 W. Robert Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2009)., 77.

      7 Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Corpus Reformatorum, 48.562, in Godfrey., 79n30.

      8 John Calvin, “Preface,” Genevan Psalter, 3, in Godfrey., 76n17.

      9 Calvin, Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses, Vol. 3, 346 (on Exodus 32:19), as cited in Godfrey., 84n47.

      10 Calvin appealed to 1 Cor 14:13 to argue for the banning of musical instruments in public worship.

      11 Godfrey, John Calvin., 74n9.

      12 Scripture teaches us that God is Light, and in Jesus “was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

      13 Victoria Ann George, Whitewash and the New Aesthetic of the Protestant Reformation (London: Pindar Press, 2012).

      14 Some forms of modern architecture and art are secular expressions of this Reformed aesthetic.

      15 Calvin, Inst. III.x.2, as cited in Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)., 70.

      16 Randall Zachmann, Image and Word in the Theology of John Calvin (Notre Dame Press, 2007).

      17 Not all but no longer to the rich patrons, but also “well-to-do peasants, shoemakers, weavers.” See Lee Palmer Wandel, Always among Us: Images of the Poor in Zwingli’s Zurich (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).,78.

      Contributor: Tan Seng Kong
      Presented by:  BGST