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Protestant Art, Catholic Setting: Is This Kosher?



William Newton - published on 03/31/16

Can the work of Protestant artists speak to pious Catholics?

If you happen to find yourself in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, you can see a rather grand monument to servant of God Pope Pius VII, whose cause for canonization was begun recently. The ensemble of sculpture and architectural elements is located in the Clementine Chapel, to the left as you proceed down the nave to the crossing, and features a statue of the pope seated on a throne, imparting his blessing upon the viewer. The pontiff is shown surrounded by figures of angels and allegorical figures who appear to be mourning his passing. The monument carries a rather somber, serious tone that perhaps reflects on how much this particular pope had to suffer at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Incidentally, this monument is the work of a Protestant — or to be more precise, it is the work of an Evangelical Lutheran by the name of Bertel Thorvaldsen, who was arguably the greatest Danish artist of all time.

Should Catholic publications resist using images by Protestant artists? Asked recently if I had a objection to a Holy Week article being illustrated with a Cranach the Elder painting of Christ crowned with thorns, I soundly admitted that I did — not because it was by a Protestant but because it was a bad painting. Personally, I have always found the work of the Cranachs, both father and son, to be grossly overrated and fundamentally unappealing, and there you are.

Google Art Project/Public Domain
Google Art Project/Public Domain

The Catholic Church, and Catholics in general, have often made use of Protestant religious imagery, as long as the imagery itself does not depart from Catholic theology. Images by Reformation-era artists such as Matthias Grünewald and Tilman Riemenschneider, who either became Protestants themselves or held Protestant sympathies, often appear on the covers of albums by Catholic choirs, for example. A reproduction of Hans Holbein the Younger’s magnificent “Portrait of Sir Thomas More” hangs in practically every Catholic law school on the planet, even though Holbein himself was a Protestant, and one who was directly involved in furthering the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.

Public Domain
Public Domain

Some years ago “The Supper at Emmaus” by Rembrandt, himself a nondenominational Protestant, appeared on the cover of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s book The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, while today a reproduction of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” features prominently on the set for The Journey Home on EWTN. Oh, and those posters of St. George and other knights in armor defending their ladies, as imagined by painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John William Waterhouse and others, the ones that you always find on the walls of conservative Catholic colleges? All of them are the work of Protestant artists.

The use of Protestant art in a Catholic setting can certainly be appropriate, provided that we actually take the time to think about what it is that we are looking at, instead of merely reacting to it. For example, the Danish Lutheran painter Carl Heinrich Bloch, in a cycle of paintings he made for the royal chapel of Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark, created images from the New Testament that, without your realizing it, are probably illustrating your Catholic prayer book or family Bible right now. His representation of The Resurrection, in particular, has become so popular as to be commonplace. In fact, there is a good chance that it was on the front page of your parish bulletin this Easter Sunday.

Public Domain
Public Domain

Among Bloch’s religious images, I have always particularly loved his painting of “The Visitation.” In it, a very young and beautiful Virgin Mary is shown arriving at the home of her cousin St. Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judea. Bloch has shown us that moment in time just after the Blessed Mother called out to St. Elizabeth, to let her know of her arrival, and the unborn St. John the Baptist has leapt in his mother’s womb for joy. St. Elizabeth has thrown her arms wide as she prepares to embrace her younger cousin, crying out, “Blessed are you among women!” as the younger woman mounts the stairs. It is not only a beautiful picture to look at, showing the love between these two women, it is also a wonderful image upon which to ponder and meditate, when reflecting on the Incarnation or praying the joyful mysteries of the rosary.

To dismiss, out of hand, the use of a piece of religious art in a Catholic publication simply because it is the work of a Protestant is to display one’s ignorance. While the history of Protestantism in art is too complicated a subject to cover in a single piece, the examples considered above are but a few of the many instances in which, down the centuries, Catholics have employed works of Protestant art in Catholic settings or projects to good effect, inspiring pious reflection among the Catholic faithful.

But Cranach is still a terrible painter, and so is his son.

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