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The Reformation of the Image

With his 95 Theses, Martin Luther advanced the radical notion that all Christians could enjoy a direct, personal relationship with God—shattering years of Catholic tradition and obviating the need for intermediaries like priests and saints between the individual believer and God. The text of the Bible, the Word of God itself, Luther argued, revealed the only true path to salvation—not priestly ritual and saintly iconography.

But if words—not iconic images—showed the way to salvation, why didn’t religious imagery during the Reformation disappear along with indulgences? The answer, according to Joseph Leo Koerner, lies in the paradoxical nature of Protestant religious imagery itself, which is at once both iconic and iconoclastic. Koerner masterfully demonstrates this point not only with a multitude of Lutheran images, many never before published, but also with a close reading of a single pivotal work—Lucas Cranach the Elder’s altarpiece for the City Church in Wittenberg (Luther’s parish). As Koerner shows, Cranach, breaking all the conventions of traditional Catholic iconography, created an entirely new aesthetic for the new Protestant ethos.

In the Crucifixion scene of the altarpiece, for instance, Christ is alone and stripped of all his usual attendants—no Virgin Mary, no John the Baptist, no Mary Magdalene—with nothing separating him from Luther (preaching the Word) and his parishioners. And while the Holy Spirit is nowhere to be seen—representation of the divine being impossible—it is nonetheless dramatically present as the force animating Christ’s drapery. According to Koerner, it is this "iconoclash" that animates the best Reformation art.

Insightful and breathtakingly original, The Reformation of the Image compellingly shows how visual art became indispensable to a religious movement built on words.

494 pages | 16 color plates, 260 halftones | 9-1/4 x 6-1/2 | © 2003

Art: European Art

History: European History

Religion: Christianity


"Koerner’s readings of Cranach’s art are unfailingly arresting and inventive . . . it is a long time since a work of art history has kept me so consistently reaching for a pencil to register ardent appreciation or violent dissent."

Eamon Duffy | London Review of Books

"A learned and penetrating inquiry into a central theme in Europe’s art history."

Alexander Murray | Times Literary Supplement

"[An] extraordinary study . . . it is a stupendous and persuasive piece of scholarship. . . . Nearly every page has some fresh insight, some novel information, some striking argument or surprising formulation."

Arthur C. Danto | Artforum

"Felicitous prose and subtle readings. Sixteenth-century Lutheran art and the iconoclastic momentum from which it emerged have found a fine interpreter in a work which sits happily on the cusp between the historical and the art historical."

Margaret Aspen | Apollo

"The most exciting book of art history I have read since Hans Belting’s magisterial 1993 study of religious icons in European culture, Likeness and Presence. What [Koerner] has accomplished in this marvelous book is to bring that religion to life again, and in the process make vivid the art that emerged from the critique of images that launched the Reformation."

Arthur C. Danto | The Nation

"Joseph Lee Koerner, arguably . . . the most thoughtful and informed art historian specializing in German art, has taken a step back . . . in order to become a champion of Lutheranism. In relic-crushing detail, Koerner seeks to persuade his readers that most of them need to rethink the Reformation."

Bruce Krajewski | Renaissance Quarterly

"Brilliantly structured, Keroner’s scholarship is all-encompassing ... This is essential reading for all those interested in the history of religion, art and society in early modern Germany."

Scotland on Sunday

"Those who have read [Koerner’s previous] volumes will not be surprised by the scholarship and sweeping scope of the current volume, a work that marks him as second to none in Reformation history."

John Dillenberger | Canadian Historical Review

“Most art-historical writing is framed either as interpretation, in search of meanings, or as explanation. . . . The Reformation of the Image is remarkable for using the interpretive mood for a case that might seem to invite explanation. And the outcome is resonant.”

Michael Baxandall | Common Knowledge

"Koerner has brought to academe an inestimably deeper understanding of Lutheran imagery, its genesis, complexity of purpose, and larger contribution to an emergent modern world of art. . . . Fundamental questions about the nature of art, about Reformation art, the end of art, the beginning of modern art, are found throughout this text and make for an inspiringly complex presentation of ideas."

Victoria George | The Art Book

"A brilliant book."

Peter Schjeldahl | New Yorker

Table of Contents

1. Ideas About the Thing
2. A Tragedy for Art?
3. Territorial Battles
4. Appropriations
5. A Reformation Altarpiece
Part I - Cleansing
6. Actions
7. Beliefs
8. Fictions
9. Communications
10. The Arrested Gesture
Part II - The Word
11. The Cross
12. The Outstretched Finger
13. A Hidden God?
14. Crude Painting
15. Preaching
16. Teaching
17. Ubiquity
Part III - Sacrament
18. From Custom to Rule
19. Behind the Mass
20. The Tables Turned
21. Ministry
22. Church Building
Photo Acknowledgements


Art and Christianity Enquiry: ACE/MERCERS Book Award

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