Calvin and Art: Considered in Relation to Scotland. By M. P. Ramsay, MA. ,(Aber deen); Doct. de l'Univ. (Paris). (The Moray Press, 2s.) Reviewed by PETER F. ANSON.
I feel ashamed to confess that I often wish I had the courage to go round some of our churches and smash images. I regret that sometimes I find myself in wholehearted agreement with John Calvin, who wrote in one of the chapters of his Institutes that " tlw pictures and images that the Papists dedicate to saints, what are they but examples of extreme riot and uncleanness, whereunto if any should fashion himself he were worthy to be beaten with staves?"
Miss Ramsay has made an exhaustive study of the works of Calvin, and one gets the impression from reading this erudite little book that it is quite possible that Calvin's violent antipathy to all forms of ecclesiastical art, especially representations of the Deity and saints, may have been due very largely to his own sensitiveness to beauty as well as to an intensely logical French mind. He repudiated the use of images because he found them frequently ill-chosen or even indecent, and because they distracted attention which should be wholly concentrated on the Word of God and the special ceremonies He has ordained, quite apart from leading to the worse offence of diverting to images the worship God alone must receive.
Calvin did not forget that it is a saying more common among the people, that images are lay men's books. Gregory said so, but the spirit of God pronounceth far otherwise, in whose school if Gregory had been taught, he would never so have spoken."
He considered "for what use temples are ordained" and came to the conclusion that "it is very ill beseeming the holiness thereof to receive any other images than these lively and natural images which the Lord by His word hat!? consecrated. I mean baptism and the Lord's Supper, and other ceremonies wherewith our eyes ought both more earnestly to be occupied and more lively to be moved. than that they should need any other images framed by the wit of man."
An austere doctrine, and one which in one blow divorced an from being the handmaid of the Christian religion as it had been for over a thousand years. What was the ultimate effect of Calvin's teaching on art?
In the Netherlands it led to an astonishing outburst of purely secular art. In Switzerland one finds few examples of any form of art produced by Calvinists. In France quite a number of secular painters were followers of Calvin. But Scotland fared worse than any other nation in Europe which fell under his influence.
Miss Ramsay maintains that this is not due so much to Calvinism itself but to the unsettled state of the country, and was much more social and political than religious in its origin. She proves to us that portrait and landscape painting in Scotland owe much to the patronage of Presbyterian ministers and lairds, noting how Calvinism did not prevent rich Glasgow merchants from collecting pictures.
Yet, in spite of her zeal for Calvinism as a system of theology and her deep understanding and appreciation of every aspect of beauty, she leaves us with a sense of bitter regret and sorrow that for over three centuries there has been no religious art in Scotland. We can only hope that she is right in her surmise that the modern " revival of interest in Calvin's interpretation of the Christian Revelation, and the stirrings of a reawakened nationalism throughout Scotland " may go hand in hand with a new expansion in our artistic life.