Calvin, Renaissance Art, and Nakedness

A while ago I wrote an article at Reformation21 on “Art, Nakedness and Redemption.” Prepping for a class lecture on the theology of Calvin, I came across these great quotes from Calvin in his Institutes on the functions and limits of art, with allusion to nakedness in art:

“I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking that absolutely no images are permissable [ie. outside of the worship life of the church]. But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things which the Lord have conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also be turned to our destruction…”

Calvin goes on to praise art which legitimately instructs and brings pleasure to the viewer; at the same time he is not hesitant to reaffirm the limits of what is pure and legitimate in art by critiquing the contrary. Calvin’s response to at least a sector of Italian Renaissance art connects with the case against nakedness in art. Turning to discuss the place of paintings of “images and forms of bodies” in the Roman church, he takes particular note of

“how wickedly and indecently the greater part of them have been fashioned, how licentiously the painters and sculptors have played the wanton here – a matter that I touched on a little earlier.”

The comment from a little earlier:

“The pictures or statues that they dedicate to saints – what are they but examples of the most abandoned lust and obscenity? If anyone wished to model himself after them, he would be fit for the lash. Indeed, brothels show harlots clad more virtuously and modestly than churches show those objects which they wish to be thought images of virgins. For martyrs they fashion a habit not a whit more decent.”

Calvin, Institutes, book I, ch. XI, 7-9. [1559]