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The Hidden God: Image and Interdiction in the Netherlands in the Sixteenth Century

Freedberg, David A.

The sixteenth century was an age of lconoclasm. Never since the eighth and ninth centuries had images been subjected to so concerted an onslaught as in the century of Raphael and Titian, Durer and Bruegel. Protestant theologians attacked the validity of art itself, and attempted to restnct or redefine its uses. A few wished to do away with all representational images, but the majority were specifically concerned with religious art. Catholic theologians sprang to the defence of images, using arguments which had been forged in the great Byzantine controversy as well as by authorities who ranged from Gregory the Great to Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure.' But art was not simply a theological matter, and the use of images was criticized and mocked in countless plays, poems and satires, both m Latin and in the vernacular. Whether spurred on by the symbolic connotations of particular images, or by the wealth they represented, or even by the theological arguments, everywhere men assaulted the images about them. Nowhere did they do so more spectacularly than in the Netherlands in 1566. There iconoclasm raged from the South of Flanders to the farthest regions of Friesland, before burning itself out, all in the space of a few weeks. These are all matters which I have dealt with at some length elsewhere, here the aim is to examine at closer quarters some of the interdictions and prohibitions which arose in the course of the debate about images and as a result of the great iconoclastic outbursts, and then to ask what both phenomena reveal about the status of images in the sixteenth century.

'If any abuses creep into these holy and salutary practices, the Holy Synod firmly desires that they be eradicated forthwith.' Thus began the section of the Council of Trent's decree on images."* Although the decree is one of the best known documents in the history of sixteenth-century art, not all of its implications for the history of images have been explored. It was only passed at the final session of the Council, just before Chnstmas 1563, when the Church's need to formulate an official stand on art had become crucially apparent, not only in the face of ever-mounting criticism, but also as a result of recent outbreaks of iconoclasm in France.* The first half of the decree consisted of d highly traditional justification of religious imagery, but it is the second half that we must consider now. There were to be no images of false dogma, the decree insisted, lest the faithful — and especially the illiterate faithful — be led into dangerous erro'. All superstition was to be eradicated in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics and the use of images; all improper financial gain eliminated; and all lasciviousness avoided. Images were neither to be painted nor adorned with seductive charm. The celebration of saints' days and the visitation of relics were not to be abused by drunken behaviour and junketing, as if one held such festivals, the Council acerbically remarked, m order to honour the saints by wantonness and revelry.

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Art History

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Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
April 6, 2010