Today is the 2nd anniversary of the creation of Celestial Venus. But it is also the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his ninety-five these on the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle. This action launched the Protestant Reformation which had a widespread effect across Europe. When this site was created, I didn’t know the significance of the date. Now I take it as good omen.
Luther Bible ~ illustration by Lucas Cranach 1534
Luther translated the Bible into German and his close friend Lucas Cranach the elder illustrated it with engravings. The title of page of the Bible features cute cherubs, several of them nude. The Bible is illustrated with nude figures of Adam and Eve and several other figures which would never appear in a contemporary Bible. This may be surprising some, but the image reflects a balanced view of life which existed till only recent times. For years I had pondered why the perception of the figure had changed and this site was created in one sense to restore perception to what it had once been. Such a reform of perception would be as significant as Luther’s reform of the indulgences.
diagram for Sears
The lack of balance in perception is to a great extent the result of cultural conditioning. The diagram above shows the optimum balance of qualities required by Sears, the executive values of other companies can expected to be about the same. The theoretical, economic and political are valued by the company while aesthetic value is practically zero. Sears notes that aesthetic values, “accept artistic beauty and taste as a fundamental standard of life. This is not a factor which makes for executive success.” It can be certain that in earlier times beauty was more valued, aesthetic values would have been at least at the 50th percentile on the diagram.
Benjamin West ~ Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky
How did this change in values come about? In Max Weber’s essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the ideology of present forms of capitalism are traced to values promoted by Benjamin Franklin. Many American colonists held the notion that secular vocations were appointed by God. In his autobiography, Franklin made a quotation from the Bible which reflected this view: “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before the Kings.” (Proverbs 22:29) From this Franklin found his virtue, he preached “Time is money” and “Remember, that money is of the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on.” But Weber points out that this state of mind, “would both in ancient times and in the Middle Ages have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect.” An absurd ascetic materialism developed, one would renounce enjoyment of creation yet work for worldly money as an end to its self. This portrait of Franklin by his contemporary Benjamin West reflects that colonial artists were at odds with the utilitarianism of Franklin.
Scott Affleck ~ Progression ~ 2014
Weber called this development of capitalism an Iron Cage, since man’s basic humanity is denied by its structures. In this passage he accounts for the history of the Iron Cage:
Christian asceticism, at first fleeing from the world into solitude, had already ruled the world which it had renounced from the monastery and through the Church. But it had, on the whole, left the naturally spontaneous character of daily life in the world untouched. Now it strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world.
Lucas Cranach ~ Martin Luther ~ 1529
Norman O. Brown recognized a profound conflict of values between American capitalism and the founders of the Protestantism. Luther’s motivation to post his ninety-five these was from the offence by the Roman Catholic Church selling indulgences, therefore money was seen as the Devil’s primary tool for corruption. The essence of Luther’s position was this world is ruled by the Devil, so the notion that visible vocation in this world is appointed by God, grossly misrepresents the Protestant view. Brown writes,”All around him Luther felt the irresistible attraction and power of capitalism, and interpreted it as the Devil’s final seizure of power in this world, therefore foreshadowing Christ’s Second Coming and the Devil’s final overthrow.” Luther denounced this worldliness often in his writing,”Germany is sheerly swallowed up by the merchants and companies, by means of usury.” “It is the world’s way to think of nothing but money, as thought it hung as soul and body. God and our neighbour are despised and the people serve Mammon. Horrible times will come, worse even than befell Sodom and Gomorrha.”
Hieronymus Bosch ~ The Garden of Earthly Delights (Detail Prince of Hell) 1505-1510
In his Table Talk, Luther gives a vivid account of his encounters with the Devil. Luther was assaulted by the Devil numerous times, all the attacks took the form of vulgarity of an anal nature. Hieronymus Bosch depicted the Devil’s character in his painting of Hell, Satan is enthroned on a privy, from which the souls who have passed out of his anus drop into the black pit. “The painters paint the Devil black and filthy,” says Luther. (note the small figure pooping coins into the black pit)
I find this significant, since the Devil’s aesthetic method for corruption is through a debasement of the body. If one’s perception of the human body is only vulgar, one is alienated from one’s dignity of being created in the image of God. Francis Schaeffer reflected on the benefits of Renaissance thought, he writes:
“From a biblical viewpoint nature is important because it has been created by God, and is not to be despised. The things of the body are not to be despised when compared with the soul. The things of beauty are important. Sexual things are not evil of themselves. All these things are involved in the fact that in nature God has given us a good gift, and the man who regards them with contempt is really despising God’s creation. As such he is despising, in a sense, God Himself, for he has contempt for what God has made.”
Lucas Cranach ~ Charity Standing ~ 1537-50
This balance view of one’s relation nature is reflected in the work of Luther’s close friend Lucas Cranach the Elder. It is almost ironic that Cranach is as well-known for his portraits of Luther as he is for his allegorical nude figures. Cranach conveyed Lutheran religious concerns in his paintings but I believe the influence of the Reformation on his series of charity paintings has not yet been recognized. Charity is the foremost of the three theological virtues “And now abideth faith, hope charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity”(I Corinthians 13:13) The word ‘love’, is a closer definition to the modern ear because the word ‘charity’ has the overtone of giving to the needy. During the Renaissance charity was symbolized as a loving mother with three or more children. Charity is the very antithesis of greed which was denounced by Luther as the greatest evil of worldliness. The nudity of the figures reflect the early Christian ethic and the rejection of Devil’s materialism in this world. Some have interpreted the little girl holding a doll as following the example of the mother but it seems that the way the mother holds the girl’s raised arm may be an act of discouragement. The mother may be directing the girl to put down the fashionably dressed doll and the things of the world.
Scott Affleck ~ Peaceable Kingdom ~ 2002-2006
Years ago I saw Cranach’s Charity painting, his work seemed to incarnate the perfect harmony that I sought, soon afterward I painted Peaceable Kingdom. Which had the effect of putting my art in opposition with contemporary culture. The Iron Cage of capitalism has degraded the archetype of paradise written on the heart of man. The counter-culture of the 1960’s still held the archetype of Eden but since then the archetype has been lost. I thought a great amount to understand why modern art and mass culture forfeit beauty for emptiness or vulgarity. Now I understand the emptiness has its roots in the ascetic materialism prescribed by Franklin. If souls are lost by aesthetic alienation, it is only beauty which can recover the heart. I call for a Pigtails Reformation, because in fairy tales the beautiful maiden can restore a soul lost to the beast.
Lucas Cranach ~ Charity Landscape