18.05.22, Horníčková and Šroněk, eds., From Hus to Luther

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Marcela Perett

The Medieval Review 18.05.22

Horníčková, Kateřina and Michal Šroněk, eds. From Hus to Luther: Visual Culture in the Bohemian Reformation (1380-1620). Medieval Church Studies, 33. Turnhout:Brepols, 2016. pp. 323. ISBN: 978-2-503-54-8050 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Marcela Perett
North Dakota State University

From Hus to Luther: Visual Culture in the Bohemian Reformation, 1320-1620 is a book about the visual culture of the Reformation in Bohemia. But it is not as simple as one might expect, because unlike anywhere else, Bohemia was blessed (or cursed, depending on whom you ask) with denominational pluralism earlier than any other territory in Europe. This has to do with the Hussite reform (or revolution, again, depending on whom you ask) that preceded Luther by about a hundred years and gave rise to new groups (the authors here are unwilling to call them denominations) such as the Utraquists and the Unity of Brethren. Thus unlike other regions, where the religious landscape was binary, Catholic vs. non-Catholic, Bohemia had a number of competing churches, each of which--as is the argument of this collection--developed a unique visual culture that reflected its theological values.

However, the collection does not entirely manage to present these visual cultures as unique and consistent. This is, in part, because the book is organized according to the expertise of the contributors, which here means not in a way that would best advance the book's argument. And so we find out that the Lutherans preferred a unique style of architecture and painting, the Utraquists commissioned lavish illuminated music manuscripts, but when it came to epitaphs it was hard to distinguish an Utraquist one from a Lutheran one--though both did sometimes (though not often enough) differ from the Catholic ones. Interesting tidbits, but the larger picture they all amount to is not always easy to see.

There is another kind of unevenness among the contributions that makes it difficult to arrive at a systematized picture of visual culture in the Bohemian Reformation. Whereas some authors focus on the uniqueness of the each of the individual confessions, others minimize it in favor of a greater Protestant identity. And so while the editors contribute a robust treatment of the Utraquist visual culture (two articles) and of the visual culture (or lack thereof) in the Calvinist and Brethren churches (one article each), the categories that are neatly drawn there break down in the subsequent articles on Bohemian Protestant church architecture and epitaphs in Bohemian Protestant culture.

Individually, there is much to admire here. In her two articles, "The Image as a Religious Issue" and "Hussite Iconoclasm," Milena Bartlova considers the role of the image in pre-Reformation Bohemia (and Europe as a whole) and the factors behind Hussite iconoclasm with an appealing freshness and erudition. She opens with a helpful discussion of the status of the image in the pre-Reformation church, where the image bore "the dignified role of a medium of religious annunciation parallel to the word or written text" (50, n. 9). Although deemed "scripture for the illiterate," there was always an implicit conflict in the use of images in worship, for in the eyes of the uneducated, they could transform into idols or, at least, some religious leaders feared that they might. Bartlova's appraisal of the high status accorded to images sets her up for a consideration of what might move people, learned and lay, to destroy them. Not, we learn, theology, or at least not when it came to the ordinary faithful doing the destroying. Bartlova turns to mass psychology (rather than theology) to answer the question, offering the concept of 'emergent normativity,' which studies the actions of the masses as a "process of the emergence of new norms of social behavior" (67). In other words, lay faithful destroyed church images as a way of attacking other, hated, church rituals (especially those associated with an entrenched clerical culture) and as a way of attacking social elites by destroying their monuments (especially those linked with funerary culture). Bartlova argues that these attacks were undertaken in groups, which at least temporarily understood themselves as ushering in a new religious and social reality. This is a helpful revision of the prevailing view of Hussite iconoclasm and a useful insight into some of the violence perpetrated by ordinary pro-Hussite faithful.

Katerina Hornickova's discussion of Utraquist visual culture (in two articles entitled "Images and Visual Culture in Bohemian Utraquism" and "Utraquism, Images, and Representation in Bohemian Towns") is likewise one of the highlights of the collection. It is a study of the Utraquist visual culture, focusing on the formative thirty years between the Basel Compactata (1436) and their annulment in 1462. She documents the pressure exerted by conservative Utraquists basically to return to pre-Hussite church practices and décor. She finds that as time wore on, the Utraquist reservation regarding images in the church gave way to tolerance, and by the mid-fifteenth century Utraquists began "installing paintings in church interiors" (74), which would have been unthinkable only two decades earlier. Hornickova's study pits theological ideals against the force of nostalgia among ordinary faithful, who wished that the new Utraquist church would look more like the old, pre-Hussite church. She concludes that, increasingly, they succeeded.

Michal Sronek's two articles on Calvinist and Unity of Brethren's views on images ( "The Unity of Brethren and Images" and "Calvinist Views on Religious Images in Bohemia") are equally thorough and informative. After explaining the theory on images held by both groups, Sronek turns to the 1619 sacking of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague by a joint force of the Brethren and Calvinists. Like Bartlova, Sronek looks for other than theological explanations for the outburst of iconoclasm. He attributes it to the political situation at the time, interpreting it as a "demonstration of power on the part of nobles belonging to the Brethren [rather] than being a manifestation of religious beliefs" (203). Indeed, according to Sronek, theological beliefs about images tended to take a backseat to many other considerations. For example, he reports that although the Unity's leaders (here much influenced by Calvinist thinking) displayed the strongest rejection of images in churches, over time they allowed various genres to creep in: illustrated books and Bibles, hymnals, liturgical objects and even paintings. Sronek's findings confirm Hornickova's report about the tension between theory and practice that she found among the Utraquists. For members of the Unity of Brethren, theological views of images and reports of their actual use were, similarly, in tension. An interesting dynamic seems to have emerged: once established, religious groups became more flexible about enforcing their prohibitions on religious images, as if political toleration enabled compromise between theory and practice regarding images. This insight forms the heart of the book and is of lasting value to scholarship on Reformation art and religious culture more generally.

The collection also contains articles on Lutheran culture in Bohemia (Petr Hlavacek), Bohemian Protestant church architecture (Pavel Vlcek), liturgical life (David Holeton), printed books (Jiri Just), epitaphs in Bohemian Protestant Culture (Ondrej Jakubec), and illuminated musical manuscripts in the Bohemian Reformation (Martina Sarovcova), each offering a focused study of the phenomenon. Accompanying them are three articles (one short by Frantisek Smahel and two more substantial by Martin Nodl and Tomas Malý) on the historical phenomenon called the Bohemian Reformation. However, there is little new here but a well-worn sense that "[d]enominational consensus was... achieved not due to the irenicism or 'ecumenism' of the estates but rather due to the need for political agreement as a mechanism of defence" (309). And yet, the sum of the collection's many parts seems to suggest an alternative reading of the evidence or, at least, a hitherto ignored factor: is it possible that denominational consensus was spurred on by the fact that in their respective visual cultures (which shaped the daily experience of the laity's religious practice), the different groups ended up converging more than had previously been understood?

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