The Reformation of the Image (review)
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Reviewed by
Joseph Leo Koerner. The Reformation of the Image. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. 494 pp. index. illus. chron. $48. ISBN: 0–226–45006–6.

Joseph Leo Koerner, arguably (the argument might be over Hans Belting) the most thoughtful and informed art historian specializing in German art, has taken a step back from his book on Caspar David Friedrich and Romanticism in order to become a champion of Lutheranism. In relic-crushing detail, Koerner seeks to persuade his readers that most of them need to rethink the Reformation, a time period marked by an iconoclasm that some might imagine would make many an art historian melancholy, à la the destruction of the colossal Buddhas at Bamiyan.

Martin Luther, of course, spoke out against indiscriminate and disorderly iconoclasm. Nonetheless, Protestant iconoclasm opened up intellectual, spiritual, and artistic spaces that previously had been, according to Koerner, unavailable, at least politically. The book's price is justified if only for the reproduction of Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder's Allegory of Iconoclasm (112), an amazing Arcimboldoesque example of edifying destruction. The subject of Koerner's The Reformation of the Image is Lucas Cranach the Elder's Wittenberg Altarpiece (1547), "the first high altar . . . north of the Alps with [the Last Supper] on its central field" (341). Cranach's altarpiece was installed in the Wittenberg cathedral after an episode of iconoclasm. In 1522, one of Luther's supporters, the priest Andreas Karlstadt, [End Page 652] coordinated the destruction of images in Wittenberg. For the Reformists, these triumphs rid the world of papist trappings that mainly served to buttress a corrupt Roman Catholic Church that had abused ornamentation, ritual, and democracy. For Koerner, Cranach is one of the underheralded heroes of the Reformation. Generally, Koerner does not attempt to offer a positive picture of Roman Catholicism, an explanation of why Catholics continued their practices, or to check his enthusiasm for Lutheranism and for the artists employed to support the movement. Koerner sets out to be a Reformer for art history.

The standard interpretation of Reformation images among Koerner's colleagues in art history is that they would prefer not to, and Koerner's study is an attempt to undo "the art-historical animus against Reformation art" (32). As Koerner puts it, Reformation "images were built to signal the fact of their impotence" (28). Further, Koerner has some caustic remarks for his colleagues whose interest lies only with seemingly complex, potent, interpretively resistant works from other time periods. The Reformation image, more concerned with the verbal than the visual, "particularly repels academic art historians, whose endeavors it most resembles" (37). This comes at the end of a small catalogue of citations from famous thinkers, including Hegel, who seek ways around Reformation images, and their "formal blandness and semantic transparency" (36).

As a kind of apolitical Žižek of art history, Koerner makes hay with Hegel, and with the kind of dialectic that involves demonstrating in various ways that affirmation cannot exist without negation and vice versa. The classroom version of this side of Hegel consists in pointing out that "thing" is part of "nothing." In perhaps more exciting language, nothing can come of nothing. Nothing's backing, so to speak, is the alternate, positive universe of "something." In each presence lurks a seed of absence waiting to sprout, and vice versa. "The image of Christ was self-negating from the start" (80). "Religious imagery has iconoclasm built into it" (124). "In Christian thinking, every semblance hides a dissemblance and every dissemblance, a semblance" (134). "Images display their concealment" (248). The author of these statements includes supporting evidence to make the statements more than flashy rhetorical gestures.

Koerner acknowledges his debt to Hegel in employing this method in Koerner's analysis of the Reformation, and it does result in compelling material, such as his extended refutation of the standard view that Cranach's "artistic powers" waned (237–50). This particular section becomes Koerner's mini-version of Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility." This is less an interpretive stretch when one reads that Cranach "may have employed a perspective machine" to record some outlines of figures...