Woodcut of Communion ritual

In Review

Beyond the Sound Bite

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), depicting the two aspects of communion in a Protestant context. Wikimedia Commons CC-0

By Lee Palmer Wandel

In The Reformation of the Image by Joseph Leo Koerner, in a chapter titled “Fictions,” I was startled to read:

Historians tend to treat the link to carnival as if it explained, rather than complicated, iconoclasm’s underlying motives. Discerning ritual in riot, but bracketing out the  tumult surrounding the rites discerned, they believe that iconoclasm’s transgressions communicate messages to a public, that what image-breakers principally make are statements. Thus one of the best scholars of early Protestant iconoclasm writes  of “excavating the means of the acts of those who did not have access to more  protected and fixed forms of communication.” Iconoclasts, this author argues, enunciated socially specific views about  religion, polity, economy and law in the “language” of acts, just as theologians stated their opinions in the medium of sermons and treatises. . . .Each iconoclastic gesture gets a precise communicative charge.1

His endnote attributed the quote and the argument to my 1995 book, Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel (Cambridge University Press). I was not surprised that he had misquoted me: I had actually written “the meaning of the acts of those who did not have access to more protected and fixed forms of communication” (italics added here for emphasis). I was troubled that he linked the quote to a position I do not argue in the book. Most of all, however, I was stunned at how he situated himself in relationship to other voices—those of contemporary scholars and those of individuals of the past.

We need, it seems to me, to confront ways of thinking that lie behind a number of practices that are currently under discussion in the academy. To do so, let me invoke Edward Said’s notion of democratic criticism.2 In treating Luther as representative of “Protestantism,” in excerpting texts of past voices out of their epistemological and intellectual context, and in representing his argument as discrete from contemporary scholarship, Koerner constructs a particular authorial voice. Beneath Koerner’s construction of relationships between the author and, on the one hand, voices from the past, then, on the other, contemporary scholars, is a particular conceptualization of thinking.

Following his long-standing fascination with the Romantic notion of genius, Koerner largely construes thinking as solitary and isolated, over against the huge mass of humanity. My critique of Koerner is rooted in a fundamentally different conceptualization of human thought, shaped foremost by the work of Hans Georg Gadamer,3 as discursive: ideas are articulated in specific words which have historical contexts and therefore temporally specific resonances; dialogue engenders thought; each voice expresses a distinctive and unique perspective; any movement comprises a multitude of perspectives.

Let us begin with Koerner’s construction of his relationship to voices from the past. “To Protestants,” he writes, on pages 40-41,

invisibility was a chief predicate of the “true church.” Commenting in 1520 on Paul’s statement that faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), Luther wrote, “Invisible but graspable by faith is the church that is called a new heaven and a new earth.” And again in 1521, in his diatribe against his Dominican detractor Ambrosius Caterino: “Just as the rock (Christ) is invisible and spiritual, grasp-able only in faith, so must necessarily the church without sin be invisible and spiritual, graspable only by faith.”

A number of things are going on in this passage. Koerner asserts “to Protestants” and cites Luther. Koerner presents Luther as both normative and definitive of Protestantism (elsewhere, he acknowledges that Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, Philip Melanchthon, and Huldrych Zwingli were not of the same mind as Luther). In so doing, Koerner situates himself to define what “Protestantism” encompasses.


The Reformation of the Image, by Joseph Leo Koerner. University of Chicago Press, 494 pages, $48.00.

The Reformation of the Image book cover

The Reformation of the Image

A different vision of “Protestantism” is supported by over a century’s scholarship. An enormous body of work has brought forward a breathtaking plurality of voices in the 1520s and 1530s. Preachers as different as Martin Bucer and Thomas Müntzer, women as well as men, carpenters and peas-ants as well as magistrates and princes, all of whom, before the Diet of Speyer in 1529, when they would come to be called Protestants, called themselves evangelicals: those who submitted to the authority of Scripture and, in particular, the New Testament. Long before the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529, as Peter Blickle and Miriam Chrisman have shown, hundreds of those who might now be called “Protestants” did not accept Luther’s vision of true Christianity. Reformed Christians, then and now, certainly did not.

Even Lutherans did not, and do not, agree with all Luther said, else the Book of Concord, which Koerner cites, would not have been necessary: Lutherans could sim-ply have acquiesced to Luther’s pronouncements—but they did not.

In a number of places, Koerner excerpts Luther’s thought according to Koerner’s own claims, lifting snippets of text out of circles of contexts: most immediately, the text within which Luther had articulated them, most fully the textual and aural communities within which Luther was articulating a position, frequently, explicitly in opposition to another’s position. This practice belies a particular conceptualization of human thought, closer to a nineteenth-century conceptualization of ideas, as something out of time, fixed, bounded, metahistorical. At one level, each voice is reduced to something very much like sound bites. More important, each voice is subsumed to an argument he or she did not make. The practice denies the voice dynamism, complexity—the interdependency of arguments and articulations—and vitality.

Luther explicitly resisted these kinds of caricatures and repudiated efforts to fix his thought. He explicitly situated his voice in dialogue with others, whether trusted friends such as Melanchthon, or repudiated enemies such as Zwingli or the Catholic theologian Johannes Eck. Nor was Luther singular in this. The sixteenth century witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of polemical literature, as Bob Scribner, Hans-Joachim Köhler, and Peter Matheson have shown. The stunning number of pamphlets is material evidence of the discursive nature of evangelical theology.

Indeed, in a number of ways, Koerner approaches the sixteenth century through nineteenth-century cultural constructions that are deeply alien to those sixteenth-century voices. He seems to have read Luther through the lens of Hegel (see pages 33-35). Not only was his first book on Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes,4 but he approaches the sixteenth century with the argument he wished to make regarding Friedrich (pages 9-10). It is not simply that such an approach is anachronistic. Again, it has repercussions for how one hears—or not—the voices of the sixteenth century. Core terms, such as “body,” “the eye,” “time,” “representation,” and, most important, “presence,” were understood differently in the sixteenth century than in the nineteenth, let alone today.

As histories of dissection, anatomical drawings, and medicine have shown, sixteenth-century Christians did not share, as we do now, a single and conventional understanding of the human body, nor were they trained in any one tradition. Galenic conceptions of the body were at play among learned circles, but they were not the only ones; among healers were yet other conceptions; while dissections were translated visually into other representations of the human body. As David Lindberg demonstrated nearly 30 years ago, there were many theories of vision at play before Kepler: vision, perception, and visual cognition were also diversely under-stood in the sixteenth century.5 Sixteenth-century Christians lived in a world in which each town might have its own clock, but those clocks were set to no standard, other than the rising and setting of the sun, locally. “Time” was in no way uniform in its measurement, not only from place to place, but even within a single place, in which minutes and hours were not regulated, but approximate. Matter, too, was differently measured and diversely defined.

It is therefore important to listen attentively to each sixteenth-century voice, because each may understand differently “body,” “time,” perception, the relation-ship between the world of matter and human cognition. Luther and Zwingli did not share the same understanding of the human body, let alone what Christ’s body was and its implications for representation. These two “Protestant” theologians did not share the same sense of time: Zwingli was far more conscious, perhaps because he survived the plague, of human life as bounded, finite, and that sense was fundamental to his particular conception of Christ’s body. One cannot speak for the other, and each shaped the thinking of the other. To treat one as speaking for all is not simply to silence heterogeneity, but also to override the plurality of differences in understanding of the most fundamental of concepts, a plurality that led each one to formulate his own thinking, acquire clarity, and define what he held as true—over against other conceptualizations of the body, the eye, time, and matter.

Sixteenth-century understandings of the “image”—which for some Christians was not a “representation”—were therefore also divergent. All the fundaments of any model of perception—conceptions of the body, the eye, matter—were at play. As Walter Melion has shown, there were many models of cognition, many ways of construing the relationship among the material object, the image, the human eye, and human understanding, not simply between Protestants and Catholics, but among Jesuits or Dutch. So, too, “presence” was not a single concept. Christians divided in the sixteenth century over how Christ could be present: at Marburg, over what sort of body Christ had—whether temporally and materially bounded (Zwingli) or not (Luther); Calvin from Zwingli over the perfection of Christ’s body; Calvinists and Catholics over the relationship between Christ’s person and time; Protestants and Catholics over the relationship between Christ’s person and the priest’s, the degree to which Christ might be made mimetically or mysteriously present through actions of the priest.

Koerner is able to make a series of broad claims by treating as uniform a range of relations—between Luther and his readers, between the word “body” and the experience of a body, between the eye and the image—that were not conventional or conventionalized in the sixteenth century. Conversely, positing a plurality of understanding makes impossible any claims to characterize all thinking through the use of one voice. Specifically, recognizing that all the fundamental concepts by which one might construct a model of human perception were at play makes impossible Koerner’s assertion of the shift in relationship between art and religion. Too many different aspects of perception were at play—what the eye is, what the relationship between the eye and cognition is, what an image is, what its relationship to human cognition ideally might be—for any one perception to be normative, let alone definitive. When measured by individual voices, change is no longer Hegelian but intimate and human; the causes of change are not world-historical figures, but dialogues among different voices and perceptions, which themselves engender changes in thinking.

At the center of Koerner’s book is the great disappointment of a lost opportunity. The plurality of voices is not an impediment, if one is not primarily concerned to argue the “end of religion.” That plurality of voices testifies to the centrality of “the image” in the sixteenth century. His use of the term “representation” silences precisely the fluidities upon which he might have built an argument for a very different, dialogic, and deeply interdependent relationship between art and religion. For us, “representation,” while a difficult and still contested word, has a group of valences that we may contest but we all acknowledge as conventionally connoted—it has become stabilized in its referents, conventionalized, and thereby public and social in ways it was not in the sixteenth century; no such consensus existed then. In the sixteenth century, the problem of representation was inseparable from how one understood the Incarnation. Sixteenth-century Christians differed violently on the relationship be-tween a material object—whether altar-piece or sculpture or wooden panel—and Christ’s person or the persons of Mary, the apostles, or the saints. The interrelation-ship between art and the theology of the Incarnation was as old as Western Christianity; the formulations of that relation-ship as heterogeneous as the community of Christians. That heterogeneity led some to destroy, some to protest, some to prosecute, and some to commission new works of art—all within different “Churches,” Catholic, Lutheran, and even Reformed.

This argument is neither new nor solely my own—which brings me to the second community of voices, those of contemporary scholars. The construction of the solitary, “brilliant” scholar frequently locates “originality” in insight—that Romantic notion of genius—rather than in the careful consideration of the work of others. Specifically, Koerner’s construction of a solitary authorial voice severs him, as a thinker, from work that would have given his use of a range of terms greater resonance and depth, and might have shaped his thinking, in ways analogous to Luther’s debates with Zwingli, which led Luther to articulate more explicitly his own understanding of Christ’s body. The work of Herbert Kessler and Margaret Miles, for example, reveals the complexity of medieval conceptualizations of “representation.” The work of Jaroslav Pelikan reveals the complex  interdependence of doctrines of Incarnation with theories of representation. The work of a number of historians of early modern art has revealed the richness in connotations and associations of such important words as “symbola” (page 282) and “emblem” (pages 92, 106)—with their complex cognitive functions—or “grob” (pages 246ff.), with its typographical and social connotations.

The work of other scholars might have shaped how Koerner conceptualized human thought. The work of Tony Grafton has illumined both the ways in which specific words had different connotations and valences for different thinkers, and the “universes” of in-dividual thinkers, the constellation within which each one articulated his ideas. The work of David Steinmetz has illumined in-dividual theologians’ distinctive readings of specific texts and contributed substantially to our understanding of the complexity of a number of key terms in each one’s work, revealing, among other things, the metaphoric in Luther’s thought, some of the material referents and anchors for his theology. The work of Walter Melion has illumined and differentiated complex conceptualizations of the relationships between words and images for different sixteenth-century Christians, as well as early modern epistemologies of the image.

This is one of the ways Said envisioned “democracy”: the plurality of voices that engenders thinking, which is not static or isolated, but dialogic and dynamic. Within a democracy, as Said argued, divergent voices serve an essential function: not merely some minority dissent, but to challenge any claims of one group to speak for all, to speak definitively, to speak imperially—to confuse the subjective with the universal. Within a democracy, the subjectivity of any “I” is challenged when it claims, as Koerner does so often, to speak for other voices (on the perception of images, see, for example, pages 351-52, 360-61). Specifically, Koerner might have discovered that for Lucas Cranach, “matter” linked pigment and human flesh; that his own perception of Cranach’s work as “ugly,” which drives so much of this work, was and is not universal; and, far more important, how richly complex beauty, “representation,” and “image” were, for Protestants as well as Catholics, Calvin as well as Luther, laity as well as theologians.

Sixteenth-century Christians knew that Christ had linked the worlds of matter and divinity in his person, and they debated fiercely—because it was so centrally important—the implications of that linkage for art.


  1. (University of Chicago Press, 2004), 136.
  2. Edward W. Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (Columbia University Press, 2004).
  3. Most fully, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, 2 vols. (J.C.B. Mohr, 1990-1993).
  4. Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (Yale University Press, 1990).
  5. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (University of Chicago Press, 1976).

Lee Palmer Wandel is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. Her new book, The Eucharist in the Reformation, is to be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

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