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Kuyper, the Aesthetic Sphere, and Art

ABRAHAM KUYPER AND ART

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

After three centuries of silence about art in Reformed theological circles in the Netherlands – apart from catechism sermons about the second commandment – suddenly there was Abraham Kuyper, whose great merit it was that he once again drew attention to art. The austere Calvinistic churches of his day had whitewashed walls and the congregations, sitting on hard pews, were world averse and a-cultural. But had it always been like that? Or was that a mystical and pietistic distortion of Calvin’s position? By going back to the original Calvinism, Kuyper wanted to show that the reformer had been emphatically positive towards art and culture. Next he went on to integrate this culturally engaged point of view in his own Neo-Calvinistic world of ideas. He devoted himself to removing the great prejudice that Calvinism had always and everywhere amounted to artistic poverty. 

Abraham Kuyper is not so much known as a connoisseur of art, but in fact, he was. The term “art” included for him all forms of art, from poetry to visual art and music. He did not take much notice of music, dance and theatre, but as a student in Leyden he occupied himself with literature as well as theology. At the Free University in Amsterdam, founded by himself, he lectured as professor not only of theology, but also of literature and aesthetics. He even considered the subject of aesthetics so important that he made it compulsory for theological students. That would even now be considered progressive. The poet Bilderdijk was his big hero and he himself, as a prolific writer, was a masterful employer of metaphor. He was also interested in the visual arts. During his travels he visited the large museums and he corresponded with the Impressionist painter Jozef Israëls. He published a book with prints of biblical scenes by contemporary painters such as Max Liebermann and Ilya Repin. He recorded his ideas about art most comprehensively in two publications: Het calvinisme en de kunst (Calvinism and Art, 1888) and Lectures on Calvinism (Stone Lectures, 1899).

 

A Coherent Worldview

In an essay dating from 1898 Kuyper praised the memorial monument for Pope Pius VII (1831) by the Icelandic-Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen, which he had seen on one of his travels to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Bertel Thorvaldsen, Memorial monument for Pope Pius VII, St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

On this monument the pope is seated in the centre with an allegorical female figure on each side. The woman on his right is dressed in a lion’s skin, denoting fortitudo or divine power. She looks up, full of faith and emotion, her arms crossed over her heart. The other woman, flanked by an owl and with a book or Bible in her hand, represents sapientia or divine wisdom. She looks down pensively. Why would this work have had such an impact on Kuyper? Not just because Thorvaldsen, a Lutheran artist, had contributed to this Catholic bulwark, but certainly also because the two women unite feeling and reason, faith and power, wisdom and the Word, and an orientation towards both heaven and earth. The combination of all these elements played an important role in Kuyper’s own thinking.

In 1863 Kuyper arrived in the village of Beesd as a young, liberal minister. Here he was impressed by a group of discontented churchgoers. Even though they were simple villagers and agricultural workers, they possessed a broad knowledge of the Bible, a lived faith, and a coherent worldview rooted in Calvin’s theology. This led to an important change in Kuyper’s thinking that steered him in the direction of an orthodox faith and an integrated Calvinistic worldview, in which all his knowledge, convictions and activities merged into a coherent whole. The basis for this cohesion forms the idea that Christ is the sovereign Lord over everything and everyone and that his lordship includes the upholding of the laws the Creator established for each sphere of life – for example for the church, the state, religion, the aesthetic sphere and art. Every sphere is irreducible to the others, obeys its own laws and grows to maturity only when it can develop independently and in complete freedom. What is unique in Kuyper’s Christian frame of thought is that art constitutes an inextricable part of the whole and that it sees the aesthetic sphere as an essential element of human life. 

 

Antithesis and Common Grace

A second basic element in Kuyper’s theology of art is the triad of creation, fall, redemption. Art is part of God’s good creation but can be seized by sin in a variety of ways (impurity, lack of truth, as an idol, as propaganda etc.). Even so, the abused genres, styles and media can be employed for good again. Calvin’s reaction to the evil in art was characterized by caution: no art in the church and only rhymed psalm singing. Kuyper’s reaction came to expression in his idea of the antithesis. 

Kuyper for example turned against the pantheism found in Dutch literature of his time and against the surfeit of fantasy and the subjectivity in the reproduction of reality that were propagated by the idealistic stream in the field of aesthetics of his day. For Kuyper reality and the beauty of the creation were an objective given. He saw it as art’s calling to reproduce the beauty in nature and reality in a way that exceeds this beauty, whereby works of art point forward to the future glory. Or, to put it in Kuyper’s own words, “to climb up through nostalgia for lost beauty to the anticipatory enjoyment of the future glory.” However, he never elaborated on this programme for art as he considered this the task of the artists themselves. He also did not to any great extent expand on the antithesis in the sphere of art as here another concept was more fundamental to him: common grace.

Like Calvin, Kuyper made a distinction between God’s special grace and common grace. Special grace relates to the redemption of human beings, common grace relates to the maintenance of the world after the fall for believers as well as unbelievers, so that an honourable and rich human life is possible for both. In his Genesis 4:20 commentary Calvin said that art is a gift of God, which he gives without distinction to all people. He added: “These rays of divine light often shone most powerfully on unbelieving nations, as experience teaches us.” Kuyper’s ideas about art continued to build on this, so that he could see Greek art as the first apex in art, in which the knowledge and execution of the natural laws of art flourished. This also explains why Kuyper adopted a completely open attitude towards artistic expression from all epochs and all corners of the earth and was not looking for a specifically Christian art. Hence, he gave no extensive elaboration of the influence of worldviews on the arts, as he has done for the sciences. 

 

No Unique Style 

For Kuyper the second apex in art history was the Renaissance, in which a new art developed based on a rebirth of classical values. The central idea was that art’s beauty should soar above the everyday, material and sinful world in order to reflect something of a higher and better world. It may be clear that Kuyper harked back to this era for his own thinking about good art.

The art that flourished during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century Kuyper saw as the third pinnacle. According to him the art of this age could flourish because of Calvin’s contribution: first of all because he had liberated art from the grasp of the church so that it could come into its own and secondly because art could then direct itself to a broad scale of new subjects such as the landscape, still life and portrait. Ordinary, everyday life was upgraded to a worthy subject for art.

Kuyper emphasized that Calvinistic art did not need to look for a unique style. That is what he praised in Calvin’s vision and in Dutch 17th-century art. Yet the question remains whether Kuyper does justice to Calvin here, as you could say that the music of the rhymed psalms did bring something new and unique, even under the supervision of the reformer himself. The psalm melodies were certainly in keeping with the idiom of that time, but the use of only notes of one or two counts for the sake of the necessary dignity (poids et majesté) of the rhythmic singing was completely new. People were used to the otherworldly Gregorian chants, which explains why the revolutionary Calvinistic church melodies were dismissively called Geneva jigs.

With regard to the visual arts the Reformed artists of the 16th and 17th centuries did connect with contemporaneous developments, apart from the prohibition on art in the church and the representation of God and saints. Calvin was of the opinion that a painting could have two functions: to teach and to entertain. What is of interest here is that not only the biblical depictions of that era were didactic in intent, but also the genres coming into vogue that reflected daily reality. A landscape was never just a landscape and a still life not simply a still life. Via symbolic elements these works possessed a more profound religious or moral layer of meaning. As far as I have been able to discover, Kuyper had no knowledge of this symbolic content of 17th-century art. He saw it as a form of realism.

Jan Victors, Abraham says goodbye to Lot and his family

An example of the didactic intent of 17th-century works is a biblical scene by the Calvinist artist Jan Victors titled Abraham says goodbye to Lot and his family. After a dispute arose between Abraham’s shepherds and those of Lot, because there was not enough grass for both flocks, Abraham suggests to Lot that they should part ways. He allows Lot to choose which way he will move. “The whole land is open to you,” says Abraham generously, with a broad wave of his hand. Lot, in spite of the quarrels between the shepherds in the background, is calmly eating a meal with his family (not mentioned in the biblical text). He is leaning back, his hand on his stomach. His face speaks volumes. His wife behind him sniggers about Abraham’s apparent foolishness. Lot chooses the “best” part and will end up in Sodom and Gomorrah. The dog, as a paragon of faithfulness, stands by Abraham. In this way, the work contrasts the broad, greedy way with the narrow, generous way as a warning for the viewer.

 

Liturgy and Art in the Church

The Dutch Reformed Church split, known as the Doleantie of 1886, and the joining in 1892 of the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerken with a part of the Christelijk Gereformeerden resulted in the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland. The formation of this new denomination demanded a renewed reflection on the liturgy, church architecture and interior church design. As spiritual leader of the new denomination Kuyper published 70 articles on these subjects in De Heraut between 1897 and 1901. Supplemented with a further 40 articles, they were published in 1911 in the book Onze Eeredienst (Our Worship). In developing his thoughts, Kuyper went back to the order of worship as set down by the Synod of Dordt in 1618/19. This meant that he opted for a more elaborate liturgy than the sermon-centred worship service to which people had grown accustomed. He also allowed for a certain liberty in how this order of service was put into practice locally and weekly.

Kuyper saw the worship service first and foremost as a gathering of believers, who in fellowship with one another want to meet and worship God and want to be strengthened and edified in their faith. “Then,” he says, “the sincere believer awaits an almost mystical experience: he will feel his heart quiver with love for his brothers, he will put worldly concerns away, and his soul will draw to heaven.” To him this was the beating heart of the worship service. It is not so strange, therefore, that he spoke with appreciation of the Anglican liturgy with its emphasis on reverence and adoration, i.e., of the traditional Anglican liturgy, not the High Church version of the Oxford Movement with its smells and bells. According to Kuyper externalities such as “kneeling, smells, Ave Marias and paternosters” only distract from the inner meeting with God.

A comparable tension is seen in Kuyper’s thoughts about art in the church. On the one hand, he is not averse to art in the church, but on the other hand he believes that “external beauty must not drive away inner beauty.” He thus approaches art and the image with a certain restraint, even though you would think that for him they would, as God’s good gifts of creation, also be able to contribute to the inner experience of God. However that may be, it certainly was a first big step forward that Kuyper opened the door for art in the church in the form of stained-glass windows, wall paintings, painted panels on the organ and decorative elements.

Wim Korteweg, The Parable of the Sower, Wilhelminakerk, Dordrecht

 

Church Architecture

After the Doleantie there was a great demand for new church buildings. In the 50 years that followed approximately 400 Reformed churches were built. Starting from the idea about worship as a gathering of believers, Kuyper promoted the basic form of a half circle or amphitheatre, so that people could see each other and the minister. The pulpit, and thus the Word, took a central position. In contrast to what was customary before the formation of the new denomination, the pews for the dignitaries (the so-called “elders’ pews”) were left out, because all congregational members sit under the Word without distinction. In conformity with his teaching of sphere sovereignty Kuyper left the further execution to the architects. Over time a typical Reformed church building style developed from the hand of Reformed architects such as Tjeerd Kuipers, Egbert Reitsma and B. T. Boeyinga. Initially they followed the neo-styles of that era, later that of the Amsterdam School of Berlage c.s. The Wilhelmina Church in Dordrecht is a notable textbook case of Kuyper’s opinions. The window about the parable of the sower, pictured above, can be found in this church.

 

Keizersgrachtkerk Amsterdam

The building history of the church on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam shows that membership of the Reformed church was not a requirement for the architects. At the insistence of Kuyper – who acted as chairman of the building committee – non-Reformed architects were also invited to take part in a closed competition, among whom were A. van Gendt and G. B. Salm. The design by Salm was ultimately deemed the best. He enriched the Amsterdam city centre with an elegant, neo-Renaissance, Reformed cathedral. An interesting detail is that Kuyper arranged to order folding pews from America because of their suitability par excellence “to sit down reverently.”

 

Influence

When we look at the influence of Kuyper’s ideas about art, we have to conclude that apart from church architecture and art inside the church they have barely instigated any artistic activity. It is difficult to imagine anyhow that his preference for reflecting idealized beauty would have had any chance of success in the cultural climate of the 20th century.

What has been shown to be more influential are Kuyper’s theological and theoretical ideas about art. The philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd for example elaborated further on the modal law spheres and the aesthetic sphere. Art historian Hans Rookmaaker examined the cohesion of worldviews with expressions of art. Aesthetician Calvin Seerveld followed Kuyper’s vision of the importance of an artistic sphere that can freely unfold and of the indispensability of the aesthetic aspect in human life.

However, all of this did not mean that the Protestant community in general became enthused for art and beauty. Yet Kuyper’s positive and open vision on art and culture did start something that continued – in fits and starts – to make itself felt in the 20th century. And even still, within the Reformed world attention for art is slowly but surely gaining more and more ground.

 

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Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is chief editor of ArtWay. She edited the Complete Works of her father, Hans Rookmaaker, has contributed to many books and has written articles about classical and popular music, liturgy, and the visual arts.