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The Zwinglibibel: A Reformed use of Images

September 24, 2009

The Reformers were not iconoclasts simpliciter. Vermigli believed that images should be used for the education of the laity, the only exception being the use of images during the liturgy. Also, Peter Matheson notes that via a humanistic education that exalted the art of rhetoric, the Reformers learned to use the pen as a paint brush to paint images upon the mind through eloquent and ornate speech. Another example of a Reformed use of images is the Zwinglibibel. This is the BIble translated into Swiss-German by Zwingli et alia in 1531. The Bible was full of images of significant persons, events, and even divine beings. For instance, the following is a print of the “Son of Man” from John’s Revelation:

Zwinglibibel

Types like Karlstadt and many later Puritans would not have appreciated the insertion of images in to God’s Holy Word but Zwingli found it useful and necessary for the education of a mostly illiterate laity. The images were designed smaller so as not to distract the reader from the text, yet they were large enough and detailed in order to instruct the reader in the correct interpretation of the text.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2009 5:57 am

    We know of Pope Gregory’s letter to Bishop Serenus of Marseilles, but even in mediaeval books clearly intended for literate people we see pictures, and many of them, for instruction. These pictures, to be viewed meaningfully, presuppose a certain existing level of knowledge in biblical and extra-biblical literature.

    We rightly give primacy to the liturgically read word of God, but the idea that images in Bibles are always merely a concession to widespread illiteracy is like the idea that music in liturgy is a concession to those who can’t sit still and listen to the Scripture read aloud. Rembrandt’s biblical pictures, for example, accomplish far more than the instruction of illiterates.

  2. September 25, 2009 4:29 pm

    Lue-Yee,

    First, I assume by “We” you mean Roman Catholics. If not, I apologize for the misrepresentation. Secondly, to your point, “the idea that images in Bibles are always merely a concession to widespread illiteracy is like” – I’m not sure where you get that idea from. If you believe you got it from this post then you have misread the post. There is nothing in this post against the Roman Catholic Church, nor did I say anything about the laity not being able to “sit still” as a reason for Zwingli including images in his translation of the Bible. Obviously the pictures were crafted with a certain aesthetic meant to please the eye as well as enflame the heart and mind. If you would like to have an honest discussion then you must first be honest in your reading of the material that I post on this blog.

    Pax tecum,

    Eric

    • September 26, 2009 1:35 am

      Oh, I’m not Roman Catholic at all. I guess the reason I used we was probably because I assumed that since it was well-known to the mediaeval Church (in the West, at least), … well, never mind. Sorry about not making that clear myself.

      Mostly, I think I may have been trying to combat assumptions about reading that I believe have led people to misread elements in the 12c. St Albans Psalter, which does have a version of this Gregory letter, giving it the simplistic reading that pictures were for those who couldn’t read. This reinforces the modern notion that the enlightened and literate need no pictures.

      On the other hand, two quotations seem to imply that pictures were for the laity, so I infer that this means pictures were for those who were less theologically literate:

      Vermigli believed that images should be used for the education of the laity, the only exception being the use of images during the liturgy.

      Zwingli found it useful and necessary for the education of a mostly illiterate laity.

      (Emphases mine.)

      On the other hand, you do say at the end that pictures in Bibles were ‘detailed in order to instruct the reader in the correct interpretation of the text.’ This seems to support the idea that, at least for some part of the population, art really was used as an important kind of commentary. Still, was the use of pictures simply to safeguard orthodoxy, or might they have meaningfully contributed to the discussion for everyone?

      • September 26, 2009 5:10 am

        Lue-Yee,

        Thanks for the clarification. I understand your concern to combat historical misrepresentations, as this is one of my main priorities on this blog. Yet, I do believe you are thinking of Zwingli’s rationale through an unwarranted bifurcation. He did not think, nor did I intend to represent his thought this way, that religious images should either be used to educate the illiterate or not used at all. As you pointed out, I did mention this: “The images were designed smaller so as not to distract the reader from the text…” The images in the Zwinglibibel were intended to instruct the literate and the illiterate in the correct interpretation of the text. Now, I do admit that Zwingli’s primary reason for using images was to instruct the laity, but this does not necessitate the conclusion that Zwingli was a proto-enlightenment thinker, or that he considered the theologically astute to be “above” images. This would making him oddly similar to the Church of Rome (the very enemy with whom he fights) who set up an “elite” class of canons and priests over the laity, who are more “enlightened”, able to find true happiness by living the contemplative life. Also, the idea that aesthetics must only be used to educate was foreign to the Reformers, men who were educated in the classics, who both read and imitated the poetry of Horace, Ovid, Seneca, et alia. The Reformers were polemical in many of their writings but they never forsook the art of rhetoric. Furthermore, Bruce Gordon points out that the images in the Zwinglibibel, arranged by a man named Froschauer, were intended to be aesthetically pleasing to all. He notes:

        The sheer beauty of the text is stunning: Froschauer, in his choice of type, sought to bring an elegance to the Bible which reflected its status. The technical and artistic quality of the Bible were the visible expression of the humanist scholarship now residing in Zurich. The 1531 Bible is a feast for the eyes. Of the 190 woodcuts 140 were first-time prints by Hans Holbein the younger. This work reflected the amazing speed with which humanist biblicl scholarship had taken root in Zurich, yet as one admires its handsome pages with their cross-references, notes, and woodcuts it becomes very apparent that the Word of God is being presented with a particular interpretation. Within ten years, the Zurich Reformation had produced a Bible which told men and women how it was to be understood, and those who sanctioned the interpretations were a small band of theologians in the city. The principles of ‘scripture alone’ or the ‘pure scripture’ had been considerably modified in light of the Peasants’ War, Anabaptism, [etc.] (Gordon, The Swiss Reformation, pp. 242, 243)

        Therefore, it is clear that Zwingli had many intentions for this Bible: (a) educate the laity, (b) create images that are pleasing to the eye, and (c) use the images as a further educational means that will combat the aberrant theologies of the Peasants, Anabaptists, and Papists.

        Pax,

        Eric

  3. Peter Escalante permalink
    September 26, 2009 1:38 pm

    Lue-Yee,

    Your site has it that you recently graduated from Cal. I’m a close friend of both Eric and Steven W, and I live right by campus. If you’re still in the neighborhood, let’s get coffee sometime.

    pax
    P.

    • September 26, 2009 2:51 pm

      Oh, man! Unfortunately, I’m in (ok, in the vicinity of, if you want to be all technical) Paris till December.

  4. Peter Escalante permalink
    September 26, 2009 2:55 pm

    There’s nothing unfortunate about being in the vicinity of Paris. If you’re back in Berkeley around December, though, let’s meet up. Eric can send you my gmail. Also, I’ll look you up on Facebook.

    cheers,
    P

    • September 26, 2009 3:02 pm

      Hehe, certainly, I had no design of implying that being here was unfortunate in itself. Paris, after all, is fun and tasty.

      I should be easy to find on Facebook, because even if you search me on Google, all the results that constitute a single name, and not parts of several names, are me.

  5. joelmartin permalink
    October 10, 2009 2:05 pm

    I have a paper outlining the Reformed Anglican position on images here:

    https://share.acrobat.com/adc/document.do?docid=5308a94b-88c3-49c0-affc-469ab623824b

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  1. Items of note (Reformed edition) : Theopolitical

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