A Puritan Phaedrus


There is no doubt that Peter Sterry (†1672) was both a Puritan and a Platonist. He was a devotee of Jesus and Plato, but only insofar as the latter agreed with and prepared one for the teachings of (and union with) the former. In a letter that he wrote to his son Peter (junior), Sterry combines the myth of the soul’s journey to absolute Beauty in the Phaedrus with the Christian doctrine of faith as a quasi-intellectual vision of Jesus within the soul in order to encourage his son to turn from his devotion to earthly passions and turn to Jesus. In this regard, Sterry appears as Socrates guiding his son to Beauty in Jesus by means of his influence and letters.

Your letters have both pleased mee well. I waite with hope to see with Joy that Eternall spirit, which is the seede of the Divine nature in you to carry on its owne Buds, and Blossomes to ripe Fruite. With all your Might thorrow the power of the glory of Christ in you, Follow after integrity, spirituality, constancy. Can hee that sees the Beauty of Christ’s face unveiled in him, and feeles Divine Love springign up imediately from its own Fountayne in his Soule, think, speake, or act from any other Principle, than the Light of this beauty, the Life of this Love, or to any end, besides the enlargement, and Propogation of the power, purity, Joyes, of this heavenly Light, and Life? O my Son, what sweeteness, Lovelynes, Strenth is there in being established in this grace, as a Tree in its Roote, in moving directly, continually towards this glory, without Gaps, or interruptions, as rivers to the Sea […] Hath the Life of Christ all things of heaven, and Earth in itself, as so many lives of Immortall Beauty, as so many Fountaynes of purest pleasures; have you by the good will of the everlasting Father thorrow that Essentiall Word his Son, this Life begottne in you, and can you doe any thing but abide in the actings of this Life, feede it, forme it in the Soules of others? So live in Christ, and Christ in you… (Peter Sterry, Selected Writings, ed. N.I. Matar. Peter Lang: 1994. pp. 133, 134)


Virtue, Women, and Public Theology in Quattrocento Florence

Botticelli, Fortitude
Botticelli, Fortitude

To anyone who graced the doors of a church or public edifice in Renaissance Florence female depictions of the virtues were quite conspicuous. As I recently had the opportunity to experience, portrayals of the feminine form as personifications of virtue (usually the cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude) are plainly visible from the bronze baptismal doors outside of Brunelleschi’s famous Duomo to many of the interior walls of the Palazzo della Signoria and beyond – not to mention the ubiquitous outdoor paintings and sculptings of the virgin Mary, Judith, and other religious heroines. These portrayals of women in such idealized and often angelic virtuous form were not unique, as the many Late Medieval works of art in Florence confirm.

As Peter Howard argues in “Preaching Magnificence in Renaissance Florence”, however, there was a renewed emphasis on the moral virtues as perfectly holy while at the same time worldly states of character in the mid to late 15th century. Howard notes that the virtue of magnificence, much praised by Aristotle and other classical authors, was proclaimed from the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo and elsewhere as a natural and religious duty of the wealthy. According to Howard,  the preaching of Antonio Pierozzi, the Archbishop of Florence, was instrumental in motivating Cosimo di Medici to fund the construction of the monastery of San Marco including the famous frescoes by Fra Angelico which adorn the interior wall of each monastic cell. Around the same time that Cosimo was patronizing some of his most elaborate projects, Fra Antonino was preaching on the importance of magnificence specifically for funding the construction of beautiful architectural works. Howard notes:

More importantly, Fra Antonino moved discussion of magnificence forward to include secular, not just ecclesiastical, architecture: just like King Solomon, “the magnificent man provides for himself a suitable dwelling of a lasting nature.” Presumably it was palazzi that Antonino has in mind. He not only explicitly links magnificence to architectural patronage, but also effectively encouraged great men to be magnificent — with perhaps an implicit reference to the example of Cosimo de’ Medici and his ally Giovanni Rucellai — since fine houses were themselves to be considered ornaments to the city, further rendering it divine. A theology of magnificence had been thus carefully articulated by Antonino, the city’s archbishop, and put into circulation in his Summa and the various sermons and tracts that preceded it a decade before the boom in palace-building in the 1460s. (Howard, “Preaching Magnificence in Renaissance Florence,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 ((Summer 2008), pp. 325-369), 355).

Is it really plausible, however, that a simple sermon could have such a profound effect on the production of Florentine art during this time? Howard argues in the affirmative, noting that there is a marked increase in references to the “common good” in the theology of the time:

Theology of this [mendicant] sort was not simply a scholarly, cloistered discipline. It was a theology of the piazza, bridging the gap between the ideals of the theological tradition and the daily experience of life in the city. This public theology tackled such questions as: could interest be earned on a loan, should the commune provide for the healthcare of widows and orphans, was conspicuous consumption a sin, what was a just wage? Intentionally, then, mendicant preachers engaged the issues of the day and the needs of different social groups, involving themselves by scrutinizing human affairs in the light of doctrine and authoritative commentators. The most adept preachers were singled out for the way in which they were able to enter into citizens’ lives and link them to doctrine, thereby constructing worlds of meaning that consoled the populace and encouraged it to think about the common good. Contemporaries praised Fra Antonino particularly for his skill in this. (Howard, 343).

An interesting connection between this renewal of virtue ethics via “public theology” and its effect on the production of art in 15th century Italy is that the correlative increase in the number of visual representations of virtue personified as women corresponds to an increased awareness of the plight of women in literature. Mario Equicola, who once studied with Marsilio Ficino in Florence, wrote a short treatise De Mulieribus in which he uses Aristotle’s tabula rasa concept to argue that there is no essential difference between women and men. Once again, this sort of literature was not new. Boccaccio lamented the cloistering of poor young girls in monasteries despite their desire for marriage. Equicola, however, writes during a time when the public theology had begun to shift to reflect a concern, not only for the essential definitions of things, but for the adornment of things and all of life in beautiful imagery, whether visual or spoken. Having argued that the physiological makeup of women depends more on custom than on nature, he argues:

Dedit nobis natura rationem imperfectam, sed quae perfici possit. Dedit omnium artium semina, dedit virtutum scintillas, sed tanta est corruptela malae consuetudinis, tanta vis, ut illi virtutum igniculi extinguantur, exoriantur, et confirmentur vitia.

Nature has supplied us with imperfect reason which is, nonetheless, capable of being perfected. It has also given us the seeds of all the arts and the little sparks of the virtues, but so great is the corruption of bad customs and of so great power that these little flames of the virtues are extinguished and vices spring forth and are strengthened [in their place].

Prudence on Giotto's Campanile
Prudence on Giotto’s Campanile

Equicola argues that it is bad custom alone which leads to inequality among the sexes and he laments the status of women who were confined to their homes and disciplined if they were to “conceive of anything in their minds other than needles and thread.” Because flawed human reason is capable of being perfected, then the popular acceptance of this bad custom may also be removed. At a time when the adornment of language in Rhetoric was seen as inexorably linked to the virtues of wisdom and restraint taught in Ethics, it is interesting to see a man argue by means of these methods for the equality of women in a time when the “public theology” was motivating the quite wealthy citizens of Florence to spend their money on the most important woman of all, that is the Civitas. Citizens such as the Medicis were to exercise their magnificence for the city, not only for the sake of maintaining her current status but for adorning her with works of beauty in the way that poets heap eloquent words of praise upon their beloved. Virtue, as Aristotle demonstrates, does not merely place a restraint upon the desires but guides them toward their proper end and, when accompanied by right judgment and motivation, inevitably frees the desires to flame ever higher toward the attainment of the highest good.

The Reformation of Religious Images: Lucas Cranach the Elder and Martin Luther

When Martin Luther began translating the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible into German in the 1520s his main intention was to create a text in a common dialect that would open up the word of God to the laity. Yet, something in Luther’s modus intelligendi prevented him from releasing the final copy devoid of any illuminating artwork. This will inevitably seem odd to the average Protestant of our day who (a) does not live in a culture that values illuminated manuscripts and (b) fears any sort of “superstition” that may accompany images placed so dangerously close to God’s inerrant word. Luther did not think that way, and neither did the other Reformers (as I have demonstrated concerning Zwingli).

In fact, Luther appears to have no reservations about the inclusion of images of God within his Bible, as the following images taken from his “Bibel … Schrifft Deutsch” show.

1. This image is similar to that in Zwingli’s “Zürcher Bibel” and depicts the “Son of Man” from John’s Apocalypse:

2. Here God is depicted in the text for Genesis 1, creating and upholding the earth.

3. Finally, this image is a depiction of Ezekiel’s vision of God on his throne from Ezekiel 1.

Of course Luther cannot be accused of limiting God’s nature to that of a man, rather he views the appearances of the “Glory of God” in the Old Testament as an appearance of God’s likeness or the pre-incarnate Christ himself. Luther was not afraid that those who see these images would come to think of God as a mere man. On the contrary, Luther considered these images to be detrimental to the goal of a biblically educated church. Ezekiel really saw the likeness of God. The people should be encouraged to believe that.

Luther was no artist in the professional sense. Therefore, he needed help in creating Reformed images for his new translation. The artist chosen to help would need to be Reformed and comfortable with Luther’s theology, such as the exclusion of halos around the heads of saints and the belief that the images may carry some sort of inherent blessing. He did not need to look far. There was already a local artist by the name of Lucas Cranach the Elder who was a court painter for the Electors of Saxony. Cranach met Luther sometime around 1520 and developed a strong bond with him that would last for the remainder of his life. The two even became godparents to each other’s children. Cranach and Luther worked closely together on numerous propaganda pieces against the extravagancies of the Papacy at that time. One of their first projects together was that of Luther’s Bible.

Some may find it difficult to think of Cranach’s religious depictions as genuinely “Reformed” because the interpretation of images is often somewhat subjective. However, this is not the case with Cranach, as Bonnie Noble points out:

From the very beginning of Luther reform, Cranach made pictures to promote religious change. A famous and early Cranach-Luther collaboration is the Passional Christi et Antichristi, an acerbic, propagandistic, illustrated book of 1521 that contrasts Christ with the pope in the role of the anti-Christ. According to a statement by an employee in the Wittneberg shop of Hans Lufft, who printed the book, Luther supplied the text for the project: ‘The honorable doctor recommended some of the figures himself, how one should sketch or paint them, how one was supposed to paint according to the text and did not want any extra, unnecessary things that did not serve the text. This quotation is intriguing for at least two reasons. First, it highlights the priority of aligning pictorial and textual meaning, of creating a limited, reciprocal relationship between word and image, to the exclusion of ‘unnecessary things that did not serve the text.’ Second, it indicates that Luther at least advised on the production of the image, exercising influence on its content. The contrast between Christ and the pope makes the Lutheran agenda unmistakable. (Lucas Cranach the Elder: Art and Devotion of the German Reformation, p. 34.)

Therefore, Cranach and Luther worked together to produce pieces that would not only aid in the interpretation of the Bible but also in winning converts to the Reformation cause. Perhaps the most famous Luther-Cranach piece is Gesetz und Gnade (Law and Grace, a.k.a., Law and Gospel).

This image depicts one of the most pivotal elements of Luther’s theology. On the left is the Law and judgment symbolized by a man being forced into hell by Death and Satan, Moses delivering the Ten Commandments, Christ sitting in judgment, and Adam and Even partaking of the forbidden fruit. On the right is Grace and the Gospel with Christ’s cross crushing Death and Satan and the blood of Christ covering those near the cross. The tree that divides the painting is dead on the side of the Law but vibrant on the side of the Gospel. Luther and Cranach are not here depicting a radical break between Law and Gospel, the theologies of the Old Testament versus that of the New. Rather, as Noble demonstrates, “The painting draws a boundary between the dynamics of Law and Gospel (Lutheran theology) on the one hand, and law on its own (Catholicism or Judaism) on the other.” (ibid., p. 49.) Luther is not antithetical toward the Law as a guide in Sanctification, rather he castigates the Law seen as an agent of Justification.

This emphasis on theology has led many scholars to the notion that Luther and Cranach’s religious depictions are merely functional. The idea is that these images are only meant to convince the mind of a particular theological position or way of interpreting the Bible and nothing more. Yet, the detail in these works conveys a different message. Surely functionality is important. Luther considered the errors of the Roman church to be the works of Satan himself. In that light, these pictures were meant to guide the pious back toward God’s grace which is freely exhibited by the cross of Christ. However, one should not say that Cranach’s artistic hand was somehow limited by the particular medium with which he worked, or that artistic value was for him subordinate to his theological agenda. These works were meant to unveil the “veiled God” of whom Luther so often spoke. These images were designed to convey the truth, to shine light upon a dark world. And for that reason creativity cannot be a mere by-product of function.

We can catch a glimpse into the world of the 16th century Reformation through Luther’s relationship with an artist who used his medium to do spiritual battle against the dark forces within the church. It was not Luther’s intention to merely teach the less-educated by including awesome images within his Bible. He called on Lucas Cranach the Elder to use his God-given talents to open the word of God to the eyes and the imagination as Luther himself was opening the word of God for the first time (in such an accessible form) to the German people.

The Zwinglibibel: A Reformed use of Images

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:


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.

Theodore Beza’s Poetic Ode to Queen Elizabeth

Portrait of a young Theodore Beza
Portrait of a young Theodore Beza

The Reformers are not usually known for their poetry or their appreciation for aesthetics. Yet, church Reformers such as Peter Martyr Vermigli were reared hearing the poems of Ovid and Cicero, often knowing them by heart. Calvin went on to produce a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia and Theodore Beza wrote his Iuvenilia, a collection of original love poems inspired by his love of Catullus and Ovid (some of which may be found here.) Of course, Calvin and Beza published these works at an early age, the latter of whom even regretted the literary achievements of his early days, saying of his early poems, “Would, therefore that they might at length be buried in perpetual oblivion.”

Despite the apparent disdain for their former aesthetic pursuits both of these men went on to write Christian literary works in which pagan poets are quoted in a positive light. Both Calvin and Beza became writers of hymns, the latter even arranged what became the Huguenot “battle psalm.” Another example of Beza’s later use of poetry is his Ad Serenissimam Elizabetham Angliae Reginam (To the Most Serene Elizabeth Queen of England), which was written in 1588 to congratulate the English queen for the recent defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Latin original is quoted below with an English rendering to follow.

Straverat innumeris Hispanus navibus aequor,
Regnis iuncturus sceptra Britanna suis.
Tanta huius, rogitas, quae motus causa? Superbos
Impulit ambitio, vexit avaritia.
Quam bene te ambitio mersit vanissima ventus,
Et tumidos tumidae vos superastis aquae.
Quam bene totius raptores orbis avaros
Hausit inexhausti iusta vorago maris!
At tu, cui venti, cui totum militat aequor,
Regina, o mundi totius una, decus,
Sic regnare Deo perge, ambitione remota,
Prodiga sic opibus perge iuvare pios,
Ut te Angli, longum Anglis ipsa fruaris,
Quam dilecta bonis, tam metuenda malis

The following English translation was rendered in the same year by an unknown Englishman:

1588 Portrait of Elizabeth with Spanish Armada in background
1588 Portrait of Elizabeth with Armada in background

The Spanish fleete did flote in narow seas,
And bend her ships against the English shore,
With so great rage as nothing could appease,
And with such strength as never seene before.
And all to joyne the kingdom of that land,
Unto the kingdoms that he had in hand.
Now if you aske what set this king on fire
To practise warre when he of peace did treat,
It was his pride, and never quencht desire,
To spoile that islands wealth, by peace made great,
His pride, which farre above the heavens did swell,
And his desire, as unsuffic’d as Hell.
But well have winds his proud blasts overblown
And swelling waves alaid his swelling heart,
Well hath the sea with greedie gulfs unknown,
Devoured the devourer to his smart,
And made his ships a praie unto the sand
That meant to praie upon anothers land.
And now, o queene above al others blest,
For whom both windes and waves are prest to fight,
So rule your owne, so succour friends opprest,
(As farre from pride, as ready to do right),
That England you, you England long enjoy,
No lesse your friends delight, then foes annoy.

This poem and two others that Beza wrote to Elizabeth concerning the English defeat of the Spanish Armada are significant not only as examples of aesthetic appreciation among the Reformers but also because very few literature pieces of that time exist that are dedicated to that most significant battle. Read the other poems and learn about their historical context at the University of Birmingham Philological Museum.

Voluntarism, Skepticism, and the Unveiling of Nature

Medieval ClockPierre Hadot distinguishes between what he calls a Promethean and Orphic concept of nature in the history of philosophy. Both groups see the inner workings of nature as secretive and hidden from mankind. However, these secrets may be discovered by man by the use of certain methods. The Promethean method seeks to do violence to nature in order to force her to confess her secrets. The Orphic philosopher sees nature as somewhat divine and seeks to woo her through poetry and art, believing that the secrets of nature must be given voluntarily by Nature herself. According to Hadot, the Christian theology of voluntarism contributed to a more Promethean concept of nature and her secrets (Hadot also erroneously charges all Christians with a Promethean theology). Where Augustine held that God’s will and goodness are one and simple, voluntarists believed that God was more free and could do that which was contrary to his revealed will and even things contradictory. This view of God’s will led to an agnosticism about the secrets of nature, and Nature herself became more like a clock than a personality. Hadot explains, quoting Descartes:

According to theological voluntarism … if two plus two are four, it is because God so willed it. There is no intelligible necessity to impose itself on God’s absolute power: “The mathematical truths that you call eternal have been established by God and depend entirely on him, as do all other creatures. Indeed, to say that these truths are independent of God is to speak of him as a Jupiter or a Saturn, and to subject him to the Styx and the Fates.” [Oeuvres philosophiques, 1:259-260] (Hadot, The Veil of Isis, p. 133)

Hadot is not accusing Descartes of using God’s absolute will as a first principle of knowledge or speculative investigation. Rather, Descartes’ philosophy dealt violence to speculative science by attributing to God a virtually unknowable will and to nature, an unpredictable set of laws, and assumed an opposition between God’s will and the nature of things. Hadot continues:

God has established these truths “as a king establishes laws in his kingdom,” as Descartes wrote on April 15, 1630, to Father Mersenne. This doctrine of complete divine freedom had two consequences. First of all, it is possible that phenomena, or that which appears to us, may be produced by processes different from those we can construct mathematically and according to the laws of mechanics. We must renounce the idea of an absolutely certain science that knows genuine causes. The result is that we can observe and measure natural phenomena, but we cannot truly understand their causes. Seventeenth-century scientists found a sufficient motive for renouncing worries about the finalities and essence of phenomena in theological reasons; it was enough for them to determine how these phenomena occur according to the laws of mechanics. (ibid. p. 133)

Thus, the voluntarist concept of certain possible worlds that God may will to create, worlds that function completely different from ours, led to the birth of a minimalist science of phenomena that reduced the organic and dynamic Nature of things to a mechanical nature that is identical with man’s own art. In this system, the secrets of nature that were once only thought to be discoverable by imitation can now be known by reduplication via the art of mechanics. If the universals of Nature can be other than man is able to know, then Nature will be reduced in value to predictable physical phenomena, thus losing her personality, volition, and mystery. Thus, by reducing Nature’s value the Promethean project was furthered.

Peter Martyr’s Rules for the Right Use of Images

Baptism of Jesus by Da Vinci
The Baptism of Jesus by Da Vinci

Peter Martyr’s philosophy of images in worship is a portrayal of the typical Reformed view. He cites Epiphanious and Jerome as church fathers who agree with his position, that images should not be used in worship because men are already inclined toward idolatry. Images provoke the senses, and because of that they are less profitable than those sources that lift up our minds to contemplation.  On the other hand, Vermigli does not disallow images of Christ and the apostles, so long as they are confined to the economic sphere.

Wherefore, my opinion is, that images oughte utterly to be removed out of holy temples. But in other places there may be some use of them. At the least, they may bring an honest pleasure, which may have some utilitie ioyned with it, if they represent those thinges whiche are monuments and examples of pietie. But they are in no case to be suffered, no not in other places also, if they shoulde become occasions of idolatrye. For then must we always imitate Ezechias. Neither ought we at any tyme to attribute more unto them, then unto the holy scriptures. For who falleth downe uppon hys knees, and worhippeth the booke eyther of the new Testament or of the olde? None undoubtedly, which is godly wise. And yet in them both, Christ and also the workes of God are more truely and expressedly set forth unto us to contemplate, than they are in all the images of the world. Neither is this to be passed over, that the maner of having images came unto us rather from the Ethnikes, then from the practice of holy men. (Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 32.)

Statue of St. George that Martyr says may be used for its allegorical meaning.
Image of St. George which Martyr says may be used for its allegorical meaning.

He continues to give two principles that the pious Christian should follow when seeking artwork for use within the sphere of the home or school:

And also if we have images privately, two other thinges also ought diligently to be taken hede of. First, that they be not lying images, so that under the title and name of sayntes, they represent not those which ever were extant. Suche as are the signes of George, of Christopher, of Barbara, and of such lyke, which are by images and pictures obtruded as sayntes, when as there is nothyng found, of certainty touching them. Nowbeit, I deny not, but that some things may sometimes be painted, which may by an allegoricall signification profitably enstructe the beholders. Farther, we must beware that the pictures or tables be not filthy or wanton, wherewyth to delyght our selves, lest by the syght of them, should be provoked wicked lustes. (Ibid.)

As usual, Martyr’s discussion on this topic is a bit more moderate than some of the more iconoclastic Reformed divines who came after him. Yet, such stricture will always seem a bit authoritarian for our modern sensibilities. Vermigli and Calvin both hold to a much lower view of the senses than we are used to. Calvin even castigates the use of the imagination in general, an idea that receives a more moderate treatment by Vermigli. But, the somewhat iconoclastic spirit of the Reformers should not be taken out of context, as we often do. Here, Vermigli gives a more moderate view. The imagination was created good, and so long as it does not lead us to idolatry or over indulgence then religious images are permissible, outside of the church.