02 Aug 2020

Iconoclasm describes the deliberate destruction of images or monuments, whether for political, ideological (generally religious) or aesthetic reasons. We have known comparable actions since ancient times and they continue to the present day. The National Socialist censorship of expressionist art and its defamation as «degenerate» is just as much a part of the iconoclastic practice as the Taliban's destruction of the large Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001.

In 1529, in the course of the Reformation, Basel became the scene of an iconoclastic riot in which countless religious artworks in the city's churches were destroyed. A contemporary witness to this wilful destruction entered the collection of the Kunstmuseum via the Amerbach Cabinet. This panel from the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger shows Jesus with his disciples at the Last Supper and bears clear traces of violent action. In place of the expected twelve disciples, we only see nine of them depicted. On the right edge of the picture a foot and a pair of folded hands protrude into the picture. However, they fail to be assigned to any of the depicted disciples. We may therefore assume that the panel, which today consists of five vertically glued boards, originally was extended on each side by one board. The missing three disciples would have been placed there. Despite careful restoration, clear signs of impact can still be recognised in the sky, as well as around the figure of Christ, where a patched area signalises that it was once sawn out. Fortunately, it was eventually substitued with the original piece.

Neither do we know where exactly the panel may have been when it experienced the attack nor how it was rescued. However, it must have been in a considerable damaged state when it entered the Amerbach Cabinet. Basilius Amerbach describes the work in his inventory as «destroyed and glued together again, nevertheless in poor conditions».

During the Reformation, however, not only religious images were destroyed. Images were also created. Martin Luther's writings reached only an educated minority who could read. The widespread dissemination of his ideas would not have been possible without the medium of the image, which is also directed at illiterate people. Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was a close friend of Luther, played a decisive role in this image propaganda. A skilful businessman, he ran a large workshop with several employees and was able to ensure extensive production. His propaganda imagery reflected the ideas of the Reformation or showed cynical and satirical attacks against the Catholic Church and its leader, the Pope. Furthermore, the portrait of the reformer Martin Luther was produced in almost serial manner, aiming to spread and popularise his image. The favoured medium for propaganda was the graphic print, which allowed a quick and economical reproduction.

The Kunstmuseum Basel houses a small painted portrait of the Reformer by Lucas Cranach. A counterpart shows the portrait of Luther's wife Katharina von Bora. The double portrait was probably painted on occasion of their wedding in 1525, for which Cranach served as best man. These so-called capsule portraits are made with frame profiles that are worked in a way that the panels can be placed on top of each other and then closed like a small box. This marriage had political implications, as the bride was a former nun. This alliance portrait represents, despite its private character, a document of Luther's rejection of priestly celibacy.

In 1550 Lucas Cranach the Younger took over his father's workshop, three years before his death. From his circle, we have preserved an interesting example of anticlerical satire executed in a propagandistic style. On the left side we encounter the mythological subject of Europa, daughter of the Phoenician king Agenor, as she is abducted to Crete by Zeus who has transformed himself into a bull. She reappears on the right side, surrounded by members of the Catholic Church. Here, Europa stands symbolically for the eponymous continent and the Christian inhabitants. According to the Reformation, they were to be liberated from the Catholic Church. After experiencing rape by Zeus, Europe finds herself amidst the clerics with a distraught look. As the rags of clothing are being ripped from her body, we suspect that they will soon assault her. This kind of composition was an outrageous affront to the Catholic Church.

With the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 Lutheranism and Catholicism achieved a peaceful coexistence, at least in the German area.

Autorin: Seraina Werthemann, Kunsthistorikerin und Kunstvermittlerin