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Imaginary Iconoclasms in Early Modern Haarlem

by Madeline McMahon

Interior of the Bavo Kerk, Haarlem (Fitzwilliam Musem). Photo by author.
Isaak van Nickelen, Interior of the Bavo Kerk, Haarlem (Fitzwilliam Musem). Photo by author.

Isaak van Nickelen (or van Nickele) (c.1633 – 1703) painted multiple church interiors of the St. Bavo Kerk in Haarlem. Yet the Bavokerk in this painting—Fitzwilliam Museum 82— does not appear as it did in 1668, when Nickelen painted it. It is filled with altars—elaborate Baroque edifices at regular intervals, with paintings and candles that are otherwise clash with the whitewashed interior we expect in a painting of this Reformed church. On the left, a priest and a monk gesture emphatically. At the top of one of the columns there is a statue of St. Peter with his keys to the kingdom of heaven—the saint most associated with the papacy. Nickelen imagined the Bavokerk as a Catholic cathedral.

It had been nearly one hundred years since the Bavokerk had been stripped of Catholic decoration in a riot on the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi in 1578, the so-called “Haarlem Noon.” Nickelen was not merely painting the Reformed church as it stood in his day, filled with Catholic images, although given our preconceptions of what a Reformed church would look like may lead us to believe that. Crucially, the Bavokerk had its walls whitewashed with lime up to 140 years before sixteenth-century iconoclasm, possibly for hygienic purposes. Furthermore, the Protestants had added paintings of biblical texts or tapestries bordered in text onto the white pillars in the sixteenth century to this supposedly image-free space (Mia Mochizuki, The Netherlandish Image after Iconoclasm, 106, 1, 7, 73-4). These Protestant paintings disappear in Nickelen’s work—he performed his own act of iconoclasm before he filled the church with Catholic icons.

Nickelen’s unusual choice must be put in context to be understood fully. He lived in one of the great centers for paintings of church interiors, and closely followed the methods of his older and more prolific contemporary, Pieter Saenredam (1597 – 1665), who also painted the Bavokerk multiple times (Perspectives: Saenredam and the architectural painters of the 17th Century, 267).

Saenredam also painted Catholicized interiors of the Bavokerk. One such work depicted a fictive bishop’s tomb in it, and was commissioned by the bishop’s chapter of St. Bavo’s (Rob Ruurs in Perspectives, 44-5). The community had been able to continue its existence despite the reformation and the lack of episcopal hierarchy in the Netherlands (Xander van Eck, Clandestine Splendor: Paintings for the Catholic Church in the Dutch Republic, 13). Saenredam’s painting was part of the chapter’s campaign for papal acknowledgment.

Typically owning such a painting would have been a visual statement of the owner’s confessional identity (Ruurs, 101). Yet the work did not always reflect the artist’s beliefs. Saenredam is believed to have been Protestant, but confessional lines did not dictate his painting. He had Catholic acquaintances among the Haarlem Catholic community and took on Catholic commissions (Perspectives, 101).

In fact, seventeenth-century Catholics in Haarlem often commissioned works of art that were more a restoration or reimagining than a practice in strict realism. In 1630, the painter Pieter de Grebber painted a posthumous portrait—sketched at the exhumation!—of the Haarlem priest Cornelis Arentsz. This portrait, like Saenredam’s, was part of the Catholic chapter’s ongoing battle for historical legitimacy in the eyes of Catholics and Protestants alike (van Eck, 83, 84). It combined realism with an urgency to demonstrate continuous tradition. Similarly, a painting like Nickelen’s created an imagined Catholic space in a real building.

Detail, Nickelen's "Interior of the Bavo Kerk." (Fitzwilliam Museum). Photo by author.
Detail of monk and priest in Nickelen’s “Interior of the Bavo Kerk.” (Fitzwilliam Museum). Photo by author.

Seventeenth-century Catholics living in Haarlem were also concerned with promoting the cult of St. Bavo, the most prominent saint in their diocese and namesake of the cathedral (van Eck, 97). Priests in the 1630s worked closely with Ghent, which was also associated with the saint, to reform the sung service of St. Bavo. Printed images of the seventh-century saint made up part of their correspondence (van Eck, 98), again picturing the past to create a narrative of continuity into the present.

Haarlem was among the towns in the Dutch Republic with the highest percentage of Catholics—there were at least twenty Catholic priests in the city in 1620, in contrast to six in the state-backed Reformed church. Catholic services were suppressed in public, although private practice was not forbidden and sometimes the authorities overlooked even public events (Steven Nadler, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter, 41-3).

A space like the Bavokerk, although officially Reformed, would have nonetheless provided shelter and a public space to the entire Haarlem community, from Catholics to Jews—“a broad public of diverse age, class, gender, and confession bound by a common interest in local society and religious traditions that shared a biblical basis” (Mochizuki, 6). To some extent, this is reflected in Nickelen’s painting, where the beggar and his dog occupy the same space as a well-dressed couple.

Nickelen’s confession is unknown but this painting of a Protestant church re-Catholicized speaks to the fluidity of religious identity, especially in religious spaces, in this time.

My thanks to Tom Goodwin and Nailya Shamgunova for their help during the research process on Nickelen’s painting in the Early Modern History MPhil Research Challenge at the University of Cambridge.

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Approaching Religious Belief and Practice in Modern Intellectual History

by Emily Rutherford

Two weeks ago, I attended a concert of seventeenth-century German music. The theme was the liturgical season of Lent, with a number of pieces meditating somberly on death. They meant Jesus’s crucifixion, of course, but I found myself thinking of the death, destruction, and political upheaval that characterized the period in which most of the program’s composers were active. Was the emotional pain evident in vocal pieces like Samuel Capricornus’s setting of “O Traurigkeit” related to Capricornus’s experience of fleeing Bohemia at the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War? Or do such secular explanations indicate an unwillingness really to explore the content of religious belief and practice, figuring religion as significant only when resulting in sectarian political violence and not as something that might inform affect, action, and art in its own right?

This is easy to do, when European politics seems to have been so shaped by the considerable violence and instability of the seventeenth century: monarchs deposed and killed, new systems of international order formed. It’s easy to see how it is that so many historians of modern political thought are drawn to the Thirty Years War and the transition it marks (or so the traditional story goes) from sectarian religious divides to a pragmatic, “Enlightened” politics of European balance of power. In Steve Pincus’s highly successful retelling of Britain’s 1688 (the so-called “Glorious”) revolution, the choice of the Dutch prince William of Orange as monarch in preference to the Stuart king James II involved two competing visions of the modern British state and its relationship to its empire. In his discussions of James’s Catholicism versus William’s Protestantism, Pincus shows Catholic-Protestant, High Church-Low Church distinctions largely to be political labels; they map—perhaps a little too neatly—onto the Whig-Tory divide. Like the modernizing story about Westphalia, Pincus’s account of 1688 has more to do with polities—the alternative constitutions and philosophies of empire modeled by the Netherlands and France—than with cultural divides suggested by the differences in Catholic and Protestant belief and practice that had previously shaped England. It’s a compelling story, but it might miss out too much. It’s true that politics were entwined with the church: bishops could be elevated to positions of political authority, deviance from the established church had long been associated with political radicalism (Pincus pays little attention to the fact that republican Dissenters had, all too recently, actually killed a king), the head of the state and the head of the church were (and are still, in Britain) formally the same person. Taking religion seriously on its own terms doesn’t mean ignoring the Realpolitik ways in which the powerful maneuvered around it in order to stake their claims to governance. But it does mean, perhaps, moving away from a way of understanding European history in which the “modern,” pivoting on a series of crucial moments in the seventeenth century, can best be apprehended as a body of secularized political thought. Perhaps it also means apprehending that when James II proposed to re-Catholicize Britain, this was something that would have consequences for belief and practice (re-emphasizing the Mass, returning to non-vernacular worship) that were central to many people’s lives, powerful/educated and not.

In nineteenth-century Britain, it is more possible to speak of a politics not fundamentally intertwined with theology. But as biology, geology, and archaeology changed how people understood the Biblical past, debate raged about how to understand Darwin’s theory of evolution or whether the Bible could be read metaphorically and allegorically. On June 30, 1860, huge crowds turned out to watch “Darwin’s bulldog” T.H. Huxley debate evolution with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, at the Natural History Museum. One member of the crowd may have been the undergraduate John Addington Symonds, whose letters are filled with commentary on how theological controversies of the period raged within Oxford. As he recalled in his autobiography, “Theology penetrated our intellectual and social atmosphere. We talked theology… wherever young men and their elders met together” (244). Years later, on holiday in France with his young family, Symonds experienced a nervous breakdown—what his friend and early biographer Horatio Brown termed “the crisis at Cannes,” and attributed to the catastrophic implications of Symonds’ loss of faith.

From the 1960s on, as Symonds has become recognized as a pioneer of homosexuality, scholars have taken a different tack: a man as ahead of his time as Symonds is not so likely to have been deeply shaken by loss of faith; the breakdown must have been a result of his struggle to repress his true sexual orientation. But is it so impossible to believe that a man who evidently thought deeply about theology, who wrote about the relationship between religion and science throughout his life, might have been paralyzed by the thought of a world without God? Is it so difficult for the historian to imagine how a change in formal patterns of worship (whether their sudden absence in Symonds’ life, or a shift from Protestantism to Catholicism brought on by a regime change) might have affected someone’s life as much, or more than, sex? Is it so strange that thinkers of the age of science and industry, grappling with radical new ideas, might also have asked questions that had troubled others for many centuries?

Belief is a tricky thing to grasp—it’s not always as well-documented on paper as the decisions of statecraft—but it’s important to try. For me, apprehending the complex relation of theology to more earthly matters, and the ways in which the formal rituals of religious observance can structure societies very differently to my own pluralist society of twenty-first-century Manhattan, flexes my muscles of historical empathy. But more importantly, it troubles the connection many of us instinctively draw between secularism and the modern west, and challenges us to think critically about the intersections of religion, politics, thought, and art in both the past and the present.

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The French Reformer and the Church of England: The Limits of Early Modern Ecumenism

by Madeline McMahon

Pierre Du Moulin (1568 – 1658) was, paradoxically, an irenic and ecumenical controversialist. As a prominent minister in the French reformed church, Du Moulin wrote almost one hundred polemical pamphlets and books against Protestants and Catholics alike (W. B. Patterson, “Pierre Du Moulin’s Quest for Protestant Unity,” 236). Yet from 1613 to 1618, he devoted much of his energy to planning the union of the reformed churches. Under the influence of the British king, James VI and I, he reconciled himself to one of his Protestant opponents. He did not abandon his polemical stance: in fact he defended the king’s own controversial works against the Catholic writer Robert Bellarmine (Patterson, ibid.). Du Moulin worked his way into the royal favor, knowing that the supreme head of the Church in England would be crucial to his plans for Christian unity. In 1615, Du Moulin traveled to England, where he was awarded degrees at Cambridge and given a stipend (prebend) in the English Church.

Pierre Du Moulin (Wikicommons)
Pierre Du Moulin (Wikicommons)

But, although united in their scheme to unify the Protestant churches, James and Du Moulin did not always agree. Once Du Moulin had returned to France, he resumed his controversial writings. In 1618, he published two works against a Jesuit court preacher: Le bouclier de la foi and De la vocation des pasteurs. Le bouclier contained the essence of the French Protestants’ beliefs, upheld against the attacks made by the Jesuit Arnoux. It appealed to an English audience and was translated in 1620, with a preface dedicated to the prince of Wales by Du Moulin himself. Yet the English king found Du Moulin’s work on pastors more troublesome and less translatable into an English context due to its treatment of bishops.

James’ disapproval of his book led Du Moulin to reach out to an English bishop. He got in touch with one of the king’s favorites, whom he had met when he visited England: Lancelot Andrewes, newly consecrated bishop of Winchester. “I send [my book De la vocation des pasteurs], because, since you enjoy a more frequent and nearer presence of His Majestie, I doubt not but He may have some speech with you about it, and use you as an umpire in the cause,” he wrote in September of 1618 (Of Episcopacy (1647), 6. NB: for convenience, I am citing the English translation from 1647; the original Latin text can be found in the 1629 publication or in the nineteenth-century edition of Andrewes’ works). Andrewes, however, didn’t get back to the French cleric right away. A few months later, Du Moulin wrote him once more, sending him a different book (probably Le bouclier de la foi) and again entreating him: “I desire that you would be a means to pacifie the Kings anger against me” (21).

When he finally replied, Andrewes was less understanding than Du Moulin had hoped. Andrewes and Du Moulin could not see eye to eye about episcopacy and the role that bishops should play versus that of presbyters. Du Moulin repeatedly assured his correspondent that he was not adverse to bishops like the presbyterians and puritans Andrewes knew in an English context. (In fact, only five years later, Du Moulin would try to obtain the bishopric of Gloucester!) Andrewes, however, made a hard case that episcopacy stemmed from apostolic times and was therefore established in divine law (16). The English Church thus had not only the best but also the only acceptable form of church governance: “no form of Government in any Church whatsoever cometh neerer the sense of scripture, or the manner and usage of the Antient Church, then this which flourisheth among us” (18). Andrewes assured Du Moulin that he did not consequently damn the French reformed church:

though Our Government be by Divine Right, it follows not, either that there is no salvation, or that a Church cannot stand, without it. He must needs be stone-blind, that sees not Churches standing without it. He must needs be made of iron, and hard hearted, that denys them salvation. We are not made of that metal, we are none of those Ironsides… (24)

Du Moulin was understandably upset: “Great Sir, I appeal to your equity. Think with your self, what streits you drive me to…[I could not] say that the Primacy of Bishops is by Divine Right but I should brand our Churches, (which have spilt so much blood for Christ) with Heresie” (36). Besides, he argued, not every apostolic practice was divinely ordained—“S. Paul in I. Timoth. v. would have Deaconesses appointed in the Church: But this fashion was long ago out of date” (34)!

Both clerics repeatedly insisted that the other consider his church’s circumstances. Andrewes implied that the King had heard Du Moulin’s arguments before in an English context—“They have long since on all hands been rounded in His ears” (8). Andrewes noted that Du Moulin wrote that his defense of episcopacy

should incur the censure of your Synod…In this We pardon you, and demand the like pardon from you; that it may be lawfull for us also to defend our Government, as becometh upright honest men. For we likewise have froward adversaries; and there are consciences, too, among us, which we may not suffer to be shaken or undermin[e]d… (9)

Yet Du Moulin, as “a French man, living vnder the Polity of the French Church, could not speak otherwise” (5). His church did not have the support of the state like Andrewes’ did, and furthermore was up against formidable Catholic enemies: “you should have considered with your self, whom I have to deal with. I dispute against the Pontificians” (31).

Du Moulin and Andrewes shared many of the same contacts (notably King James and the Geneva-born scholar Isaac Casaubon). Their correspondence–the fact they were in touch in the first place– reveals the real possibilities for communication between people of different faiths in an increasingly confessionalized Europe. Yet in their letters we can also see the limits that national and confessional context imposed on ecumenism. Local polemics—French inter-confessional arguments as well as English intra-confessional conflict—became the source of international disagreement between Protestants.

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Histories of Tithes: Religious Controversy and Changing Methodologies

by Madeline McMahon

In December 1618, the talented scholar John Selden was called before King James to answer for the publication of his Historie of tithes (London: William Stansby, 1618). Selden’s work on tithes (literally, the “tenth” of all goods due to the church) had instantly incited controversy. Selden was made to apologize to the High Commission of bishops and forbidden to respond to the royally commissioned attacks against his book (G. J. Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’: Genesis, Publication, Aftermath”). Reflecting back on this moment several decades later in his Vindiciae, Selden recalled that

Although it had been licensed…by the signature of one of the priestly tribe, yet once it had been printed, it offended very many of them, and also all the bishops then about the court, with the exception of the then Bishop of Winchester, that most learned and peerless Lancelot Andrewes, who was quite pleased by it as being in agreement with the most accepted practices amongst us…Hence those fierce hornets [i.e. bishops at court]…incited the mind of the king… (Selden, Vindiciae, 16 – 17. English translation from G. J. Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’: Genesis, Publication, Aftermath” 361-2.]

Selden’s account reveals the influence of what Kenneth Fincham called “court prelates”—the bishops who made their home at King James’s court. It also raises questions. Why did Selden’s already licensed book offend? And why, alone of all the court prelates, was Lancelot Andrewes instead “quite pleased” by the Historie of tithes?

Under James, the status and collection of tithes had not improved since the reformation reallocated church property to the state and prominent private citizens: as support for parish clergy, tithes were inadequate, unreliable, and often went to leading laymen anyway. In the later years under Elizabeth, clergy began to argue what had been “politically unacceptable” following the reformation: that tithes were due jure divino—by divine right (E. A. Bershadsky, “Politics, Erudition and Ecclesiology: John Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’ and its contexts and ramifications”, 4; Toomer, John Selden: A Life in Scholarship, 257-8).

Andrewes was one of the first to make this argument in his dissertation for his Doctorate of Divinity at Cambridge in 1590, when he was thirty-five years old. Like many writing a dissertation, he claimed (justifiably in his case) that his argument was new: “nor is there any by whose candle I shall light mine” (Of the Right of Tithes. A Divinity Determination… (London: Andrew Hebb, 1647), 5). This “avant-garde defence of clerical tithes” which “ran counter to advanced protestant opinion” was a risk that paid off: Andrewes was immediately made chaplain to both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen (Peter McCullough, Lancelot Andrewes: Selected Sermons and Lectures, lviii; McCullough, ODNB). Andrewes was one of the first of a movement that pushed back against the earlier Protestant reformers, especially the Calvinism prominent in the Church of England (see Peter Lake’s essay in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court). It was true, he admitted, that before the reformation “the desire to increase the Revenue of the Clergy proceeded to such a height, that it was greatly to be feared, lest the Church should swallow up the Common-wealth” (Right of Tithes, 3). The reformers had addressed this and other abuses, but Andrewes wished they had “taken care not onely of increasing the light, but also of allowing oil”—providing means for the church they had reformed (Right of Tithes, 5). Andrewes sought to defend tithes from abrogation by proving that they were “provided for by the Sacred Law” (jure divino) by “God, the Lawyer himself” (5).

Andrewes drew on a range of evidence. He turned to two passages of scripture as the cruxes of his argument: Abraham giving tithes to the priest Melchizedek in Genesis 14:20 and, ironically, Jesus’s critique of tithes in Matthew 23:23. Melchizedek blessed Abraham and Abraham in return gave a tenth of his goods (Right of Tithes, 6). This, for Andrewes, was the moment that established tithes by sacred law, as the return due to the priesthood for its services.

Andrewes went on to prove that tithes had been considered due jure divino throughout history—and not just in the Jewish and Christian religions. Greco-Roman religions mandated tithes as well, which meant that not only sacred but also natural law required such payments (24). He pointed out tithes’ protection by canon and civil law, including English common law (13) and cited different church fathers to illustrate the ubiquity of tithes across the early Christian world. He also argued from “Reason” that clergymen’s dependence on the fruits of the earth made them more sympathetic to their agrarian parishioners—tithes made for a better community (22). At the end, though, Andrewes returned to “the example of Melchisedek, who surpasseth the antiquity and faith of all Histories” (26).

Under James, it became de rigueur to argue that tithes were owed according to sacred law. Andrewes’ once subversive argument had become the norm. While Selden did not write against tithes, his approach and rationale was opposite to Andrewes’, despite the fact that he touched on similar topics and even structured his book in much the same way. For Selden, the Jewish practice of tithes was neither continuous nor relevant to that of the Christian church. Besides, Selden pointed out with philological and historical bravado, technically Abraham had paid Melchizedek spoils of war (The Historie of Tithes, 1-3). The early church was supported by charity rather than legal requirement. Only in the late medieval church were tithes enforced.

In his defense to the king, Selden wrote that he had “resolved wholly to leave the point of divine right of tythes, and keep myself wholly to the historical part” (“Of my Purpose and End in writing the History of Tythes”, quoted in Toomer, John Selden, 259). The title of his work—the Historie, rather than Right of tithes—signaled Selden’s real departure from previous approaches. Perhaps Andrewes saw something of his own in Selden’s work: another subversive and innovative treatment of tithes. Both Andrewes’ and Selden’s works were coopted several decades later when the case for an established church itself was at stake. Andrewes’ dissertation was translated and published in 1647, while Selden noted in the 1650s that clergymen then sought

where they might find the best argument for their tithes, setting aside the jus diuinum; they were advised to my History of Tithes, a book so much cried down by them formerly (in which, I dare boldly say, there are more arguments for them than are extant together anywhere)… (Selden, Table Talk, quoted in Toomer, “Selden’s ‘Historie of Tithes’,” 374-5)