Van Gogh and the Protestant Reformation

Van Gogh would never have been the unique genius he was, Rene Huyghe argues in Van Gogh (a monograph in the Crown Art Library series), were it not for the Protestant Reformation.

This is a stretch but it is not absurd. I’m talking about the effect of the Protestant Reformation in secular terms. We normally think of the Protestant Reformation as a religious movement – an effort to reform the bad practices of the Roman Catholic Church and/or break away from the dominance of the papacy. But it also gave people the idea that they could think for themselves.

One of the primary issues on the reformist agenda was the “right” of individuals to be able to read and interpret the Bible. Until then, church ceremonies were conducted in Latin and, except for songs, recited silently by priests. Churchgoers had no idea what was being said. This suited the clergy since their knowledge of the Bible gave them power.

One of the great ideas of Luther and his fellow revolutionaries was that every man had the God-given right to draw his own meaning from the Bible. By seeking to put Bibles into the hands of ordinary people and eventually have the Bible translated into English, the reformists were providing an extraordinary tool for individual liberty and creativity.