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Grammar and Grace

St Martin altarpiece (1490, unknown provenance), Hungarian National Gallery.

This October it will be 500 years since Luther made public his famous 95 theses in Wittenberg. The anniversary is being celebrated on the web, by a pilgrimage and festival, with events in and around Wittenberg itself, as well as in print. In Budapest, the Hungarian National Museum has devoted an exhibition to the subject of the Reformation in Hungary: Ige-idők (Grammar and Grace), which runs until November 5th.

 

The displays open with a huge black and white reproduction of a Last Judgement scene, as an illustration of the late medieval mindset. The world is presented as a thorny place beset by sin and temptation. When the final trumpet sounds, the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished horribly. Altarpieces of the northern European school reinforce the point. God's Word must be our guide, but it comes down to us in Latin, a language we do not speak, so His message is transcribed pictorially, through stories of Christ and the exemplary lives of the saints. Because we cannot communicate directly with God, the saints also intercede for us, helping us to achieve salvation. This will never be attained without the purifying fire of Purgatory; the aim is to spend as little time there as possible. The tools for getting out are faith and good works, but because these are notiriously unreliable currency, we are offered the chance to pay, through the purchase of indulgences.

 

This, in a nutshell, is the pre-Reformation Christian world. Mysterious, untransparent, trammelled by an unwieldy bureaucracy of saints, and, as an inevitable result, corrupt. The first room spends some time presenting Rome as the arch culprit. It is Rome that allows the system of indulgences. Rome also wilfully misleads her flock. This is illustrated by a woodcut of two feet. And it is here that the exhibition begins to be problematic.

 

Background information is presented through a series of wall banners. The texts are uncomfortably long and there is nowhere to sit down while reading them. The exhibited objects themselves (some of them never exhibited before) are captioned erratically. Captions give date and provenance, but are rarely explanatory, making no attempt to show why an item was chosen for display or how it links with the theme. Sometimes the captions are translated, but more often they are not, so visitors with no Hungarian will struggle. This is the case with the woodcut of the feet. As a piece of evidence to support the curators’ point it is well chosen. But why is this not explained in situ? The footprints are those that occur on a crude stone block preserved in the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on the Via Appia in Rome (hence the figure of St Sebastian in the woodcut). They purport to be the imprints left by Christ's feet as he appeared to St Peter, who was fleeing the city in an attempt to avoid martyrdom. “Master, where are you going?” Peter asks. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Christ replies. Ashamed, Peter turns back and re-enters the city to meet his fate. It’s a charming story but the stone footprints are a blatant fake. Reproductions of this fake (so double fakes) are set into the floor of the chapel of Quo Vadis, also on the Via Appia, at the bend in the road where the famous meeting is supposed to have taken place. Last time I was there, a devout family was rubbing the footprints with pebbles, to make relics by contact. This is precisely the sort of minsinformation and hoaxing that the 16th-century Reformers aimed to root out.

Anonymous 15th-century woodcut. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

So how did they go about it? The English title of this exhibition, Grammar and Grace, has a good alliterative ring and fits the original Hungarian well in that Igeidők means tenses (grammatical, as in past, present, future). But it can also be translated as “The Age of the Word”; and it is really this that the exhibition is about, because it is through the Word (of God, transmitted to man in comprehensible form) that the Reformers sought to do their work. Whether salvation is achieved through faith or through works, or, as Luther had it, through grace alone (or only by grace), is a theological debate that the exhibition does not wrestle with. It concentrates on Protestantism's fixation with text and the way text replaced images.

 

Altarpieces cease to be the principal tool of communication and what we get instead are books. A number of early Bibles and prayer books are exhibited, for example the Greek and Latin translation of the New Testament by Erasmus (Basel, 1516), intended as a basis from which vernacular translations could be made, translations which would make the phalanx of intermediary saints redundant, as Holy Writ was rendered in the common language of men. One such translation on show is the Hungarian-language prayerbook of the wife of Pál Kinizsi (1513), from western Hungary.

 

In early 16th-century Hungary, ecclesiastical leadership was in crisis. Many prelates were also military commanders and most were wiped out at the Battle of Mohács, the great Ottoman victory of 1526. Into the void stepped itinerant preachers, spreading the ideas of Luther and Calvin. But the two reformers were different temperamentally. The difference is nowhere better illustrated than by the pavement slabs in nearby Kálvin tér, close to the museum. Here, underfoot, the flagstones are inscribed with quotations from Protestant theologians. “God in his mercy denies to his own what of his wrath he permits to unbelievers,” says Calvin stoically. Luther is more mischievous and less austere: “If I could believe that the Lord had no sense of humour, I should not wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Both Lutheran (in Hungarian, Evangélikus) and Calvinist (Református) congregations developed in Hungary.

 

Luther introduced communal singing to church services, turning the congregation from passive witnesses of unfathomable mysteries into active participants in the celebration. Music does not come into this exhibition, though. We are stuck with text. A wall banner notes that none of the achievements of the Reformation could have been accomplished without zeal, but the Bibles, however remarkable, do not speak to us in the way the early altarpieces do. Deprived of the personality of the preachers who used them, they struggle to convey the quality of this zeal. Some of the preachers will have been ardent and inspirational, opening up whole new realms of spirituality for their hearers. Others will have been fanatics, banishing imagination, insisting on the literal.

 

Text comes not only in the form of devotional books, which after all were rare and expensive (the early, 16th-century Bibles were mainly for the use of the preacher; copies for individual study took another century to arrive). Instead, altarpieces were redeployed as vehicles for the Word. Suddenly they are awash with writing. The exhibition has found a brilliant example: a 1519 Crucifixion altarpiece from Sibiu (Hermannstadt/Nagyszeben) in Transylvania, which was painted over in 1545 by the first Protestant minister. The entire lower section, which would have shown mourners at the foot of the Cross, has been overlaid with texts from St Matthew’s gospel and the book of Isaiah. Mary Magdalene's hands can still just be seen in the central strip, clutching the Cross. It is a piece reminiscent of the famous Binham Priory rood screen in Norfolk, England.

Crucifixion altarpiece of 1519, overpainted with text in 1545.

Translation, however, had its drawbacks. The new invention of printing, just like the Internet today, was a disruptive technology. Suddenly, vernacular Bibles were everywhere, being used by individual preachers with their own individual interpretations of God's message. It was difficult to enforce an official line. In Reformation Hungary there were no burnings at the stake; instead different denominations co-existed. This seems to have been especially true because of the power vacuum created by the Ottomans, with their semi-tolerant approach and their appetite for tribute money. The town of Debrecen, for example, paid tribute in exchange for being left alone: it existed as a Christian republic, a ‘new Jerusalem’ on the Geneva model, referring to itself as Cristianopolis (it remained self-governed in this way until the mid-1750s). Today we worry about fake news. During the Reformation people worried about free interpretations of scripture. In another 15th-century Sibiu altarpiece (here shown in an early 20th-century copy), Protestantised in 1650, Christ is shown behind bars at the bottom. St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible springs to mind (Lamentations 4:20), where his Latin translation makes mention of "Christ the Lord" a captive of our sins, something the original does not exactly say. If St Jerome could do it, what might a provincial pastor do? Inevitably there had to be a clampdown.

 

As surely as Catholicism ever did, Protestantism begins to use the tools of propaganda. The result is a kind of sententious, moralising religiosity, as exemplified by the Dutch-inspired 18th-century Vanitas still life by an unknown Hungarian painter. All the stock elements are there, to indicate the transience of this worldly existence: the skull, the snuffed candle, the soap bubbles, the dog-eared book, the fading flowers. Fickle fortune is indicated by the dice. False riches by the coins. The only thing that can save us is Christ and the Spirit, symbolised by the goldfinch. (None of this is explained in the wall caption.)

Inevitably, as it becomes established, Protestantism also enters the realm of politics. In Hungary’s case this was particularly true in Transylvania, but after Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance (1781), it becomes true in general. Protestants also make significant contributions to science (understandably) and the arts. The vernacular Bible in Hungary was influential in shaping language and thus thought. But the Reformation as a lathe on which identity is shaped also brings with it identity politics. If a Reformation brings choice, then one has to self-identify. No longer can we talk of one people under the imperial aegis of a pope or a Habsburg monarch, but separate nations of denomination, each with its own belief systems. Public expressions of religion have elements in common with modern virtue-signalling. In the end, much comes down to personal preference and inclination. It is difficult not to return to the first room, as the one where the objects speak most freely to each beholder. There is a lovely panel showing St Martin (illustrated at the top of this article). The bishop saint, with a huge gold halo, stands before an altar raising the Host aloft as angels drape his naked arms (naked because he has charitably given half his cloak to a beggar). In the background, in a doorway, stands a man, observing the scene just as we do, but from the opposite side. It is a lovely and subtle work of art, linking God and Man. What better way to communicate mystery and transcendence? But Calvin (whose version of Protestantism came to dominate in Hungary) was intransigently opposed to the image. Is this the reason why metalwork became so intricate? There are a great number of chalices and other items of church plate on show, some of them extremely elaborate. There are perhaps too many on display, and no detailed information on any of them.

 

Some of the early altarpieces now seem modern in a way that many of the later, once-revolutionary artefacts do not. Bibles, prayer books and orders of service, once translated, are in need of constant revision, as language, society and its shibboleths change. A little columbarium vitrine in the penultimate room contains quotes from modern authors. The one from Péter Esterházy sums it up: “The spectrum of language is not only spatial but temporal. Words have their time, or, to put it another way, time lies couched within words. Our time, the time of those who use the words, our history, our very selves.” A reformation which puts mysteries into words sets itself on a path of perpetual re-reform as the words date and lose their revelatory power.

 

That does not mean we should not reform. But how should reformations be conducted? How can we prevent them either from degenerating into riot or from fossilising into the very sclerotic structures they sought to sweep away? This exhibition poses all these questions. It is extremely thought-provoking. How far have we come in the half-millennium since Luther railed against Tetzel?

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