Decorating the 'Godly' Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain

April 21, 2011

One of the pleasant fictions of the book business is the pretence that we pick books up, start reading at the beginning and work our way through to the end. But really we all do the same thing: first, we flick through to look for pictures. At that point, this book has you hooked. It's gorgeous: its 193 images, many of them in colour, all of them fascinating, show us a world that we scarcely knew existed - the religious art of Calvinism.

We all know that English and Scottish Protestants hated art; they burned, smashed, whitewashed and defaced it. Their churches were bare and austere: white walls decorated only with painted words. In their homes, they were banned from keeping "pictures, paintings, and other monuments of...idolatry and superstition".

They were, as historian Patrick Collinson put it, "iconophobic". But Tara Hamling makes a pretty good case that (for once) Collinson was wide of the mark.

This was an age of yawning inequality: the peasantry got poorer and the yeomanry and gentry richer. This book says nothing about how peasants decorated their homes (presumably because we know nothing about it, although it would have been nice to mention them). But the wave of house-building and improvement by the newly wealthy left a wonderful material legacy. These houses were inevitably going to be decorated - and their owners, good Christians that they were, wanted to express their faith in that decoration. Hamling has tracked down almost 100 surviving 16th- and 17th-century houses containing Protestant religious art across England, Wales and Scotland. And what a picture it is.

Protestant religious art was not, of course, devotional - you didn't pray to or with it. Mostly it instructed you in virtue, warned you against sin and continually called your wandering thoughts back to God. The heart of Decorating the 'Godly' Household is a long chapter (nearly half the book's length) in which we follow Hamling on a virtual tour of the Protestant house's decorations, from the great hall through the parlour to the bedchamber and long gallery, seeing the characteristic images in each room and hearing the plasterwork sermons they preached.

Interpretation of images is always a tricky business as they are easier to misread than text, but Hamling's argument that there is a strong current of patriarchal control here is pretty powerful. Biblical scenes were used to warn those gathered around the fireplace against the flames of Hell. Even plates and mugs exhorted you to fear God.

Two of the most popular scenes were the judgment of Solomon (an image of patriarchal wisdom) and Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. Both scenes feature adults about to butcher children. In both cases, the biblical story explains that disaster was averted, but what early modern children learned from ubiquitous images of men waving knives at infants is another matter.

Some images, indeed, weren't meant to be seen, but to "see" you. As Hamling points out, the intricate pictures of godly patriarchs on plasterwork ceilings were almost invisible. But you knew they were there: stern figures gazing down on you as you went about your business.

Why? Because the household was holy. Protestant writers called it a "little church" and their decorators took them at their word. The spaces where the family gathered for prayer sometimes echoed church buildings: tablets of the Ten Commandments, even triptychs of biblical scenes.

In other words, this book is full of important and original ideas. But what I most enjoyed about it was Hamling's enthusiasm for the wonderful objects she describes. Even when discussing abstract issues, she can't tear herself away from the concrete specifics for long. As the Calvinists themselves knew, whether you love imagery or hate it, you can't get rid of it. Hamling loves it, and her book is all the richer for that.

Decorating the 'Godly' Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain

By Tara Hamling. Yale University Press, 256pp, £45.00. ISBN 9780300162820. Published 24 November 2010

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