Gerhard Nebel on Beauty and the Reformation

Vatican Museums
I took this picture somewhere in the Vatican Palaces. Click to enlarge.

A sobering judgment from Gerhard Nebel, a Protestant theologian much-admired by Hans Urs von Balthasar:

“Anyone who is concerned with the world in all its range, with forms and proportions, with man’s heroism, with morality, with the splendor of forms, with the exploration of the sphere of myth, will feel repelled by Protestantism. Luther destroyed the rich treasury of myth, and replaced it with an arid, official Institute. Anyone enamored of beauty will shiver in the barn of the Reformation, just as Winckelmann did, and feel the pull of Rome.”

Nebel, Das Ereignis des Schönen (Stuttgart, 1953), p. 188. Quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, I: The Word Made Flesh (Ignatius,  1989), p. 121.

Note: Tracey Rowland inaccurately attributes this quote to von Balthasar in Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford, 2008), p. 133.



  1. It seems I run into the view fairly often, but always without much argument behind it, as though it were self-evident; which leaves me to wonder what exactly got into people like Milton and Bach, under this view, that could beat out their Protestantism and make them great artists. The culture of the last few centuries has certainly been hard on aesthetic creation, so I suppose if you blame Protestants for modernity…it still seems difficult for me to reconcile this view with things like, for example, English poetry in the 1600s without claiming crypto-Catholics and working with a strict (and possibly circular!) definition of ‘Protestant.’

  2. It is a great quote, but there is one point to qualify: Gerhard Nebel has not been a Lutheran theologian in the strict sense but rather a writer, culture critic and “Essayist” with an intellectual biography full of changes and conversions before towards the end of his life obviously becoming a protestant believer or rather as the German wikipedia article puts it: “ein Gottsucher”, a seeker for God.

    Please cf. or in French:

  3. You can very much argue for a “crypto-Catholicism” in many of the examples usually given for a Protestant aesthetic. Protestantism did not come from out of nowhere — it came from the medieval Church, and those segments of Protestantism that did not eschew a high sacramentology and liturgy are usually the segments of Protestantism that produce the great artists. It is not surprising that Bach came from a high liturgical tradition of Lutheranism and Milton came from the Anglican tradition. Even then, they are both artists of the “word,” whereas the visual aesthetics (along with the aural) are especially strong in Catholicism. The Reformed (Calvinist) tradition emphasizes the Word the most and the sacraments the least, thus the visual arts are neglected the most in this tradition (exceptions noted — Dutch painting).

    The connection is obvious between the Protestant emphasis on faith and scripture (aural agents) and the Protestant ability to cultivate fine verbal and aural art (music, poetry, hymns). Catholicism has cultivated the embodied aspect of religion, and the connection here with the Catholic emphasis on faith and works is obvious, along with the Catholic emphasis on the ecclesial embodiment of the Incarnation (sacraments, priests and bishops as vicars of Christ, conciliar and papal infallibility, etc.).

    Furthermore, even the verbal art that Protestantism does well is of a different kind than the Catholic. Compare Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” with Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The former is pedagogical and the Christian analogies are obvious; the latter is mythical and the moral forms do not serve an explicit Christian parallel. Even Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” is more akin to Bunyan than Tolkien, even though Lewis was heavily influenced by medieval and renaissance literature.

  4. In her review of Rowland’s Ratzer bk in the Church Times, Lucy Beckett says that it is so inaccurate about von Balthasar it is impossible to believe the author has read him.

    I agree in general (or perhaps, in principle) with the idea that RC art is symbolic and embodied, Protestant art allegorical. But there are some nuances. One, a subjective One, I prefer Narnia to Lord of the Rings. Precisely because Narnia is thinner and less coloured in, it does not suffer from the temptation to ‘Wagnerian gnosticism’ which one could sense in LoTR. Don’t ask me what Wagnerian gnosticism is – that’s my rationalisation of not liking LoTR (though I do like the movie). Two, a less subjective Two, did Lewis get his ‘allegorism’ from Protestant writers, like Bunyan? As a scholar, his period was the medieval and early reformation (16th century) – pre-Bunyan. I read an interesting thing in a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet about Saint John Fisher (martyred at the same time as Thomas More). It said that Lewis describes Fisher’s spirituality as excessively ‘penitiential’ and grim and otherworldly, and neglects to mention that one of Fisher’s books describes a devil giving another devil advice on temptation! In other words, perhaps the great moral allegory of The Screwtape Letters is inspired by Saint John Fisher. Late medieval drama is allegorical – eg, in England, Everyman, and in spain, Calderon’s ‘The Great Theatre of the World’ (Spain had a longer middle ages). Perhaps Lewis is an heir of late mediaeval Catholicism.

  5. Good tip on Rowland’s book.

    I don’t like Wagner, which makes me suspicious when reading von Hildebrand. I can’t say that I see “Wagnerian gnosticism” in LoTR, but I’ll be on the lookout next time.

    I did read Lewis say (somewhere, don’t remember) that Bunyan was “magnificent” or something like that. Perhaps the late medieval connection is there too.

  6. prots may be in the barn, but barns can be very beautiful after all. there is a tradition of an iconoclastic aesthetic that runs through christianity, and it is not opposed to beauty or form or proportion (e.g. cistercian abbeys like fontenay, quaker meeting houses, shaker furniture). so the controversy over the use of images does not directly translate into a controversy over beauty as such.

    francesca: ‘wagnerian gnosticism’ is duly added to my lexicon of theological derision. many thanks.

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