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White spirit: Elizabeth Upper is impressed by a study of the cultural and religious politics of whitewash.

Whitewash and the New Aesthetic of the Protestant Reformation

Victoria George

Pindar Press, 150 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9781904597643

The exhibition of J.M.W. Turner's Snow Storm--Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth at the Royal Academy in 1842 was not a success. John Ruskin recalled that the artist was so wounded by a critic's dismissal of it as 'soap suds and whitewash' that be sputtered the phrase for hours. Raging, vitriolic debates about whitewash in historic buildings may have intensified the sting--Ecclesiologists considered it criminal and stripped it from churches at every opportunity, while Gothicists considered removing it an even greater evil. Fuelled by the spectre of cathedrals being stripped and bleached during the Reformation, whitewash had long been derided as an enemy of art.

But as Victoria George compellingly argues in the first critical evaluation of the whitewashing of sacred spaces, white lime was not simply a cheap and destructive tool wielded by crazed reformers and philistines. Instead, she demonstrates that it manifested the emergence of a new aesthetic that would lead directly to minimalist modernism, including the white cube gallery.

The book surveys Protestant whitewashing from the radical cleansing of 'Papist pollution' in 1524, following influential extremists like Zwingli and Calvin, to its continuation in England until the mid 17th century. Instructions to remove images did not necessarily imply the erasing of colour, but the ritualistic obliteration of visual distractions derives from what George calls the Protestant 'aesthetic of silence' that followed Zwingli's ban on music from 1523 onwards. Interpreting the astonishing paucity of references to whitewashing in official documents as evidence that it may have emerged spontaneously or locally, she treats the whitewashed interior as a social process and a symbolic form expressing new religious practices and beliefs.

Given that the scope alternates between sweeping overviews of art history and art theory and detailed case studies, often of Swiss interiors, the use of subheadings would have made the text easier to navigate. George traces the complex histories of the meanings of white and other colours from classical philosophy to biblical scholarship. She makes a convincing argument that a biblical distinction between albus (dull white) and candida (luminous white, as in spiritual light and gleaming garments) informed Reformation theology; the art policies of prominent early reformers like Zwingli derive from this distinction. Whitewashing was thus dressing the body of Christ (the physical church) in a glowing white robe of spiritual purity, whose candidaness could be reinforced with clear windows. To early Protestants, making a church brilliantly white signalled the neutralisation of dangerous Catholic superstitions and distractions from worship, their own spiritual renewal and the redemption of the reformed Church itself.

George shows that not all whitewashings were alike (especially in England, where interiors were praised as 'blank' rather than 'white'), or even specifically Protestant. She points out that the whitest, brightest whitewash from imported French lime was expensive and prestigious; some 'whitewashed' churches were instead lined with fabric (to cover and preserve the offending paintings) or coated with monochromatic pink or stone-like colours (Fig. 1), while others were whitewashed regularly, simply as refurbishment. Furthermore, whitewashed walls had been decorated with simple painted decoration (red flowers) since the Middle Ages--particularly in England--and many stark churches were decorated with colourful coats of arms. And some Catholic spaces were designed to have gleaming white interiors too.

While the focus is on the 16th century, George positions whitewashing as both a continuation of a centuries-old decorative practice and as the precursor to minimalism. She cites iconic 20th- and 21st-century ecclesiastical architecture that emulates a whitewashed finish, such as Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp (Fig. 3) and Richard Meier's Church of the Year 2000 in Rome. Minimalist aesthetics are certainly rooted in those of the De Stijl, whose members were presumably familiar with the stark, stripped-down, whitewashed look characteristic of Dutch churches. Did early 20th-century designers draw on their experience of encountering these vast, still, white spaces to create the shock of the new? The suggestion is a fascinating, if briefly treated, extension of the author's interpretation of this early modern aesthetic as an enduring worldview.

George surveys an enormous amount of material, supported by a correspondingly dense scholarly apparatus, but her main argument comes through loud and clear. when we look at an Old Master painting of a church interior, we need to look through early modern eyes to understand what the artist was communicating. Rather than stark and empty, these vast, luminous spaces were theologically significant, ritually cleansed sanctuaries whose spiritual transformation visually echoed the reformers' own.

Elizabeth Upper is a Research Fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge.
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Title Annotation:Whitewash and the New Aesthetic of the Protestant Reformation
Author:Upper, Elizabeth
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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