Criticism humanist and especially Protestant question not only the theoretical foundations of the image of religion but also most of the traditional uses that were made and are now considered idolatrous. From the years 1510-1520, critics multiply, including in circles that remain faithful to Rome, against the miracles accomplished through the holy images, the apotropaic uses of these, the confusing or apocryphal subjects, the techniques of coercion of the saints through their figurative representation, or the legends that run about the exceptional powers of this or that figure. Some critics, however, go further, denying any legitimacy to the cult of images, even rid of its excesses, and any sacredness to the figurative or symbolic representations of divinity. The images of the saints, of the Virgin, of God, are only stone, wood, canvas, works made of the hand of man, that man should in no way adore in the place of God, which would be nothing but idolatry.
During the Renaissance, Christian art, even though it had lost its fervor, was serene as ancient art; he expressed rest in the faith; he fled the expression of pain; he veiled the image of death. In their attempt to identify the changes in representation and perception, most of the studies carried out on the historical transformations of the status of the image and the way it looks at it privilege novelty, breaks, innovation, sometimes to excess. Some of them thus analyze the emergence of the idea of “work of art” in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries from the only creations of these decisive centuries, by seeking in some exemplary realizations and in the reactions they
The contemporaries were inspired by the clues of both a new artistic practice and a new relation to the figurative arts. This approach, which fortunately allows one to think of the complex relations that are formed between conception, realization, and perception of “works of art” and thus to understand some of the conditions necessary for the birth of “art”, conceals large methodological virtues: it reveals, for example, in what way and how the artists participate themselves – not without hindrance – in this transformation of the status of their products and thus of their own status, by passing from the position of performer to that of designer, from craftsman to artist. By restoring this double movement, we give ourselves the means to base on a sociology a little precise the real stakes of the emergence of the work of art.
However, rather than considering the rapid substitution of the aesthetic posture for Christian worship, we must probably resolve to speak of competition between various uses and users of images and conflicts of judgment. The triumph of the aesthetic judgment and the definition of the art that it imposes is only visible at the end of a long and complex struggle that is far from being complete at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Indeed, there are exceptions to this double movement which makes the relation to the figurative arts one of the places where the social distance taken by a fraction of the elites with regard to what was the common culture is most marked of the Christian people.
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