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Abstract

After the expulsion of the Czech Brethren from their homeland in 1627, a large group settled in Poland, setting up communities, building churches, and establishing an excellent grammar school in Leszno. The most outstanding personality among them was their leader and superior, Bishop John Amos Comenius (1592–1670), who strove to preserve the religious identity of the Unity of the Brethren and to maintain good relations with the larger Protestant communities. This clergyman also had a thriving literary career, which resulted in as many as 174 works published in print, followed by numerous later editions and translations into various languages. None of his writings, however, were specifically on the subject of religious art, but in some of them he outlined very clearly his views on this issue. Condemning the devastation of Protestant churches in Bohemia and the destruction of their interior decoration in his Historia persecutionum Ecclesiae Bohemicae (1647), Comenius argued (echoing Martin Luther and John Calvin) that although these buildings were not officially consecrated, they were holy places nevertheless, sanctified by the Word of God and the Sacrament of the Altar. When describing a “typical” church in his textbook Orbis sensualium pictus (1658), Comenius singled out the architectural solutions characteristic of the Lutheran and Czech Brethren’s churches erected around 1600. They included a clear separation of the sanctuary and a three-nave body, with matronea in the aisles. The furnishings of such a “typical” church also drew on the tradition of these religious communities, and consisted of an altar, a pulpit suspended near one of the columns in the main body, and a baptismal font located near the entrance. In his work Panorthosia, completed in the 1660s, Comenius proposed a new shape for the church which was to meet the needs of the united Christians, but evidently originated in the Calvinist tradition of church building which Comenius must have seen during your stay in the Netherlands. The leader of the Czech Brethren postulated that a universal sanctuary should be built to a circular or octagonal plan, because this arrangement unifies the liturgical community and makes the celebrant easily heard. In terms of the cult of paintings, Comenius did not follow faithfully the teachings of the Czech Brethren, who were convinced that the second commandment prohibits any images of living things. Like Calvin, however, he opposed the depiction of God in bodily form, and the placing of pictures inside churches. Some parts of his Orbis sensualium pictus treating of the Jewish and Christian religion, were illustrated with biblical scenes, which proves that he agreed with Luther that religious pictures can be used to instruct those who have difficulties with the reception of the sacred texts. In his Historia persecutionum Ecclesiae Bohemicae, Comenius vigorously condemns the actions of Catholics, who had removed and destroyed from Bohemian churches the pictures of the utraquistic martyrs, Jan Hus and Hieronim from Prague. Comenius insisted that he did not defend these works as cult paintings, but saw them as valuable mementos of the Hussite religion, which gave rise to the Czech Reformation. The vision of the role of art in the life of the Church formulated by Comenius was a synthesis of the solutions introduced by various Protestant denominations. It was presented by him in an inconspicuous manner, in order to silence the possible conflicts between these faith groups. Comenius looked at art solely as a tool for the religious education of the faithful, and was against limiting its use for this purpose. Such an instrumental approach also meant that unlike the Church reformers active in the 16th century, Comenius did not seek to formulate a complementary theory of religious art.
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