Personification of the Reformation in the 18th century

Richter, S.
Personifikatsiya Reformatsii v XVIII v. [Personification of the Reformation in the 18th century], in: Proslogion: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Social History and Culture, 2018. Vol. 4 (1). P. 123138.

Susan Richter, doctor of History, professor, Department of History, Heidelberg University (69117, Germany, Heidelberg, Grabengasse 3–5; aud. 229)

Language: Russian

It is thanks to the Augsburgian copperplate engraver Jeremias Wachsmuth (1711–1771) that an emblematical figure of reformation has been handed down to us in 1758. Wachsmuth, in turn, complies with Cesare Ripa’s (1555–1622) riforma which the latter coined in his Iconologia overo Descrittione Dell’imagini Universali cavate dall’Antichità et da altri luoghi in order to anthropomorphically make goals, means, and actors of reform more graspable and more easily explicable, respectively.
Revealing itself in the form of a young woman, Wachstmuth’s reformation holds a billhook in its right hand. Serving as an horticultural tool especially in wine-growing regions, it is applied to the present day, for instance, in the act of fruit tree pruning. In this context, its functions as the perfect instrument for carefully cutting off back dead or diseased branches. The underlying idea is to control growth and stimulate the expected yield. Ripa correspondingly assigns to his personified Riforma both an example of a diseased and a healthy branch, each resulting from a particular course of action: on the one hand, the flourishing branch as the result of a reforming trim, the diseased one, on the other hand, as the outcome of ignorance and a refusal of acting. The knife, accordingly, symbolizes the principle of renasci (renewal) or, alternatively, the idea of revirescere (regreening and regaining strength). Thus, the billhook, in horticultural life, is supposed to assist a well-informed professional. The fashion how Wachsmuth puts this symbolic tool into use, provides guidance to a particular exegesis. For carrying out a correction of the status quo and striving for a change to the better, it is most certainly necessary to have suitable instruments at one’s disposal.
The ensemble consisting of book and billhook additionally indicates the necessity of able key actors being bestowed with faith, knowledge, courage, legitimacy, and, being of the utmost importance, agency. It is thus hardly surprising that the caption precisely hints at such an actor: The biblical king Josiah (647 BC – 609 BC, Destruit Iosias iustus, Simulacra Deorum, Rex populusque ferunt, pectora pura Deo) who is detectable in two scenes in the background of the picture. On the left side, sitting on his throne and internalizing the Divine Laws and, on the right side, acting correspondingly.

Key Words: Correction, Emblematical figure, Personification, Reformation, Reform


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