Who Were the 6 Most Famous Artists of the Protestant Reformation?

The Protestant Reformation was the religious revolution that triggered radical changes in visual art.

May 30, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

most famous artists protestant reformation


The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, brought great changes to the history of European art. After the mass destruction of religious artworks by the angry mob, artists from Northwestern Europe were forced to seek new subjects. They found inspiration in their daily lives, still lives, and portraits. Read on to learn more about the most important artists of the Protestant Reformation.


What Happened During the Protestant Reformation?

protestant reformation iconoclasm print
Protestant pro-iconoclasm print, the Netherlands, 1566. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1517, theology professor Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. The document contained 95 theses for improving the corrupt and omnipotent Catholic Church in order to bring it closer to the original ideas of Christianity. This bold gesture triggered an entire movement called the Reformation, and led to the emergence of Protestantism as a religion.


Among Martin Luther’s concerns was the abuse of religious imagery in art, leading to idolatry. He believed in the didactic power of art but warned against worshiping icons and sculptures. Some of his followers took this idea to an extreme, believing that the new doctrine insisted on iconoclasm—the destruction of all religious art and images. Thousands of priceless artifacts were lost during those years, and many people died trying to protect them.


protestant reformation cranach luther engraving
Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1520. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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After Protestantism settled as the dominating religion in certain regions—mostly parts of present-day Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands—the local artists had to invent new niches for themselves. Previously, they worked almost exclusively through church commissions. They were used to showing religious subjects, but now they had to reinvent their practice. With the same emotional intensity and feeling, they switched to painting intimate interior scenes, landscapes, decorated tables of fruit and game, and portraits of their patrons and loved ones. They were now often representing myths and legends, both local and borrowed from Roman Antiquity. Here are some of the artists of the Protestant Reformation that you need to know.


1. Lucas Cranach The Elder (1472-1553)

protestant reformation cranach gospel painting
Allegory of Law and Grace (Law and Gospel), by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529. Source: Wikipedia


Lucas Cranach the Elder is considered the most important artist of the Protestant Reformation, Cranach was a close friend of Martin Luther, the theologian and ex-monk who triggered the revolution with his writings. Over the years, Cranach painted several portraits of Martin Luther and his closest supporters, documenting their radical religious reform.


Despite his friendship with Luther and his Protestant beliefs, Cranach was liberal in his approach when it came to painting commissions. As the political turmoil settled, he continued to paint religious subjects for his Catholic patrons and churches outside the newly emerged Protestant regions. Moreover, during his lifetime, he painted religious and allegorical subjects for selected Lutheran churches, reflecting the Protestant doctrine. For instance, the painting Allegory of Law and Grace was a didactic illustration created under the supervision of Martin Luther. According to Luther, simply following God’s Law was not enough to deserve salvation—it was necessary to absorb the Gospel within oneself and truly feel it.


2. Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586)

cranach younger portrait painting
Portrait of a Woman, by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1539. Source: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid


Often confused with his father, Lucas Cranach the Younger inherited the family workshop and successfully took care of it while the older Cranach worked outside their hometown of Wittenberg. Cranach the Younger never became a court painter, but he received enough commissions from the local elites and held several political positions in Wittenberg.


Lucas Cranach the Younger brought significant and notable improvements to the painting process of the workshop. The son was much more liberal, creative, and bold when it came to using color. He paid significantly more attention to details, refining the Cranach portraiture almost to the point of stylization.


3. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)

protestant reformation durer wing watercolor
Wing of a Blue Roller, by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1500-12. Source: The Albertina Museum, Vienna


The great German artist Albrecht Dürer revolutionized printmaking once and for all. Dürer was Catholic, but he expressed great interest in the works of Martin Luther and other religious reformers of his time. However, as the Reformation progressed, he expressed disdain for the actions of the reformers and disappointment in Luther. Nonetheless, over the years, he re-evaluated the importance of religious art, struggling with painting and preferring to work on theories related to geometry and proportion.


Albrecht Dürer was great at self-promoting. Each of his prints had his signature monogram incorporated into the composition, which immediately attributed the work to its particular master. By producing and spreading hundreds and thousands of relatively cheap prints all around Europe, Dürer easily built a vast and well-off client base for himself.


His skills and methods were also innovative. He was the first artist to combine the theoretical explorations of the Renaissance and the Medieval painting tradition, which were previously believed to be incompatible. He expressed a deep interest in natural sciences and often produced prints and paintings that looked like scientific illustrations.


4. Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543)

holbein noli me tangere painting
Noli me tangere, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526-28. Source: Royal Collection Trust


Hans Holbein the Younger is another great name associated with the Protestant Reformation, particularly with the religious propaganda of the time. Holbein continued the artistic dynasty after his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, an accomplished Gothic painter. Hans Holbein the Younger was German, yet he spent the most dramatic decades of the Reformation in relatively calm England under the patronage of King Henry VIII. The artist played a crucial role in public by painting the monarch’s majestic and awe-inspiring portraits in an attempt to rehabilitate the King’s reputation after his string of marriages.


In Holbein’s religious work, the canons of Biblical subject paintings are shifted towards the austere and modest demands of Protestantism. The scene of Mary Magdalene recognizing Jesus Christ after his resurrection, known as Noli me tangere, is devoid of grandiosity and decoration. The figures look realistic, and their attributes of sainthood are almost non-existent, with Christ’s halo barely visible behind his head. This gesture allows Holbein to present his characters as real people. Thus, the viewers could relate to them and truly appreciate the great miracle of resurrection.


5. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569)

bruegel wedding painting
The Peasant Wedding, by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, 1567. Source: Wikipedia


Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Reformation-era innovator. He was the first one to depart from traditional imagery of saints, Biblical and mythical narratives, and portraits of great people of his time. He moved on to depictions of peasants and working people. His compositions are inevitably tied to the change of seasons and the alterations of human life according to weather.


Bruegel showed peasants celebrating holidays, dancing, and enjoying their lives. Before Bruegel, the image of a peasant in a painting bore mostly negative connotations. It was associated with ignorance, stupidity, and bad temper. As the Protestant Reformation highlighted the virtues of temperance, minimalist living, and humility, peasant life became the subject of romanticized contemplation.


A distinctive detail of Pieter Bruegel’s art that connects him to his predecessor Hieronymous Bosch is his preference for complex compositions which feature dozens of small figures simultaneously engaged in various actions. Bruegel’s paintings look like entire books of characters and behaviors, contrary to more balanced and refined Renaissance compositions made by other artists.


6. The Grandmaster of the Protestant Reformation: Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

rembrandt anatomy painting
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632. Source: Mauritshuis, The Hague


Technically speaking, Rembrandt van Rijn was not a Reformation artist. He was born almost a century after Luther’s manifesto and thus could not have experienced an immediate impact of the political turmoil. However, he was born early enough to settle into the freshly emerged tradition and represent the pinnacle of it. Rembrandt was the master of religious painting, which fell out of fashion in the years of his professional activity. Thus, he managed to channel the same feeling, intensity, and devotion into secular scenes. He treated light as a separate character of the scene, capable of transforming everyday actions into something mysterious and awe-inspiring.


Rembrandt was years ahead of his colleagues when it came to the treatment of human emotion. He believed emotion was the principal element of any work of art and specifically focused on mimics, gestures, and lighting conditions to capture the mood of his compositions. That way, even the group portraits commissioned by institutions, such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp made by Rembrandt for the Surgeons’ Guild, unfolded into a narrative, with every person retaining their individuality and story.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.