Decorating the "Godly" Household:
Religious Art in Post-reformation Britain

Tara Hamling

Publicaton Date
May 2010
Standard Number
Yale University Press
256 pages

The Reformation is generally regarded as a calamitous episode in the history of British art, with the rich artistic heritage of the medieval period eradicated and replaced by an austere Protestant culture of the word. According to this view, religious art had no place in post-Reformation Britain.

This compelling new study presents a wealth of visual evidence to argue that religious subject matter was common in the arts of Protestant Britain. Tara Hamling examines decorative features from historic houses throughout England and Scotland and identifies a significant but overlooked trend in the history of British art. She reveals a widespread fashion for large-scale religious imagery in houses owned by the gentry and prosperous middle classes during the period 1560-1660 which is interpreted in relation to life in the 'godly' household. The book is copiously illustrated with narrative imagery in wall painting, plasterwork, carved wood and stone and a range of objects including furniture, textiles and ceramics. The character of this 'decorative' art is explored in relation to the functions of rooms in the early modern domestic interior with a focus on how religious imagery might inform and support spiritual activities taking place within the home.

The visual evidence throughout the book is supported by extracts from contemporary texts to elucidate the meanings of imagery for its original audience. Hamling draws attention to little-known visual material and buildings to support a view of the long post-Reformation period as a process of cultural assimilation and creative adaptation. Far from being hostile towards images, a great many Protestant patrons continued to desire and commission traditional religious art to decorate their houses. While the choice of materials, forms and iconography represents a significant degree of continuity with the pre-Reformation past, the imagery was modified where necessary to remove objectionable elements and used to express and support Protestant habits of thought and behaviour.

About the author

  • Reader in Early Modern Studies, University of Birmingham