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The "Real" John Calvin?




Poor John Calvin.  He had the great misfortune of living before the invention of the camera. 

As someone quipped in a previous post, if you are writing a book on Calvin, which portrait do you use?  Here's a sampling of just a few of the familiar images of Calvin. 

I guess the image you pick will largely depend upon your view of Calvin.   If your take on Calvin is favorable, you use one of the more youthful portraits.  If your take on Calvin is more negative, the temptation would be great to use one of the portraits where Calvin looks like he just passed a kidney stone (which was just one of his many physical maladies).

Luther left behind a plaster death mask.  I've seen it, and its rather creepy because Luther was so swollen at death.  But we know what Luther actually looked like.  My assumption has always been that the best (most accurate) likeness of Calvin is the drawing with his name in Latin (picture one, row one, and picture two, row two).   

As he ages, Calvin appears increasingly gaunt and haggard in most of the paintings, no doubt indicative of his declining health.  But his familiar cap, Z.Z. Top beard, and fur collar are consistent throughout.

I'd want someone to paint my portrait when I was about thirty, had hair, and was still in somewhat decent shape.  I'll bet Calvin would prefer the first portrait in row five.  But that's sure not how most people think of him.

Reader Comments (12)

Figuring out "first-degree" (that is, from life) or contemporary portraits of famous people is an art unto itself. You see it in particular in Shakespeare studies with a great number of purported portraits (with yet another showing up recently) but only a few authentic ones.

Anyway as for Calvin, there is also this one, which is contemporary:

And this one (which I'd never seen before):

Among many others.

I have always fancied the engraving as representing well what he looked like at 53 also. It's meant to be Boyvin which makes it also contemporary, but I might guess the first portrait linked to was it's source, as they look very similar.

The first in the third row is far later than Calvin's own life and would not be accurate. It's attributed to Sheffer, so too late.

I was going to guess the second in that row not to be contemporary also, but it's attributed to Titian-so it would indeed be contemporary-but accurate?? It looks so different from the others.

The second in the fourth row looks right stylewise to come from Calvin's early life, but could also be later. Don't know who painted it.

The first in the last row is attributed to Holbein, so would also be in the right time frame.

The remaining ones are all from the same source. One is the original and the others are copies, or they are all copies of another work. Wondering if the one in the second link above isn't the source of them all...given some time one might be able to figure it out. Fun stuff!
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChar
I've often wondered the same thing about just what image we are suppose to use for Calvin. But something tells that once again Calvin may have been better at a theology of the Cross than even Luther: unmarked grave, leaving future generations in the dark about his image. Either that or this rugged introvert just appreciates what "appears" to be the traist of another one.

(Kidney stones, ouch. My FIL is a bull of a man and those put him on his knees. May it never be.)
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterZrim
A ZZ Top beard, huh? Well given that Billy Gibbons is supposedly an ordained minister (of what I'm not sure) there may be a six degrees of separation thing going on...<grin>
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPB
Here's the route I've gone in portraying Calvin. I like the hardcore old Calvin,but with...ya know...a twist.
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRev. Z. Bartels
As the father of the reformation and his battles thereof, there were probably more pictures of Luther than Calvin. Remember, many times Luther could hardly utter a single word, without someone copying it down and publishing it. Luther didn't want it that way, but, because he was so controversial, it was out of his control.

Luther actually made the statement, that he wanted his books destroyed, because he felt that people would read them, and not their Bibles. He was, however, most proud of his translation of the Bible into German, thus enabeling the shoemaker and the house wife to have more knowledge in the Scriptures than many of the priest's.

Regarding Luther's face being so swollen at his death, I'm sure that much of that had to do with his love of sausages.

I'm a WELS Lutheran, and you cannot even imagine how much these folks love and eat Brautwurst. That, and beer!

Thanks to both Calvin and Luther for their fine contributions regarding the doctrine of justifiaction. The church stands or falls on this issue.

Both of these men lived for the glory of God!
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLloyd
I find it interesting that different thoughts go through my mind about Calvin in each of those portraits. I am sure he was probably a much more gentle, joyful and long suffering person then he is often made out to be by his critics. I think the sculptures and the first picture in the 5th row bring this out. You get a much different impression looking at those portraits then the others. Although, in the heat of battle, I am sure he also could become a totally different person- rigid, hard, unbending and uncompromising. Both he and Luther must have been fascinating people to be around.
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Yeazel
Both Calvin and Luther were used by God just at the right time, a few decades after movable type had been invented, to spread the Good News of the Gospel to the populace in the most expeditious manner possible. Both of them would acknowledge their contribution in that way, accordingly.

The best way we can commemorate their efforts (especially Calvin's, as his 500th anniversary approaches) is to pick up where they left off and spread the Truth of the Gospel in our day and age. Like those in the 16th Century, we are sadly in need of another major reformation. And like the printing press they used to spread the Good News, we have the Web. AND, most importantly, thanks to men like the owner of this blog site, that is exactly what is being done! Praise and thanks be to God and may His Glory shine among us!
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge
If you check out Char's second link the portrait of Calvin there gives a completely different impression of the man. You all should check it out.
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Y
One more thing on Calvin:

He was not nearly the cold theologian that he was depicted to have been. I have read a bunch of Calvin, and in many respects, he was a very warm, caring person, pastor and leader.

His teaching; that God chose some people for heaven, but others for hell (double predestination), led to the view of some, of him being more on the cold side. But, that wasn't the case at all.

Both Luther and Calvin, loved the third use of the law, and lived for the Glory of God.

I mention the third use of the law, because both of the Reformed and Lutheran camps are wrongly accused of under-emphasizing it in their preaching, and the living out their Christian lives. That is not the case. Because, both understand God's grace (Sola Fide!), much more than the Arminian's do, so that we may live out our lives out of thankfulness for what God -- in Christ, has done for us.
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLloyd
Pastor Kim, looks like you are in good company, Calvin was obviously follicly challenged. In fact "Calvin" is Latin for bald.
April 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChris Sherman
My personal favorite has always been the one in the third row down on the left hand side. He's obviously older in that one, but I love it because it really shows that he was a scholar who pondered the best way to communicate truth. After all, I've heard it said that Institutes is just as much a work of pedagogy as theology. That portrait shows him for the teacher he was.
April 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Neal
Well you can tell basically what Calvin looked like from most of the portraits. He obviously had a long nose, thin face with prominent high cheekbones, fairly large deepset eyes and a small mouth. He looked French. :)

Thing that's interesting is that Titian's work shows almost all of those features while looking strikingly different. I have a feeling someone may have described what Calvin looked like to him, and he painted it "sight unseen". This of course is the most masterful of all the paintings, it's very powerful. He looks so formidable and severe, with a powerful searching light in his eyes. One almost *wants* Calvin to look like that.

And yes I think the one in my second link in is not a well known one, but I do believe more and more that it is the source of the other similar ones. You can see the trajectory from that painting as they wander farther and farther away, like a game of visual telephone.
April 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChar

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