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Marion Deschamp

Project: Temples of Memory. The Heroization of the Church Fathers of the Reformation in Collections of Vitas and Portraits (16th and 17th Centuries)

In 1580 Theodore Beza, successor to Calvin as the head of the Reformed Church in Geneva, published a collection of vitas and portraits of famous men through whom "God had restored the true religion." In the late 16th century and in the first half of the 17th century, a large number of similar compilations were published. Authors belonging to different Protestant confessions contributed to this media phenomenon devoted to the heroization of central figures from the period. Remarkably, all these paper galleries adopted the textual and visual forms of representation from the humanist Renaissance in order to construct a new heroic ethos in Protestantism. Influenced by the biographies from Antiquity, the vitas of famous men had been regarded as the paradigmatic genre of heroic literature since the 15th century. Not only Roman emperors and triumphant generals were portrayed as heroes but also laureled poets and brilliant artists. At the same time, this conveyance of heroic values fulfilled a complementary function in that it offered the reader the example of a model life. The biographies of exemplary heroes were based in principle on the logic of reproducibility so that they could satisfy the two sides of mimetic desire: the desire to be emulated as well as to emulate. It is the exemplary-pedagogical dimension of these anthologies which provides the key to understanding what in fact the main paradox in the process of heroization is. When these collections describe "a famous man," two contradictory tendencies are vetted against each other: the exceptional and the stereotype. The exemplary status of the grand homme makes a reproducible figure of excellence out of him and contributes to a standardization of the heroic essence.

My dissertation aims to explain the conditions, processes and strategies that transformed the humanist collections of famous men into Protestant pantheons. Was the alliance between the humanist ideal of the hero and the heroization of the Reformation’s founding fathers achieved without difficulty and conflict? How then did the necessary "conversion" from good fortune to divine providence and from secular to religious virtues take place? How much did the content of the heroic change as a result of these religious and theological processes? My working hypothesis is that the transplantation of forms and figures from the humanist to the Reformation corpus of the heroic allowed the Protestant authors to redefine the "symbolic efficacy" (Bourdieu) of memory. The use of the model "hero" made it possible for the authors to distance themselves from the Catholic tradition of hagiography and the problematic figure of the saint. The Protestant martyrs and heroes of the faith were labeled as God’s instruments and were thus integrated into a plan of divine providence that outshone their own personal merits. From this there arose a new type of hagiography that was desacralized and free from questions pertaining to the economy of salvation. In addition, humanist imagery legitimated Protestant portraiture even though it dealt with pious and holy men. Within the portrait and vita books the images of Reformation heroes were not icons as in Catholicism. They became part of a culture of memory that renounced a cult of images. Finally, the anthology form was used as a religious model: the principle of collecting, meaning the configuration of Reformers from different branches of Protestantism in one and the same location, was intended to present a unified, superconfessional image of the Reformation that was not to be confused with denominational uniqueness.