The Counter Reformation

The Catholic Counter-Reformation led to renewed artistic energy in Rome, where art became an important vehicle for spreading the Catholic faith.  A new, explosively dramatic style was explored by Italian artists such as Gianlorenzo Bernini, while Caravaggio and his followers pioneered a new style of dramatic realism that brought religious stories vividly to life.  Meanwhile, in the predominantly Protestant Dutch Republic artists explored a new repertoire of secular subject matter, specializing in scenes of everyday life, while art and architecture became an important vehicle of state power with the rise of Absolute Monarchy in France and Spain.

The Counter Reformation (Smarthistory/Khan Academy)

The Counter Reformation
As the Protestant Reformation spread throughout Europe, the Catholic Church responded by launching an aggressive campaign to combat “heresy” and reestablish Catholic dominance in Europe.  This is called the Counter Reformation.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier, 1617-1618 Kunsthistoriches Museum
Peter Paul Rubens, The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier, 1617-1618 Kunsthistoriches Museum

Saint Francis Xavier and the Society of Jesus
Several new monastic orders were established to “popularize” the faith, and strengthen the church’s relationship with its followers.  The Jesuit Order (otherwise known as the Society of Jesus) was founded in 1640 by Saint Francis of Xavier, and was committed to promoting the Catholic faith at home and abroad.  Jesuit missionaries traveled the world to spread the faith to the so-called “heathen” races, as seen in this painting by Peter Paul Rubens depicting St. France Xavier preaching to a crowd of people.  Several of the miracles he performed on his mission to Asia are depicted, including summoning a man back from the dead, healing the blind and the lame, and casting an idol from a temple.

Saint Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises

Saint Ignatius Loyola
At home, the Jesuit Order strove to make religion more popular with the masses.  Saint Ignatius Loyola’s  Spiritual Exercises encouraged personal identification with Christ to intensify and renew individual devotion.  Art became an important means of cultivating this kind of intense personal engagement with religious experience:

“St. Ignatius of Loyola’s SPIRITUAL EXERCISES, published in Rome in 1548, outlined a structured program of prayer and meditation with the goal of salvation through self-knowledge and union with God . . . Sensual perception played a significant role in the exercises and was used to stimulate spiritual memory and generate in the individual an identification with and deep empathy for Christ. Loyola believed that one must use all five senses when attempting to understand God and he strongly recommended the use of religious art to encourage the pupil in his or her identification with Christ. One should see, for example, Christ carrying the cross and feel the overwhelming weight of it. One should “make present” how Christ walked, talked, ate, slept and performed miracles . .”
PBS “The Power of Art” with Simon Schama

Council of Trent, painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento

The Council of Trent
The Council of Trent was a series of meetings convened by church leaders between 1545-1563, where matters of church doctrine, policy, and reform were examined.  The role of art was discussed at length, and the Council defended the use of religious images by arguing:   “great profit is derived from sacred images, ” because through these images believers are “excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety.”  But the Council recognized that sacred images had to be controlled, and a code of “decorum” was established to regulate the representation of Holy individuals:

“. . . . in the invocation of saints . . . and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with beauty exciting to lust . . . . as that there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.”

Reacting against the nudity and distortions that had become popular in 16th century Mannerism, the basic rule was that sacred figures must be beautiful, well proportioned, and clothed.  Anyone who disobeyed this rule would be sanctioned by the church:  “if any one shall teach, or entertain sentiments, contrary to these decrees; let him be anathema.”

Read the Second Decree on the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics, of Saints, and On Sacred Images here:

The Fig-Leaf Campaign
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment came under attack, and his Last Judgment fresco was altered to conceal the offending nudity of the figures:

“The Last Judgment was an object of a heavy dispute . . . the artist was accused of immorality and intolerable obscenity, having depicted naked figures, with genitals in evidence, inside the most important church of Christianity, so a censorship campaign (known as the “Fig-Leaf Campaign”) was organized . . . The genitalia in the fresco were later covered by the artist Daniele da Volterra whom history remembers by the derogatory nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches-painter”).”

Annibale Carracci, The Lamentation, c. 1604 National Gallery, London

The Reformers
Annibale Carracci was a leading member of a group of artists in Bologna who set out to “reform” religious art.  Reacting against the excesses of Mannerism, Carracci and his followers sought to reinstitute classical beauty and proportion in art, modeled on the art of High Renaissance artists such as Raphael.  Unlike the difficult and artificial contrivances of Mannerism, their pictures were legible and easy to understand; they were also intensely emotional, calculated to inspire the kind of deep personal engagement promoted by the Counter Reformation church; they moreover retained an appropriate beauty and grace that distinguished them from every day people.  Humanism was tolerated, but only if Holy individuals were sufficiently “perfect” to reflect their undeniable divinity.

Carracci’s Crucifixion & Lamentation, Smarthistory

1785 edition of the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books

Enforcing Church Law:  The Inquisition
To enforce its authority the Counter Reformation church set up the Inquisition, a kind of Holy law court.  In 1616 this court ruled that Copernicus was “foolish and absurd” and his treatise was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, along with Galileo’s Diologo:

“The official instrument of Roman Catholic Church censorship beginning in the sixteenth century was the Index of Prohibited Books. Listing authors alphabetically, this edition of 1758 indicates that Galileo’s Dialogo had been prohibited by a decree of August 23, 1634. The revolutionary scientific treatise was removed from the Index in 1824.

Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi, 1573
Oil on canvas, 18’ 6” X 42’ 6”
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

The Trial of Paolo Veronese
Artists also came under scrutiny.  Paolo Veronese was a Venetian painter who specialized in large banquet scenes.  This painting, originally titled The Last Supper, got him into trouble with the Church because it portrayed Christ in the company of figures considered to be “unseemly.”  The artist was put on trial by the Inquisition, where he was accused of portraying Christ in too profane a setting.  There are German soldiers, a random dog, and even a man picking his teeth in the scene.  Veronese defended himself by appealing to “artistic license,” explaining that he included these figures because he imagined this might have been what the scene was like, rather than adhering to the exact descriptions in the Bible, but he was ordered to make changes to the picture.  Rather than make the changes, Veronese solved the problem by simply changing the title!

Read a transcript of the trial here:

Watch this spoof by Monty Python; the artist in the skit is called Michelangelo, but the story is clearly based on the trial of Veronese:

Youtube link:


Web Resources:

The Counter Reformation (PBS) 

Veronese Before the Inquisition (AHA) 

Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent 

Science and Religion, Bridwell Library

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