Saturday, 19 July 2014

Changing religious art and Protestant Reformation

I was at the grocery store when turning a corner I came face to face with an ex-colleague I had not seen in a long time and we started talking about Italy and Rome and exchanging news. When I got home I started to think about how religious art in Italy started to change after the Council of Trent  (1545-1563) or Trento in the South Tyrol or Alto-Adige in Northern Italy which has a lovely castle and produces excellent wines. I had also seen an Italian site where there was talk about restoration of some of the works of Michelangelo (1475-1564), mostly of the marble statue of Christ in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the only Gothic church of Rome built over the temple of the goddess Minerva (Wisdom). The church is behind and next to the Pantheon of Rome and is famous for being the site of the trial of Galileo in 1633.

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome

Statue of Christ by Michelangelo, altered with a bronze loincloth by the Dominicans in 1600. 

Funny how ideas sometimes collide with each other based on conversations and reminiscing of things we saw or heard of and trigger memories. We were in Trento a few years ago on our way to Innsbruck and Salzburg for the music Festival at Pentecost. We visited the castle and the town and saw some wonderful art work and of course heard about the famous Council called to answer the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation starts around 1517 and lasts as a movement until 1562. Martin Luther (1483-1546) who is a Catholic becomes a critic of the Pope, he sees the role of Pontifex becoming a substitute for God on Earth and Luther believes that the Papacy has become very corrupt. He becomes the head of the Reformation movement, there are others like John Calvin but Luther is the better known.

The Reformation and the opposition movement to Papal authority was nothing new. Originally the Pontifex of the Official Roman Religion which protected with its pantheon of Gods, Rome and its Empire was the first man in Rome, Julius Caesar was P.M. and then his Nephew Augustus. The Emperor assumed the role of Pontifex Maximus, when Constantine in the 4th Century made Christianity the new Official Religion of the Empire, not without major controversy and revolt amongst Romans, he named a bishop for Rome but he kept for himself the central role of Pontifex.

When Constantine moved the Capital to the new city of Constantinople
he named a bishop there also. But the bickering started immediately between the 2 bishops of the two Imperial cities. When Constantine died, the Bishop of Rome grabbed the title of Pontifex and claimed to be the successor of the Roman Emperor producing a fraudulent last will and testament to back up his claim. This and many other events led to the great schism between Rome and Constantinople a few centuries later.

When the Papacy returned to Rome from its long exile in Avignon, France around 1376 the Pope found the city devastated by centuries of neglect, the once great capital of the world was nothing more than a small village of about 10,000 people. The city had one million resident until 350 AD.

The old St-Peter's Basilica built in 318 AD and destroyed in 1460 to make way for the current basilica

The original Saint Peter Basilica which had been built by Emperor Constantine was in very poor shape and the whole structure was no longer safe to use. It was Pope Nicholas V, a humanist and a man of the Renaissance who started to rebuilt Rome the moment he became Pope in 1447.  Restoring the Aqueducts which could once again bring clean fresh water to the City, this can be seen today in the Fountain of Trevi fed by the Aqua Virgo. He also paved the main roads and started to re-build St-Peter Basilica. He declared 1450 a Jubilee Year and started on his great construction projects. He needed construction material and using 2522 cart loads of stone from the ancient Coliseum he used them as building material, he also turned the Roman Forum into a quarry, most of the original antique buildings had survived almost intact.

Facade of St-Peter's basilica today 

For 100 years every Pope worked on re-building the basilica we see today. This meant that a lot of money was needed and this is where the trouble started, many architects and artists and labourers worked year after year on this giant project. Popes needed to be creative to find new sources of revenues and one had the idea of selling indulgences and Holy relics of Saints to make a quick profit,
of course it was all for a good cause but that is a sure way to the road to Hell.

Martin Luther like many Europeans including Princes, Kings and Emperors were a little fed-up with the over the top ways of Bishops and Popes alike there was a lot of criticism and if it got to loud, Popes could excommunicate and even have critics put to death for heresy. Martin Luther studied closely the Bible and event translated it into German, a first, so that ordinary folk could understand the reading of the texts.

Luther challenged directly the authority of the Pontiff to collect taxes and sell indulgences which allowed the buyer a fast track to Paradise. Luther pointed out that this was nonsense since the Bible made no mention of any of this.

Furthermore Luther got the protection of the King of Saxony and was kept out of reach of the Papal agents and Police. Unable to shut him up, the Pope saw him as a dangerous enemy undermining his authority. The influence of Martin Luther extended all over Europe and the Reformation movement had real traction, Catholic churches were converted into new Protestant churches in many Kingdoms.

Luther rejected the worship of Saints and its calendar, the marketing and selling of Holy relics, he also challenged the Marian cult which had taken a great deal of importance in the Catholic Church.

Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus, by Gerard David 1490.

As a reply the Papacy called the Council of Trent to reclaim its authority and rebuke the Reformation.
In so doing it ordered that all religious art, there really was not much secular art anyway, should follow new guidelines in the representation of the Divine. Per example the Virgin Mary as Mother of Christ could no longer be represented as an ordinary mother with her child, breastfeeding images were common in the early part of the Renaissance. The Council of Trent gave her a new role, that of Queen of Heaven and images now had to present her in a regal role. Christ had also been represented naked on the cross, this could no longer do. Popes thought that it was a too humanist approach, so painting and sculptures where altered accordingly.

Christ by Michelangelo, original version intact of 1522 made for Metello Vari and now in the church of San Vincenzo Martire in Bassano Romano near the town of Viterbo.

 A very young Michelangelo created this Christ in 1492 for the Church of Santo-Spirito in Florence.

However it was acceptable to mix pagan gods with Christian images in frescos because it presented an artistic continuity from antiquity to today. Since the Catholic Church claimed direct link with Imperial Rome this made sense. Apostles who were all Jewish would now be depicted dressed as Roman Senators, this also goes for Moses or all other Prophets of the Old Testament, thus transforming them into Roman-Christians. Since the population was still largely illiterate and the story was told from the pulpit no one questioned what they were told.



  1. I don't think an artist could get away with depicting a naked Christ these days either.

    1. funny to think that it was ok until the Protestant Reformation. Today we have such a different look on things, difficult to reconcile 500 years of history, then and now.