Catholic Counter-Reformation Art
History, Characteristics: Council of Trent Guidelines.

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Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1584)
By Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639-1709)
Quadratura mural on the ceiling
of the Church of the Gesu
Piazza del Gesu, Rome.

Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (1560-1700)


What is Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation Art?
History: The Reformation and The Decline in Spirituality of Art
The Council of Trent
Characteristics of Catholic Counter-Reformation Art
The Baroque Art Movement
Catholic Art in Italy
Catholic Art in Spain and Naples
Catholic Art in Flanders

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Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52)
By Giovanni Bernini.
Cornaro Chapel,
Santa Maria della Vittoria.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For chronological details, see:
History of Art Timeline.

What is Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation Art?

The term "Catholic Counter-Reformation art" describes the more stringent, doctrinal style of Christian art which was developed during the period c.1560-1700, in response to Martin Luther's revolt against Rome (1517) and the Protestant Reformation art which followed. This stricter style of Catholic Biblical art - launched by the Council of Trent (1545-63) - was designed to highlight the theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, by focusing on the mysteries of the faith, as well as the roles of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. It was supposed to revitalize Catholic congregations across Europe, thus minimizing the effects of the Protestant revolt. To inject momentum into its campaign, the Roman Church - aided by the newly-formed Jesuit order, as well as wealthy pious individuals - began commissioning new architecture, works of altarpiece art (mostly large-scale oil paintings), inspirational church fresco paintings, and major pieces of ecclesiastical sculpture and wood carving. Staunch supporters of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and its religious art included Italy, Spain and its colonies of Flanders and Naples, as well as southern Germany. Its leading exponents were therefore Italian Baroque artists like Caravaggio, Pietro da Cortona, Bernini, and Andrea Pozzo; the school of Spanish Painting, such as El Greco, Ribera and Francisco de Zurbaran; and the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens.


History: The Reformation; The Decline in Spirituality of Art

Two important factors shaped the art of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, during the 16th and 17th centuries. First, a growth in the level of corruption within the Roman Catholic Church, from the Pope down. It was this corruption (specifically the sale of indulgences to finance the renovation of St Peter's in Rome), overseen by Pope Leo X (1513-21), that caused Luther to launch his Protestant rebellion.

The second factor was artistic though it, too, reflected a similar spiritual decline. During the 15th century, Early Renaissance painting commissioned by the Church or its Christian followers, gradually became less and less religious. The Tornabuoni Chapel frescoes (1485–90), for instance, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, seem to be more focused on the details of bourgeois city life than on their actual subjects, the Life of the Virgin and that of John the Baptist. Also, secular priorities began to intrude: the influential Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), for instance, became increasingly involved with the rich Gonzaga family in Mantua, while even the devout Botticelli (1445-1510) spent time painting a number of pagan works for the powerful Medici family in Florence: see, for example, Primavera 1482, and The Birth of Venus 1485, both marked by substantial nudity. The activity of the fiery Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) - culminating in his Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497 - was a clear indication of the lack of Christian devotion as well as the growing decadence of the time. The situation was further exacerbated during the era of High Renaissance painting, as Humanism (characteristically expressed in the male and female nude) became an important feature of Renaissance aesthetics: as demonstrated in the marble statue of David by Michelangelo (1501-4), and the ignudi in the Genesis fresco (1508-12) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by the same artist. Worse was to follow, as the High Renaissance gave way to the optical pretensions of Mannerist painting, during the 1520s and 30s: as exemplified by works like the Deposition Altarpiece (1526-8) in the Capponi Chapel, Florence, by Pontormo (1494-1557). This non-traditional approach to art did not go down well with either Protestants or the more conservative factions in Rome. Another contentious work was Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) by Veronese.

The Council of Trent

To rebuild confidence in the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, after the twin shocks of the Protestant Reformation (1517) and the Sack of Rome (1527), a campaign of reform was necessary. The impetus for such reform emanated from the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), founded by S. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), and from the 19th Ecumenical Council (the Council of Trent), initiated by Pope Paul III (1534–1549), which held 25 sessions between 1545 and 1563. Reformers believed strongly in the educational and inspirational power of visual art, and promoted a number of guidelines to be followed in the production of religious paintings and sculpture. These formed the basis for what became known as Catholic Counter-Reformation Art.

Characteristics of Catholic Counter-Reformation Art

Reformers first stressed the need to distinguish the one true Church from the breakaway group of Protestant churches. Artists should therefore focus on the distinctive aspects of Catholic dogma, including: The Immaculate Conception, The Annunciation of the Virgin, The Transfiguration of Christ, and others. Also, any explicit portrayal of Christ's suffering and agony on the Cross was deemed to be especially uplifting, and also served to illustrate the singular Catholic version of Transubstantiation in the Eucharist. The roles of the Virgin Mary, the Saints and the Sacraments were also a distinctive feature of Catholicism and were to be illustrated accordingly. Second, reformers stipulated that Biblical painting should be direct and compelling in its narrative presentation, and should be rendered in a clear, accurate fashion,without unnecessary or imaginary embellishments. Third, reformers - in particular, pious individuals such as Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales and Philip Neri - insisted that Catholic art should encourage piety: thus artists should paint and sculpt scenes of appropriate spiritual intensity. Fourth, as to how paintings and statues were to be executed, reformers stressed the importance of making them as understandable and as relevant to ordinary people, as possible. Using these techniques, Catholic art was to combat the spread of Protestantism throughout Europe, especially in areas like France, southern Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. For an example of a 16th century Mannerist painter who changed his style of painting to comply with the Council of Trent, see: Federico Barocci (1526-1612).

Note: Later, major religious works like The Last Judgment fresco (1536-61) by Michelangelo, and The Last Supper (renamed Feast in the House of Levi (1573) by Paolo Veronese, were censured by the Catholic authorities: the former for its nudity, for depicting Christ without a beard, and for including the pagan figure of Charon; the latter for its inclusion of drunken Germans, midgets and other inappropriate figures, as well as over-extravagant costumes.

The Baroque Art Movement

Following the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church - along with its new religious orders, such as the Barnabites, Capuchins, Discalced Carmelites, Jesuits, Theatines, and Ursulines - increased its patronage of the arts across much of Europe. Out of this campaign of Counter-Reformation art emerged the anti-Mannerist Bolognese School (1590-1630) - led by Annibale Carracci along with brother Agostino Carracci (1557-1602) and cousin Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619) - and then the international movement we know as Baroque art, a style which lasted until 1700 or later. A typically powerful and dramatic style, it influenced all the arts, giving rise to Baroque architecture, as well as Baroque painting and sculpure: indeed, projects often involved a combination of all these disciplines.

Catholic Art in Italy

Baroque architects in Italy produced numerous textbook examples of Catholic architecture, notably the Basilica and surroundings of Saint Peter's Basilica (c.1506-1667), and the Church of the Gesu (1568-84), in Rome; while Counter-Reformation painters became noted for their classical approach, as exemplified in the works of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and in late 16th century Venetian Altarpieces, notably those by Titian (c.1485/8-1576) and Tintoretto (1518-94). The textbook example of Counter-Reformation Baroque sculpture was The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52) by Bernini (1598-1680), in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. After Bernini, Rome's greatest Catholic artist was Carlo Maratta (1625-1713).

The most 'real' Catholic art, however, was created by the wayward genius Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose religious figure painting was so natural and lifelike - and thus instantly understandable by ordinary churchgoers - that it served as the quintessential example of Catholic Counter-Reformation painting. (See, for instance, Supper at Emmaus 1601-2, National Gallery, London.) In fact, Caravaggio's use of street people as models for his sacred figures, led to such realism that he was criticised by conservatives for showing insufficient respect to the Virgin Mary.

See also: Classicism and Naturalism in Italian 17th Century Painting.

The masters of spiritual inspiration were the artists who produced the awesome illusionist mural paintings - known as quadratura - on the walls and ceilings of Baroque churches. The finest of these trompe l'oeil paintings include: Assumption of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1526-30) by Correggio - see the Parma School of painting; The Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1584, Church of the Gesu) by Giovanni Battista Gaulli; Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-9, Palazzo Barberini) by Pietro da Cortona; and The Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1691-4, San Ignazio, Rome) by Andrea Pozzo. Compare these inspirational works with the muted, even austere, church interiors created by Protestant artists like Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) and Emanuel de Witte (1615-92).

Catholic Art in Spain and Naples

If Italy was the brain of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, its heart was Spain, the most pious country in Europe. Under the ultra-devout King Philip II (1527-98), painters and sculptors of the Spanish Baroque produced some of the most spiritually intense illustrations of Catholic doctrine. The greatest of them was El Greco (1541-1614), whose masterpieces include The Disrobing of Christ (1577, Toledo Cathedral); The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586, Church of San Tome, Toledo); Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1600, National Gallery, London); The Ascension of the Virgin Mary (1607-13, S Cruz Museum, Toledo); and The Adoration of the Shepherds (1613, Prado, Madrid). Other Spanish Baroque artists included: Velazquez (1599-1660) - if only for his masterpiece Christ on the Cross (c.1632, Prado) - Zurbaran (1598-1664); Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) and Juan de Valdes Leal (1622-1690).

In the Spanish colony of Naples, the Catholic Neapolitan School of Painting (1600-56) was led by a series of devout artists such as: Battistello Caracciolo (1578-1635), Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652), Guido Reni (1575-1642) and Lanfranco (1582-1647). After the plague of 1654-55, the Neapolitan Baroque was represented by masters like Mattia Preti (1613-99) and Luca Giordano (1634-1705); both had studied Caravaggio in Naples and both had absorbed the legacy of Venetian painting from the cinquecento, notably the work of Paolo Veronese (1528-88).

Spanish sculptors who contributed to the Catholic Counter-Reformation included: Juan de Juni (1506-77); Jeronimo Hernandez (1540-86); Pablo de Rojas (1549-1611); Andres de Ocampo (1555-1623); Juan Martinez Montanes (1568-1649); Gregorio Fernandez (1576-1636); Alonso Cano (1601-67); and Pedro Roldan (1624-99).

Catholic Art in Flanders

Unlike their Dutch rivals to the north, the Catholic Flemish painters of the Spanish Netherlands (Flanders was a Spanish colony) continued to paint large-scale religious canvases, for ecclesiastical clients. Flemish painting of the late 16th and 17th centuries was dominated by Rubens (1577-1640) and his leading pupil Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Among Rubens' many masterpieces of Catholic art are: Samson and Delilah (1610, National Gallery, London); Massacre of the Innocents (1611, Private Collection); Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp); Christ Risen (1616, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Florence); Christ on the Cross (1620, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp); and The Assumption of the Virgin (1626, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).

Counter-Reformation art spread throughout Catholic Europe and then into the overseas Spanish Catholic colonies of Asia and the Americas. Championed by the Jesuits and Franciscans, it inspired overseas groups such as the Cuzco School, the Quito School, and Chilote School of Catholic imagery.

Catholic Counter-Reformation paintings and sculpture can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.


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