Protestant Reformation Art and Catholic-Counter Reformation Art: A Study
The Protestant Reformation refers to a period in 16th century Europe in which the existing traditions of Catholicism and Catholic art were rejected, often leading to the destruction of Catholic artworks. The reformation resulted in a divide in Christianity between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics, creating a North-South divide in Europe where Southern countries remained mostly Catholic and Northern countries became largely Protestant.
The reformation was essentially a revolt against the ongoing corruption in the Catholic Church and the Papacy. The main incident which incited the revolt was Pope Leo Xs campaign in which he effectively sold permits into heaven to sinners as a way to finance the building of Saint Peters Basilica in Rome. It was at this time that Protestantism began to take root in Northern European countries, particularly those associated with the Northern Renaissance. With the weakening of the Catholic Church, the early 16th Century saw the rise of many secular institutions and philosophies, the most significant - in terms of art and music - being Humanism.
These new philosophies led to a new form of Christian art which celebrated the Protestant religious agenda and differed hugely from the High-Renaissance art of the Southern European countries in which Catholicism was still very much apparent. This new Protestant art consisted of much plainer themes, reflecting a more personal aspect of the reformation, therefore meaning that large-scale works were no longer commissioned by Protestant churches. This resulted in a huge decline in the amount of religious art being produced in Northern Europe. This decline forced many artists to venture into other types of painting, such as portraiture, landscape painting and still life. There was a still a market for religious art, however they were much smaller, more personal pieces often reflecting moral lessons or Christian messages rather than those of grandiosity.
This revolt against Catholicism caused outrage among the Church and its patrons sparking what was known as the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The goal of the majority of art produced during this period was to restore Catholicisms centrality and rebuild confidence in the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. As a way to combat the Reformation, the Council of Trent was established. It was held between 1545 and 1663 in Trento, Italy and was one of the Roman Catholic Churchs most important ecumenical councils. The Council believed very strongly in both the educational and spiritual power of art, thus introducing a set of guidelines to be followed during the creation process of any religious paintings or sculptures. These guidelines founded the basis of what became known as Catholic Counter-Reformation Art.
Reformers believed that their religious art needed to be highly distinguishable from that of the Protestant churches, and that artists should focus on the unique elements of Catholic
Noli me tangere, 1526 Hans Holbein
Chanel Bonifacedogma such as the Immaculate Conception of Christ. Counter-Reformation art was encouraged to strengthen the feelings of devotion towards God as well as to be as appealing and understandable to ordinary people in order to garner as much spiritual support as possible. Through these techniques, Catholic art aimed to combat the vast spread of Protestantism throughout Northern Europe, particularly in countries like Germany where the Reformation had been especially successful. In order to promote their views on art, the Catholic Church increased its patronage of the arts across Europe. From this campaign of Counter-Reformation emerged the international art movement known as Baroque art.
The Baroque movement was a response to the political and cultural changes which were beginning to emerge across Europe. The movement was characterised by four main elements - a sense of grandeur, a strong emotional content, naturalism, and classicism. Through the use of these elements, Baroque painters sought to evoke emotional responses in the viewers by appealing to the senses, often in an overly-dramatic manner. The style was famous for certain techniques, particularly tenebrism which translates to night pictures and refers to paintings in which the subject has the only source of light and is painted against a black background, and chiaroscuro which literally means lightdark and refers to the play of light and dark colours used in a painting.
The movement was embraced by both supporters of the Catholic Church and Protestant religion, however the Catholics held claim to the movement as a way to essentially promote their religious dogma. The Church authorities, in order to convey an impression of the
splendour of the divine as well as impress their congregations and subjects, built magnificent churches which they decorated with hundreds of illusionistic paintings. in order to illustrate what they considered to be the most important areas of Catholic theology, they commissioned an endless stream of biblical art with which they covered the ceilings and walls of their newly-built houses of worship. Those who still wanted reform however, typically disapproved of this type of religious art, preferring to have plain, whitewashed churches as to not distract from their worship of God.
The Catholic Counter-Reformation ended in 1648 along with the end of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) - a war that was initially between Protestant and Catholic states which slowly became less about religion and more about political power. As the Counter-Reformation grew stronger and the Catholic Church felt less threat from the Protestant Reformation, Rome began to reassert its universality to other nations around the world through missionaries.
Although the Catholic Church had exercised considerable control in Europe prior to the Renaissance, in France and Spain the Church became secondary to the authority of the monarch. Protestants advocated the separation of Church and State and many parts of Germany remained strongly Protestant as a means of resistance against the Catholic Roman Emperor and Catholicism itself. The Council of Trent did not end the rivalry in Europe between Protestants and Catholics and this can be illustrated by the religious wars which took place in the late 17th Century.
The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, 1626-1628
Peter Paul Rubens
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