The Age of Catholic Counter-Reformation

The religious conflicts in the 16th century continued throughout the 17th century. The Catholic Reformation (AKA the Counter-Reformation) did not work in tandem with Protestant Reformation.

Pope Paul III (image from here)

It was a long process because certain popes did not want to respond to those who had questions; additionally, there was much civil unrest. Plus, reforming the Catholic Church, which covered all of Europe and spread into the New World, was overwhelmingly difficult.

However, in 1545, Pope Paul III held the Council of Trent. This council reviewed certain Church doctrine, such as transubstantiation, but did not conclude until 1563.

An edict written by the Council of Trent stated there should be “images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints” (Gardner 596). For example, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini depicts a nun, who had visions and was made a saint, thus “correlating with the ideas of Ignatius Loyola, who argued the re-creation of spiritual experience would do much to increase devotion and piety” (654). The various kinds of media, from the electrified, marble-carved fabric against the clouds and radiant beams, draw the viewer in. However, the male figures on the side could suggest that this woman’s spiritual experience was regulated by men and not to make everyone think that they could be like her. Something was exceptional about this.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (image from here)

By resisting the Protestant objection of having art in church, Catholic Counter-Reformation art was seen as a means of instruction that was accessible to the masses by being more realistic or naturalistic. The edict explained that bishops should teach “by means of the stories . . . portrayed in paintings . . . the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith, which ought to be born in mind and constantly reflected upon” (596).

For example, The Last Supper (c. 1592–94) by Tintoretto is realistic because the setting is a darkened tavern lighted by torches and candles. This is a common place where household objects are seen in addition to servants—even women—preparing dishes. However, this is not a regular feast scene. The viewer could step in by identifying with the woman washing the dishes. The individual viewer could be a part of this scene but is also instructed concerning the sacrament.

The Last Supper (image from here)

Additionally, Entombment by Caravaggio “gave visual form to the doctrine of transubstantiation” (661) because the lowering of Christ’s body is parallel to the table where the altar would have been; therefore, the body of Christ is lifted down and given to you to take the literal body of Christ. Some critics charged this portrayal as too naturalistic because Christ’s feet are dirty and callused. His body is not idealized with skin obviously exposed to the sun.

Entombment (image from here)

Another important element seen in the Counter-Reformation was the generation of community or the gathering of the flock back together. For example, Vignola and Giacomo della Porta’s Il Gesu (c. 1573–84) in Rome was “the most influential building” of the time. After Pope Paul III “formally recognized this group as a religious order” (622), the Jesuits were effective missionaries by sending missionaries across the world and educators by establishing schools.

Il Gesu (image from here)

With Il Gesu, “the nave takes over the main volume of space, making the structure a great hall with side chapels” (622). Making the nave the center area, similar to the area of a ship, the individual is brought towards the altar and—consequently—Christ. The person could not just stand in the lobby, or the narthex of early Christian basilicas or churches where a person must decide whether to go in or not. Instead, everyone who enters is thrown into the nave—they are on the ship moving towards Christ. The plain exterior contrasts with the majestic interior, representing the soul, to make viewers marvel, not to make viewers feel insignificant. Thus, this unites all those inside on seeing what heaven is like.

Supposedly, all this was done so the faithful may remember God: “give God thanks for those things, may fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety” (596). However, the new age of the Scientific Revolution would have people who would find the old ways not sufficient to their questions.

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