Medieval Catholicism was not as gloomy as the BBC portrays it

Medieval Catholicism wasn't as miserable as The Renaissance Unchained suggested

BBC Iplayer is the most wonderful invention. When you flop onto the sofa late at night you can catch up with all the programmes you should have seen earlier. Just recently I have caught up with The Renaissance Unchained, which is presented by the hugely engaging Waldemar Januszczak. The first episode concentrated on the northern Renaissance, but the second turned south to Italy. Also on the subject of Italian art, among other things, was Italy Unpacked with Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon, which made a trip to one of Piedmont’s many Sacri Monti, those hillsides studded with small chapels dedicated to the Stations of the Cross.

While I enjoyed both programmes and loved the way the camera showed us so many great works of art, I did not agree with one of the underlying assumptions of both presenters, namely that medieval Catholicism was a joyless affair, and medieval Catholics were terrified of death and haunted by the prospect of spending years in Purgatory, thanks to their sins.

All this was rather broad brush, of course, as television has to be. It would be interesting to delve down into the Renaissance mind and find out just what the people of the time thought of these matters: there is no doubt scope for many a doctoral thesis there. But from the vantage point of contemporary Catholicism, how do we feel about death and purgatory?

Here are a few observations.

Death is certain. No amount of wishful thinking can brush it away, so each of us needs to face our own mortality. Death is the conclusion of life, and it is also part of life – we live it every day. It seems to me that Catholicism is realistic about death, and that is healthy. Those of us who pray to the Madonna saying “Pray for us now and in the hour of our death” have got it right.

As for Purgatory, this is a profoundly optimistic and reassuring doctrine. When we die, we cannot possibly (with a very few exceptions) hope to stand in front of God and measure up to His infinite moral purity. We will still be in need of purgation and purification, and it is reassuring to know that this process, begun on earth, can continue in the next world, and that those on earth and in heaven can help us by their prayers and their good works. Evil exists, and we have done evil, but the good news is that we can be redeemed, and purgatory is the ultimate second chance given to us by God. Denying Purgatory as Protestants do means of course that either very few will ever see God in the afterlife, or else that our evil deeds are not really purged but rather “imputed righteous” by God, which is not the same thing.

Finally, can we say that medieval religion was really one long gloomfest, or is this idea the result of modern people imposing on the medieval world their own warped vision of religion? Now it is perfectly true that the terracotta Lamentation over the Dead Christ in Bologna (see here for an illustration) , a work that is replicated all over Italy, makes a dramatic impact with its depiction of raw grief, and its evocation of a startling truth about death. But, and this is important, the grief over the dead Christ is not destined to last forever, and it is from this doleful state of affairs that the Resurrection is destined to remove us definitively. Yes, there is grief, but it is from grief that Christ has come to save us, and it is only through understanding the pain of existence without God that we can truly appreciate the wonder of what God has done for us by sending us His Son.

I personally find the art of the Renaissance wonderfully uplifting, and find it hard to imagine that the artists of the time were harassed by perpetual thoughts of death and what awaited them in Purgatory. These were not, for the most part, depressed men. It was good to see that Waldemar Januszczak touched on Savanarola: now he really was a gloomy fellow, and a heretic to boot. The two facts are not, I submit, unconnected.