Catholic art, at least in the first quarter of a century after Luther’s publication of his theses, remained apparently insensible of any need to respond, as if convinced that the German trouble was a passing episode. Only in the late 1530s and 1540s did the Roman Church implicitly recognise the Reform then long underway and admit its share of guilt for the rupture.
Both factors – acknowledgement and admission of guilt – are perhaps present in the most important pictorial commission of that time, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel (1536-40), where the threatening Christ figure probably alludes to the papacy’s consciousness of having incurred divine wrath.
Other works of the period offer Catholic “answers” to questions raised by the northern reformers on issues such as the Real Presence, Eucharistic Adoration, the cult of saints and the veneration of relics. An altarpiece by Moretto da Brescia from around 1550, for example, shows two saints adoring the consecrated Host in a monstrance set on an altar, even as the glorified Saviour appears to them above the Host, surrounded by the instruments of his sacrifice.
Catholic Reformation art polemically filled places of worship with images of saints and angels in combative response to transalpine iconoclasm. At the end of the 16th century it went further, using iconographic weaponry to allegorise the defeat of heresy, as in Pierre Le Gros’s statuary group for the sumptuous altar of St Ignatius of Loyola in the main Jesuit church in Rome, the Gesù, where, beneath the apotheosis of the founder of the Society of Jesus, a statue representing “Catholic Truth” triumphs over “Protestant falsehood”. Images exalted the traditional priesthood and the hierarchy, showing spiritual heroes such as Philip Neri and Charles Borromeo respectively in a chasuble and in cardinal’s robes.
In Lombardy and Piedmont, under the influence of St Charles, a new form of catechetical art was developed, halfway between sculpture and theatre: the Sacri Monti (“Sacred Mountains”), where, on a hillside, a series of small chapels was realised, each containing a “habitable” tableau illustrating an episode of the life of Christ, Mary or a saint. The pilgrim, after reading the devotional “guidebook” with its meditation themes, visited the chapels, sometimes by night, contemplating the life of the personage represented.
Inspired by earlier Franciscan spirituality, but with a psychological emphasis derived from the Ignatian method, the Sacred Mountains translated the ideas on art formulated by the Council of Trent by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti in his Discourse on Images, which stressed the need to stimulate a deep affective response in the faithful.
This was the religious and artistic world which gave birth to Caravaggio, who was a child when Paleotti’s Discourse appeared, and an apprentice in a Milanese workshop when Charles Borromeo died in 1584. Caravaggio’s realism, which corresponds to Paleotti’s demand for “authenticity”, would become a common element of both Catholic and Protestant 17th-century art – of La Tour and Ribera as well as of Rembrandt.
A great theme of Catholic art in this age of conflict was the miracle of conversion from enmity to discipleship, as in Caravaggio’s famous image of St Paul struck from his horse of 1600-1601, or Rubens’s Longinus in the Lance Blow of 1620, or Bernini’s statue of Longinus, of 1629, and all equally theatrical.
Another theme is mystical love: the ecstasies of women consecrated to the heavenly Bridegroom, such as St Margaret of Cortona, in the 1620 canvas by Lanfranco, St Teresa of Avila in Bernini’s famous group of 1645 and, still more, Bernini’s Blessed Lodovica Albertoni of 1674.
Mgr Timothy Verdon, a canon of Florence Cathedral, is a historian of Christian art and director of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Cathedral Foundation Museum)