Arts & Books Books

When artists led the Church out of crisis

Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary (1605–1607)

Francis Phillips on the beauty of the Counter-Reformation

How Catholic Art Saved the Faith
By Elizabeth Lev
Sophia Institute Press, 320pp, £15/$19

At the end of last year I visited the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition at the National Gallery in London with agnostic friends. Cultured but not Christian, they admired it all, especially a small painting of a wistful Madonna and Child by Mantegna. It made me think how they were looking at superb examples of Christian art, but from the outside – while I was looking at Mantegna’s tender expression of devotion to the Mother of God, whose “Fiat” at the Annunciation ushered in momentous and life-changing events for the human race.

In our agnostic age, when many people are wholly ignorant of the great truths of Christianity, which European artists before the Enlightenment spent their lives describing on canvas, the experience of viewing “Catholic art” is profoundly different from that of their forebears.

This is the implicit assumption behind Elizabeth Lev’s spirited book on the art produced in Italy between 1570 and 1650. During this Counter-Reformation period (Lev prefers to refer to the “Catholic Restoration” as a way of demonstrating that links to tradition were wounded but not severed by the Reformation itself), artists competed with each other in their interpretations of Gospel scenes.

In its beautiful illustrations of the work of Italian masters such as Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Annibale Carracci, Federico Barocci, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Artemisia Gentileschi and others, working in Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples and Rome, Lev’s book reminds viewers how much of traditional theology was cast aside by the Reformers in their new Protestant religion, such as Confession, the Eucharist, Holy Orders, the reality of angels, the doctrine of purgatory and most especially the role of Our Lady. These were subjects for Catholic artists working at the behest of ecclesiastic patrons within the Church.

The priesthood had come under attack at the Reformation for its laxity. The Council of Trent decreed clerical reform, zealously carried out by bishops such as St Charles Borromeo of Milan. Carlo Saraceni’s painting St Charles Borromeo Blessing a Leper shows, as Lev observes, that in the “lonely final journey of death most people looked for a priest”. The Council of Trent, held from 1545 to 1563, had declared that “Great profit is derived from all sacred images.”

The author, an art historian living in Rome, explains that “art, meant to stimulate emotion through colour, light and space, spoke to the faithful on a deeper level than mere abstract argument”.

It is also highly probable that many of the faithful who attended Mass in Italy’s Baroque churches, such as the Jesuit church of the Gesù in Rome, would have been barely literate. Thus they would have been deeply impressed by the grand visual panoramas presented to their eyes.

Among the examples of paintings rich in both piety and dogma in the book are Guido Reni’s St Peter Penitent, showing the important of repentance (and thus sacramental Confession); Guercino’s St Margaret of Cortona (a sinner now transformed into a saint), and his The Penitent Magdalene – “not alluring to men, but beautiful before God”.

I slightly query Lev’s commentary over this last one – and indeed over several paintings of St Mary Magdalene depicted in the book. Clearly hers is an inspiring Gospel story – but it also gave painters licence to display her human charms, her flowing hair and her rich red robes. For artists, this meant treading a delicate path between showing the Magdalene’s earthly “allure” as well as her spiritual conversion. It seems she became a key figure in the conversion of prostitutes.

I wonder what John Knox and John Calvin, two of the most famous Reformers, would have made of some of the paintings here. I rather think they would have been convinced that the Church of Rome was indeed “the whore of Babylon”.

Our Lady had always been a magnet for painters of the period – for her dazzling virtues and her place in salvation history. Lev comments: “Mary offered artists opportunities to expand their creative capabilities.” Caravaggio’s The Madonna of the Rosary, his Death of the Virgin, Ludovico Carracci’s Mary Clothed with the Sun and Reni’s The Immaculate Conception stimulated the imagination of artists and inspired them to interpret Scripture in a way that would be instantly meaningful to the pious observer.

In her introduction to the book, Lev quotes Benedict XVI: “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.” Indeed art, such as Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew, often shows the saints at the moment of transformation.

She reminds us that visual images can become powerfully embedded in the memory – witness the effect of films – and therefore how important it is to furnish our minds with a visual library of the greatest Christian art.