The reformers of the 16th century brought to the fore questions regarding sacred images that had arisen in the context of changes in society, religion, and art in the late Middle Ages. Late medieval Catholicism already produced warnings against idolatry in the cult of images, superstition, and the misuse of popular devotional practices for monetary gain. Reformation-era re-evaluations of sacred images arose primarily from three overlapping impulses: (1) the humanistic enlightenment and critique of external religion; (2) concern for the Scriptures, including the Old Testament prohibition against idolatrous images; and (3) the ethical complaint against ecclesiastical luxury and neglect of the poor. Some of the Reformers fostered a more or less complete iconoclasm (e.g., Karlstadt, Bucer, and Hätzer). Others had positive attitudes toward art in general, but had reservations about religious representations (Calvin). Yet others had more ambiguous attitudes. Zwingli thought that images are inherently dangerous because of the temptation to idolatry, but his position softened toward the end of his life. Luther’s ideas on sacred representations changed through his career from a somewhat negative to a fairly positive evaluation. He held that the Old Testament prohibition pertained only to idols, not to images themselves. His primary concern was that images and devotion to them could foster a spirituality of external works as the means to salvation. This problem could be met by uniting images with texts and stressing their didactic function. The Council of Trent dealt with sacred art in 1568. The Council agreed with the reformers that abuses were possible in the cult of the saints and in the use of art, and also that much of the art itself was “inappropriate” for sacred use because of its worldliness. However, its decree insisted on the validity and usefulness of images and their veneration. The decree of Trent did not give specific guidelines for sacred art, but only general principles, leaving implementation in the hands of bishops. The vagueness of Trent’s decree made room for a wide range of practical judgments about what was “appropriate” or “fitting” in sacred art. But in the second half of the 16th century, several bishops and theologians wrote treatises on painting to guide artists. The Tridentine reforms, although put into practice in varied ways, included several general characteristics: (1) elimination of “sensual” and secular elements from sacred art; (2) faithfulness to Scripture and tradition; (3) concern for doctrine and devotion above artistry; (4) use of art as a means of education, indoctrination, and propaganda; (5) the valuing of visual naturalism; (6) polemical concentration on contested dogmatic themes in content; and (7) the sensual as a means of entry into the spiritual. With the advent of the Baroque in the later stages of the Counter-Reformation, a spirit of triumph prevailed. Art that was pleasing to the senses brought an atmosphere of spiritual exaltation. Baroque art was purposefully theatrical, artful, and dramatic. An unintended result of the image controversies was the separation of sacred and secular art and the formulation of separate criteria for each.
Visual Arts: Reformation and Counter-Reformation (Reforms of Trent and Catholic Art)
Neoclassicism and Religious Art in 18th-Century Europe
The term “Neoclassicism” refers to an era when a large number of artists and scholars across Europe in the 18th century took inspiration from the history and material remains of classical antiquity, which was defined as ancient Greece and Rome. While Neoclassicism is often considered a stylistic trend, artists worked across stylistic categories, yet they were all part of a broad milieu that responded to profound societal changes by seeking out classical precedents for questions posed by Enlightenment thinkers. These questions included the purpose of religion in society, where philosophers including John Locke (1632–1704) and François-Marie Arouet Voltaire (1694–1778) theorized new spiritual modes to examine human existence. Many religious painters of the 18th century studied at the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture established in Paris in 1648 under royal sponsorship that dictated taste, and these artists were championed for their ability to depict grand expressions of human emotion learned from antiquity and from classicizing Renaissance and Baroque artists, including French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), who popularized the Roman concept of exempla virtutis. Jean- Baptiste Colbert, the First Minister to King Louis XIV and Vice-Protector of the Academy, promoted this grand classicizing Baroque style as the elevated style of the aristocracy, which laid the foundation for Neoclassicism. For French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713–1784), art could provide pleasure, but a superior artwork provided a visual beauty that inspired virtuous behavior; thus, while not all art served a religious function, artworks often showed examples of virtue. For example, Diderot, who reported on the biennial exhibitions sponsored by the Academy in Paris, praised Jacques-Louis David’s (1748–1825) Oath of the Horatii (1784, Louvre Museum, Paris), a depiction of a 7th-century bce Roman legend, for its demonstration of patriotic sacrifice. Many of these moralizing narratives drew upon stories from classical antiquity, learned by artists trained at the French Academy in Rome (established in 1666) during a period of study sometimes called the Grand Tour. Neoclassical art was also shaped by the intense cultural questioning that arose with the French Revolution, and it found fertile ground during the Industrial Revolution. Religious art had a complicated historical development in the 18th century given the dramatic changes that disrupted religious institutions and church patronage in favor of secular patrons and new subjects. Nonetheless, the moralizing tendencies of Neoclassicism and the academic favoring of historical painting continued to provide a place for religious art and architecture throughout the 18th century, much of which deserves further study.
Christian Sacred Architecture
Beginning with the Renaissance, the architecture of churches in the West was shaped by new cultural and liturgical demands that reshaped the spaces of Christian worship. Renaissance Christians found models of urban monumentality and geometric harmony in the architecture of classical Rome that they deemed lacking in their existing Gothic forms. At the same time, both Catholics and Protestants placed new emphasis on preaching and on the ability of worshipers to see the liturgy. These factors decisively reshaped church architecture. The rational austerity of the Renaissance, however, soon gave way to the more exuberant decoration of the baroque and, in time, to a revival of the Gothic. Beginning in the late 18th century, it became valued for its association with mystery, organic development, and the endurance of faith amid the rise of scientific rationalism. By the mid-19th century, an eclecticism in architecture had developed where many church builders used varied styles to actualize buildings of many plans in order to bring the desired historical and emotional associations to the structure, or simply to distinguish it from its neighbors. Yet, architectural principles—often associated with the Gothic—that emphasized the integral relation of form, structure, and function led many church builders to embrace architectural modernism. They rejected applied ornament, especially that which hid the structure of the building. Concrete, steel, and glued laminated wood beams made possible new designs often with a minimalist aesthetic and innovative ground plans. As in the 16th, so in the 20th century this architectural shift was associated with new values and liturgical demands. For many there was a fundamental concern with the architectural expression of the immanence of God. Historical styles and dim light seemed wrongly to suggest that God was not part of the contemporary world. Along with this, liturgical ressourcement fostered throughout the 20th century by the Liturgical Movement and endorsed by the Second Vatican Council championed the idea that liturgy was “the work of the people,” a corporate activity in which all participated. This led to the development of the “modern communal church” as a liturgical form. Many historic buildings were significantly altered. Within thirty years, a sizable revolution was insisting on more traditional, often classical, architectural forms ensuring that future church building would be shaped by a dialogue between tradition and the modern.