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Visual Arts: Reformation and Counter-Reformation (Reforms of Trent and Catholic Art)  

Richard Viladesau

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.

Article

Idol and Idolatry  

Stacy Boldrick

The concepts of the idol and idolatry are historically critical for many religions, playing fundamental roles in religious conflicts past and present. The word idolatry is from the Greek εἴδωλον “idol” and λατρεία “latria,” “service, worship,” which points to its main meaning: paying service to a material object. In Judeo-Christian religions, idols were the objects of forbidden worship—objects designated as “other”—and idolatry was a sin. Idols in contemporary Western popular culture are also remote figures, but they are revered rather than denigrated. Over the course of the Renaissance to the present, the nature and definition of idolatry have dramatically changed, as the material and conceptual forms of the idol also changed over this period. The terms idol and idolatry have long and wide geographical histories, and an ever-changing relationship with religion and art in the period from the Renaissance to the present in the West; they are best understood within specific temporal and cultural contexts. For example, during the Reformation in England, changes in how idols and the practice of idolatry were defined and scrutinized in churches and in public space demonstrate the complex and paradoxical nature of these concepts in particular places and times. Additionally, the idol and idolatry are important subjects for artists working in a range of media from the Renaissance to the present. In contemporary art, more secular meanings of the terms appear as political and ideological critiques of conceptual idols: the idols of the market, of authoritarian regimes, or of changing contested perspectives and belief systems.

Article

Holy Week and the Theater of Art: Sculpture, Retables, and the Spanish Baroque Aesthetic  

Rafael Japón

In the 16th century, the social and political changes derived from the European religious wars between Catholic and Protestant countries, economic crises, and the Counter-Reformation had an enormous impact on the evolution of visual culture. These transformations drastically changed the way in which the Catholic faithful interacted with works of art. The exemplary uses given to the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints were promoted as intermediaries between God and people. The intense realism in art served precisely this objective, since the faithful could recognize themself in these figures. In addition, the rise of the brotherhoods and penitentiary guilds led to the popularization of behaviors that imitated the Passion of Christ, such as public self-flagellation. Therefore, the Spanish processional sculpture was fully brought forward by many of these brotherhoods. Processions used theatrical resources and were very successful among the people. In the 17th century, the Hispanic baroque aesthetic was strongly linked to the Catholic Church and was especially evident during Holy Week. The public processions and their artistic resources were very successful, so much so that they have survived to the present, evolving and adapting to each period.

Article

Christian Sacred Architecture  

David Bains

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.

Article

Monasteries, Holy Monks, Tridentine Saints: Port Cities of Seville and Valencia  

Karen Mathews

Religious art in Valencia and Seville reflected the international character of these port cities, attracting a diverse patronage base as well as some of the most talented artists in Spain. The city of Valencia turned east toward the Mediterranean and the movement of artists and artworks around the sea reflected its political, economic, and cultural importance in the region. Seville was the administrative center for Spain’s American colonies and its influence spread across the Atlantic. The international scope of these ports meant that their artistic culture played a defining role in Counter-Reformation Spain. This article addresses several interrelated themes in the religious art of Valencia and Seville. The thematic threads explored here include the international character of these cities and their outward focus on the Mediterranean and the Americas, the role of secular and ecclesiastical art patrons in commissions of painting and sculpture, artistic solutions for the representation of complex imagery and the requirements of Counter-Reformation art, and the accommodation of artists to new tastes in art that reflected a changing political and economic climate. The extraordinary wealth of religious art produced in these two cities can be seen as a manifestation of a central tenet of the Catholic Church in Spain—the power of imagery to inspire, teach, delight, and admonish. Artists and patrons collaborated to forge and perpetuate a veritable industry of image-making that served political ends, addressed social concerns, and highlighted the piety and devotion of each city’s inhabitants in the 17th century.

Article

Devotional Art in Viceregal Latin America  

Marcus Burke

The art of devotion in colonial Mexico, Central America, and South America—called the “viceregal” period, from the division of the colonies into viceroyalties from 1521 to 1821—arose in the context of reformed Roman Catholicism, especially after the Council of Trent (1545–1563). Devotional images included stand-alone compositions, images from altar ensembles and serial contexts, and works of sculpture that could be the focus of a believer’s pious contemplation or an accompaniment to liturgy. These images document the establishment of the Christian faith and its iconography in the New World, including syncretic elements, principally in the initial decades of colonization and missionization. They embody doctrines and local devotions relating to the Blessed Virgin Mary; the importance of the religious orders to Latin American devotional art; orthodox and heterodox imagery; regional variations; and special iconographies particular to Latin America. The creation of viceregal images was conditioned by issues such as the relative importance of centers of viceregal power versus peripheries, differing ethnic and religious traditions of specific localities, relatively permissive church attitudes toward heterodoxy, and the use of European models.. In the almost exactly three centuries of the viceregal era, artists of the first rank such as Baltasar de Echave Orio, Luis and José Juárez, Alonso López de Herrera, Cristóbal de Villalpando, Juan Rodríguez Juárez, and Miguel Cabrera from Mexico; Bernardo Bitti, Mateo Pérez de Alesio, Angelino Medoro, Baltasar Gavilán, and Bernardo de Legarda from Peru and Ecuador; and O Aleijadinho from Brazil created religious works responding to European stylistic developments but expressing local artistic values even as they nourished an ongoing Roman Catholic devotional life.

Article

Religious Art and Architecture in 18th-Century Europe  

Sean DeLouche

The 18th century was an era of transition for the arts and religion. Monarchs continued to commission religious art and architecture for a variety of reasons, including fulfillment of vows, expressions of faith and piety, and celebrations of dynastic power. The period saw simultaneous trends toward sumptuous decoration and sober display, as well as the rise of new artistic styles, including the Rococo, Neoclassicism, and the Gothic Revival. The Grand Tour brought many northern European Protestants to the seat of Catholicism. Protestant attitudes toward “popish” art softened in the 18th century, due in part to the increasing contact between Catholic and Protestant culture in Rome and to the perception that Catholicism was no longer a plausible threat. As the temporal and spiritual power of Rome declined in the 18th century, the papacy sought to reestablish itself as a cultural authority. The papacy embellished Rome with a number of archaeological and architectural initiatives, linking the popes with classical civilization and casting themselves as the custodians of the shared Western cultural tradition. With a growing art market and the consumer revolution, the populace had expanding access to religious imagery, from fine religious canvases collected by Catholic and Protestant elites, to reproducible prints that were available to nearly every member of society. However, the Enlightenment brought a profound questioning of religion. Religious works of art faced a loss of context in private displays and in the official Salon exhibitions, where they were intermixed with secular and erotic subjects and judged not on the efficacy of their Christian message or function but rather on aesthetic terms in relation to other works. The century ended with the French Revolution and brought violent waves of de-Christianization and iconoclasm. In order to save France’s Christian heritage, religious works of art had to be stripped of their associations with church and crown.