Art and the Counter Reformation Research Proposal

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Art and the Counter Reformation

Since the Counter Reformation is considered to be a reaction to the Reformation process, it would be wise to understand what the reformation was and what were the social and financial circumstances which led to these cultural changes. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Catholic church was an extremely powerful institution. And as the saying "power corrupts" can be applied to all the institutions, regardless of their field of action, the church itself was not spared. In fact, the situation was so pressing that a need for reform had begun to be felt right from the twelfth century. By 1545 the church had held nine councils which were meant to address this need. However, the clergy fails to live according to the rightful principles. As the series of abuses continue, the pressure continues to grow as well.

Further analyzing the social and cultural contexts, it must be underlined that printed material was not available. Therefore, the role of the visual representations was extremely important. The churches were not only a place for religious gathering, but also a social environment and a location where people got knowledge (education) from. The large masses of people who did not go to school had the possibility to learn by going to church. The stained glass, the images of the saints and the decorative elements of the organs contributed to creating a narrative discourse. Naturally, this was always concentrated on religious themes meant to ensure the Church's power.

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The reformation

As the abuses of the clergy continued notwithstanding the councils that started in 1215, the need for change came about under the form of a movement called reformation, which practically divided the church into two groups, the Protestants and the Catholics. The countries in the North for example were predominantly Protestant.

Research Proposal on Art and the Counter Reformation Assignment

The main means to which the Protestants appealed was art. Since the Church itself used art as a means to support itself, this reaction is only natural. The Protestants declared that the Catholics adored God and the saints in an excessive manner which harmed society and man. This resulted into an enthusiastic support for iconoclasm. Stained glass windows from the churches were broken or removed by the order of the authorities, the saints destroyed and the pipe organs removed as well.

The Counter Reformation

On the one hand it could be stated that the counter reformation is a reaction of the Catholic church to defend itself in front of the actions of the Protestants and the principles which they promoted. On the other hand, it can be asserted that the Catholic church decided to truly conceive and implement norms which would help regain its dignity and at the same time, maintain the large number of believers. Its is obvious that marinating the faith of the believers was a strategic decision that helped the Church maintain its power, not just at the social level, but at the political level as well.

Protestant and Catholic views on art

During the medieval times, art often appealed to symbolic elements in order to better convey its message. For example, a halo was used in order to depict a saint. The representatives of Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo concentrated upon representing an ideal man, rather than God in its perfection and the saints in their sacred and venerated dimension. This meant that painters started to adopt a more realistic representation in their creations. The Protestant movement, supported by important characters such as John Calvin or Huldreich Zwigli declared the catholic religious vision as being idolatrous and encouraged iconoclasm.

The reaction of the Catholic church was the Council of Trent, which reunited numerous times between 1545 and 1563. The role of the council was to set up a set of principles and rules that would reform the Church. On the one hand, it put an end to practices such as the sale of indulgences. On the other hand, it reaffirmed the Catholic doctrines and became more aggressive in relation to all the actions which were considered heretic (one of the proofs is the creation of the Inquisition as an organ meant to enforce the respect of the Catholic norms). One of the regulations the Catholic Church decided upon regarded art. The countries from the south, that is, the ones which remained Catholic, were compelled to produce religious art only. This is one of the main oppositions between the Catholics and the protestants, as the latter ones paid attention to the representation of ordinary life and people, but did not give up on painting religious scenes inspired from the Bible.

On the one hand, this artistic period is characterised by the Protestant view. Portrait painting becomes popular and scenes from nature are also depicted. On the other hand, there is the perspective brought by the Catholic art. The use of symbolism decreases compared to medieval times, and the paintings become more realistic. However, the common scenes are not to be found in the painting coming from the southern countries. Instead, there are numerous representations of God and Virgin Mary, as well as the saints.

The main difference between the two styles resides in the principles which lay at their basis. According to the Protestant view, the relationship between man and god is a direct one. It is known from the Bible that God made after His image. This means that the image of an ordinary person is a reflection of God. After all, all God's work reflects its nature. Man will still adore God, but demonstrate his veneration through the depiction of God's creations. The Catholic conception is quite different and according to it, man and God can not have a direct relationship. Instead, an intermediary is needed, and he is best incarnated by Jesus and Virgin Mary. The respect and worship brought to these images were supposed to illustrate their veneration for God and bring them closer to Him. It was only a sacred content that could give art a religious dimension. Naturally, the sacred content in question could be represented only by the biblical figures of Mary, Jesus and the saints. Under these circumstances it is needless to underline the obvious importance of visual arts and one could even ask himself if the protestants did not fall into the trap of adoring the images of God instead of God himself.

The Council of Trent came up with a series of decrees meant to impose clear rules upon the manner in which art was supposed to be created. The artists were meant to transmit Christian themes directly to the people. The visual arts were not the only ones that had to obey these rules, but also music. The main themes were represented by redemption and repentance. Two currents are worth taking into consideration, that is mannerism and the baroque.

Painting- characteristics

Just like the council of Trent imposed it, the painters role was to create such paintings which would stimulate the viewers into being more pious. Therefore, there had to be an appeal to the emotions of the believers. It must be added that the role of the priests was highly important, his spoken word sometimes being the only source of education. Under these circumstances, the role of the paintings is that of supporting the spoken word as evidence and illustration.

In addition, the works were supposed to be realistic and accurate in their descriptions. The message was to be conveyed in a simple and intelligible manner. Most of the works produced in the second half of the sixteenth century are formalistic, anti-classical and anti-naturalistic. As far as composition is concerned, a phenomenon of decentralization takes place. Painters usually use a large number of decorative elements. The use of colour becomes more elaborated. The use of details and their significance becomes more complicated. Numerous frescoes maintain an esoteric style, and until a certain point painting fails to become clear and transmit the emotions that it was meant to. Changes will begin to appear after 1580. Among the works that can be cited in this regard are the paintings: "Saint Thomas Aquinas dedicating his works to Christ" by Santi di Tito which represents the philosopher standing inside a church in front of a crucified Jesus looking piously upwards in a gesture of offering; Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus" which represents Jesus at a dinner table, depicted in a very realistic manner, yet surrounded by three people who, through their body language manage to transmit the idea of awe and piety. The food on the table is described in a detailed and realistic manner, while the religious symbolism (the red piece of cloth that Jesus is wearing and his gestures) is easily interpretable. The painting called "Dead Christ Mourned" which is attributed to painter Annibale Caracci depicts the dead Christ surrounded by women grieving. Halos are still used in order to suggest the characters sacred dimension. The scene is very realistic. Its simplicity manages to render it touching.

The Mannerism

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