Art and the Counter Reformation Research Proposal

Excerpt from Research Proposal :

The painting is shocking because of its dramatic perspective. First and foremost the table is not situated in the centre of the painting, nor is Jesus. In a symbolical manner this transmits the idea that God is no longer in the centre of man's world and this accounts for the chaos that seems to be omnipresent. The lower side of the painting is dominated by human figures and an atmosphere of panic and confusion seems to be dominating. The upper side of the painting is filled with angels. There is a clear separation lien between the scared world of the divine and the one of the people. The dark colours, as well as the composition succeeded into transmitting the desired message, managing to appeal to the viewer's emotions.

The Baroque

As opposed to the simplicity that the Protestants supported, a new style emerges, that is the Baroque. This new artistic movement has its origins in Vatican where sculptors such as Bernini and Borromini begin to change the face of the town. But the Baroque style does not stop at architecture, it is embraced both by painting an sculpture. The churches as worship location are given a theatrical dimension. They become a stage for the public adoration of Christ, where the facades act as curtains. Geometrical shapes, a frenzy of colours, a multitude of details, they all wish to transmit the way in which people acknowledge God's almightiness.

For example, in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, Bernini used a series of elements such as sculpture and lighting in order to turn a chapel into a theatrical representation of the scene in which saint Teresa of Avila receives the visit of an angel holding an arrow which represents divine love. The saint is sculpted in white marble, while the objects framing her are polychromatic. The expression on the saint's face is one of ecstasy. This renders the sculpture even more touching and intense. The entire scene is a metaphor meant to describe a passage from the Teresa of Avilla's writings where she describes God's love penetrating her heart like an arrow.

In three paintings illustrating the life of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio made the light represented within each picture consistent with the actual illumination of the chapel where the pictures were to hang. In the 1640s and 1650s, Pietro da Cortona adorned the vaults of Santa Maria in Vallicella with spectacular portrayals of the Trinity in Glory and the Assumption of the Virgin, in which monumental groups of figures seen from below enact heavenly events as though occurring in the viewer's own experience" (Sorabella 2003).

The Baroque style was to be found even in the field of music. The focus in baroque music is in the "ornaments" just like in sculpture. Claudio Monteverdi who composed "Vespers" and Heinrich Schutz, the author of "Symphoniae Sacrae" are some of the famous baroque composers who were born in the sixteenth century. As far as the decrees of the Council of Trent are concerned, according to them, music was to be done not in a manner that would cause pleasure by hearing it. What was important were the words which had to be easily recognizable and heard. One of the composers who managed to prove that polyphony could be acceptable even under the Catholic reform terms was Palestrina. Jacobus de Kerle and Vincenzo Ruffo were other composers who succeeded into creating sacred music which was good enough as to remain a good example of polyphony.


One of Michelangelo's works which created quite a controversy when created is represented by the "Last Judgement." It was his opinion that the use of nudity could no longer be considered a blasphemous factor by the Church. However, this belief was not shared by the Council of Trent which decided that nudity could be used only in a limited number of scenes. The naked figures depicted by Michelangelo got him severe accusations regarding the manner in which he painted the Sistine Chapel. The representation of God as bearded and in a position other than seated were other controversial factors. The inclusion of a pagan figure, Charon was not meant to spare the painter from criticism either.

Another controversial painting dating from that period is represented by Veronese's " Last supper." The painter was ultimately compelled to change the title of the painting into "Feast in the house of Levi" in order to avoid harsh consequences. The painting represents the scene of Jesus' last supper but includes a large number of details which result shocking such as a dog and a cat, midgets and drunkens. The Inquisition accused the painter of having conveyed a sacred scene as full of buffooneries. He was asked to eliminate some of the elements, such as the animals and the German soldiers. In addition he was requested to insert the figure of Magdalene. Instead, the painter only chose to change the title of the painting and therefore give it another significance. This gesture is an important one as it symbolizes an artist's freedom. His gesture demonstrated that his interest was expressing himself and his ideas through art, and also working hard in order to take art a step higher and also himself rather than respect the canons of the Roman Church.


The importance of art, as a means of communication and self-expression, but also as a means of expressing the values of a society undergoing changes is especially obvious in the time of the Reformation and Counter Reformation. While having had to obey the rules imposed by the Catholic authorities at the Council of Trent, painters, sculptors and composers have managed to take art to new heights which influenced the further cultural development worldwide.


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Friedlaender, Walter, the anti-mannerist style. (Accessed November 18, 2008)

Mannerism. Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia. (Accessed November 19, 2008)

Nosotro, Rit. Art of the reformation and the counter reformation. Hyperhistory. (Accessed November 19, 2008)

Sorabella, Jean. Baroque Rome. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (Accessed November 19, 2008)

The damned in Michelangelo's Last Judgement. (Accessed November 18, 2008)

The reformation and the counter reformation. Historicist articles. (Accessed November 18, 2008)

Wise, Jacob. The reformation. Metmuseum. (Accessed November 19, 2008)

Wittkower, Rudolf, the council of Trent and the arts: Rome 1585-162, (Accessed November 18, 2008)

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