Corruption and confusion have always made up the flotsam of the Catholic Church. They periodically resurface, causing rupture and scandal and, most devastatingly, luring souls into the Charybdis whirlpool of despair.
The 16th century experienced one of the most violent clashes in the history of the Church, in which hyperbolic language, amplified by the new forms of social media (the printing press) and combined with contradictory statements by prelates or pundits, left the faithful bewildered about the most essential teachings of the Church and afraid to ask questions for fear of vehement reprisals.
The Catholic Church used every avenue to guide the faithful during this time of crisis, with new religious orders, councils, and decree upon decree. Yet while effective in reaffirming the faith, these measures were insufficient for winning over the popular imagination.
How was the Church to reawaken pride in the Catholic tradition in the face of scorn and vitriol? How to propose the truth in a persuasive and engaging fashion?
Art had served the Church since the earliest times, and in the chaotic wake of the Reformation, painting, sculpture, and architecture emerged as a powerful and persuasive force for good. To soothe the ugliness of polemics and scandals, the Church promoted artists of all sorts — public sinners, eccentric personalities and, for the first time, professional women painters.
Art delighted while teaching, drawing the doubtful and the diffident to think about fundamental tenets in new ways. Confronting the modern age of discovery and empiricism, the Church used art to ignite the heart as well as the mind.
Today, most people think of these works as museum pieces, artifacts of bygone times, but they were commissioned and produced as tools to promote faith. Through different media, the Catholic Church emphasized the necessity of the sacraments, the importance of intercession, and the meaning of cooperation in salvation.
Take Caravaggio for instance: the turbulent painter who spent much of his 10-year career under arrest, culminating in a murder charge that forced him to flee Rome. Yet what images of conversion he left the world!
After his compelling “Calling of Matthew” and “Conversion of Saul,” St. Philip Neri’s oratorians hired him to paint the “Entombment” for the Chiesa Nuova (“New Church”) in Rome.
Caravaggio based his image on Michelangelo’s “Pieta” made a century earlier, but gave it a startling reboot for his own age. Instead of idealizing his models to lacquered perfection, he depicted the people surrounding Christ as ordinary.
No 20-year-old mother of God holding the 33-year-old Jesus, Mary looks like an aging woman devastated by her loss. And Jesus is no longer the graceful Grecian hero of the “Pieta,” but a heavy, unwieldy corpse carried with difficulty by his friends.
The scene may appear at first glance a little too plebeian for the burial of the Son of God, but Caravaggio adds a striking beam of light that cuts through the canvas and transforms the scene.
There is no lamp, window or moon to illuminate the story; the light is supernatural, taking an ordinary scene and making it extraordinary. This light draws the eye from the figure on the upper right and then progressively draws the gaze down to Jesus’ luminous body suspended above a stone slab.
Like the altar, it appears to protrude into the viewer’s space. Christ’s lifeless hand completes the downward trajectory resting on the stone and appearing to point to an empty space underneath. A gaping darkness, waiting … for what?
The meaning of this work was clear in its original setting, above the side altar of the Chiesa Nuova, where, fulfilling its function as an altarpiece, the void would be filled by the priest, standing below during the sacrifice of the Eucharist.
As he pronounced the words of consecration and lifted the Host, Caravaggio’s fleshy body of Christ would be the backdrop of the Eucharist, stimulating the faithful to contemplate the mystery of transubstantiation.
The Church also found itself wrestling with questions about intercession — with accusations of idolatry and clerical self-promotion distancing the faithful from their heavenly guides. Uniting its greatest talents to reinforce the idea of the communion of saints, the Church defended the veneration of the heroes of the faith, particularly the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Federico Fiori, also known as Barocci, who had a lifelong dislike of Rome (he believed that he had been poisoned at the papal court), nevertheless became one of the most successful painters of his age, thanks to his exceptional use of color to delight and persuade.
His imposing “Madonna del Popolo,” 11 feet by 8 feet, compellingly presents the Blessed Virgin as the Maria Mediatrix, interceding on behalf of the people with her Son.
As a rule, Barocci favored the compositional symmetry of the triangle, but this work reveals a slight shift. The work is anchored by the Holy Spirit in the center; Jesus, however, governing from heaven, makes room by his side for his mother. The Virgin, slightly lower than her Son, intercedes on behalf of the “popolo” — the people.
Underneath, a torrent of humanity flows in living color. Beggars and aristocrats kneel side-by-side while children play amid the blind and crippled. People give alms, share food — showing how the corporal works of mercy on earth reflect Mary’s petitions for mercy in heaven.
Barocci knew how to captivate the eye as well as the heart: still-life details of gemstones, straw baskets and wooden instruments, but the luminous color and upward composition evoked the Lord’s kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Church sponsored hundreds, if not thousands, of works of art to reaffirm its teachings and give comfort to a flock surrounded by the ugliness of scandal and division.
Today most of these works hang on museum walls, their persuasive voices muted by bland didactic panels and selfie-seeking tourists, but it seems about the right time to once again let this faithful chorus proclaim the reasons for our hope and the pride in our faith.
Art historian Elizabeth Lev’s new book “How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: Beauty and Truth in the Counter-Reformation Era,” looks at more of these famous paintings and their true Catholic meaning and is available from Sophia Institute Press.
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