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Introduction - How Catholic Art Saved the Faith


"This book will captivate those who love art, the Faith, and great writing." - Father Roger J. Landry, Catholic Voices USA


Caravaggio may seem the most unlikely choice to spearhead a public-relations campaign for the Catholic Church.  This aggressive, unconventional artist rarely followed rules—whether legal or artistic—and was more frequently under arrest than in Eucharistic adoration.  Yet this brilliant painter joined several other "misfit" artists—hypochondriac Barocci, alcoholic Annibale Carracci, gritty Ribera, and scandal-ridden Artemisia Gentileschi—to become the visual-arts SWAT team of the Catholic Church in an age of crisis, the post-Reformation era.

A dark and divisive cloud swept through Europe in the wake of October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses challenged almost every aspect of the Faith.  Confusion reigned supreme regarding everything from the sacraments, which accompanied human beings from birth to death, to the saints, who set daily examples in the liturgical calendar.  Was Jesus present in the Eucharist?  Could the procession of historical Christian heroes in Heaven assist the living?  Was Mary's role in the story of salvation solely that of the "God bearer," with no lasting influence over the Church?

As these questions of faith took a geopolitical turn toward issues of power, the debate grew increasingly ugly.  Harsh language disseminated through the printing press was supplemented by vicious images, such as Lucas Cranach's Passionary of Christ and The Antichrist series from 1521, where thirteen woodcuts showing scenes from the life of Christ were contrasted with those of the Antichrist, represented as the Roman pontiff.  Violence escalated, dialogue broke down, and brother turned against brother as the wars of religion began.  What could calm these storm tossed waters?

The arts.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI repeated both as cardinal and as Roman pontiff that "art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith."  The Catholic Church of the Counter-Reformation relied on this premise as it unleashed a wave of glorious examples of holiness as well as beautiful sacred art in opposition to the ugliness, confusion, betrayal, and loss rampant in that era.  Artists, despite their personal obstacles toward sanctification, were recruited to teach, delight, and inspire through their gifts, and complement the hallowed lives of Charles Borromeo, Ignatius of Loyola, Philip Neri, Thomas More, Teresa of Avila, and Jane Frances de Chantal, who shone as examples of spiritual beauty.

Initially perhaps, self-interest may have motivated artists.  The menace of iconoclasm, a side effect of the Protestant Reformation, saw paintings, statues, and relics destroyed in several pockets of Northern Europe, and was gaining ground in the south.  Painters and sculptors were in part to blame for the hostility toward images.  Enamored of their own prowess, some artists had lost sight of the holy stories in favor of provocation, often of a lascivious nature, or else a vain virtuosity, arraying a dizzying number of figures but masking the sacred message.  This period, dubbed ineffectually by art historians as Mannerism, gave the world the notion of "art for art's sake" that would take on a life of its own in the eighteenth century.  For the post-Reformation era, however, the watchword was something else entirely: "art for faith's sake."

For the post-Reformation era, however, the watchword was something else entirely: "art for faith's sake." 

It is not surprising that, faced with promiscuous or confusing images, some Catholic prelates questioned the wisdom of continued art patronage while the Church was preparing to reexamine her teachings in the Council of Trent.  Music, literature, and the visual arts were under scrutiny as to whether the pleasure they provided was merely profane delight instead of a stimulus toward piety and eternal salvation.

There was much to discuss in the Council of Trent, from sacraments to saints and Magisterium to mission.  The two decades of intermittent meetings from 1545 to 1563 spanned five popes, the birth of ten religious orders, more than one hundred officially recognized martyrs, and the repercussions of the astounding volte-face of King Henry VIII, who decreed himself the head of the English church in 1534.  The Tridentine fathers, truth be told, spent far less time discussing art than art historians would like, but their decrees, of the twenty-fifth and final session of December 4, 1563, reaffirmed the long-standing relationship between art and faith, essentially restating the points made at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.

The Tridentine decrees were deliberated along with the role of relics, a precursor to Benedict XVI's observations on the power of the saintly and artistic beauty. 

The bishops shall carefully teach this: that, by means of the histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in [the habit of] remembering, and continually meditating upon the articles of faith; as also that great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; so that they may give God thanks for those things, may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints, and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety. 

By 1564, art patronage was secured, but the instructions were vague.  How were artists to comply with these lofty and somewhat ambiguous expectations?  The solution came in the form of a remarkable and unprecedented collaboration, that of prelates and painters.  In the search to tell old stories for a new world and emphasize ancient truths for a modern generation, the Church sought out all types of artists: the edgy Caravaggio, the graceful Guido Reni, the technically perfect Annibale Carracci, the colorful Barocci, the theatrical Bernini, and the passionate Artemisia Gentileschi.  Every creative soul, despite its interior struggles, was invited to be a part of this great project of affirming salvation in the Catholic Church through beauty. 

While artists knew how to wield the brush and chisel, interpreting sacred stories for the faithful was the province of preachers.  The Church, despite the setbacks of the Mannerist era, decided to encourage these individual artistic visions, shaping them through formation.  Prelates published an unprecedented number of artistic treatises in this era.  Written in Italian, they aimed to help artists satisfy the requirements of the new age, and, in the words of Gabriele Paleotti, archbishop of Bologna, transform painters into "tacit preachers" with the "office to delight, teach, and move."  Artists were offered the status they had craved from the time of Leonardo da Vinci, but with that power came great responsibility in the care of those souls entrusted to their talents.


Amid the brutal martyrdoms, doctrinal uncertainty, and vitriolic language that filled the pamphlets churned out by the printing press, art provided a way to draw people together instead of tearing them apart.  This was an age of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of the millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City.  This mission continued into the next century, reaching its zenith during the era now called the Baroque.  It lasted until the mid-eighteenth century, but eventually dwindled during the Enlightenment, when people turned away from religious art to the crumbled vestiges of the pagan past in search of truth and beauty.

Which brings us to now.  Centuries have passed since Church patronage produced the likes of a Caravaggio or a Bernini, and very few people commission church décor in fresco or oil paint these days.  Why, in this era, should we be interested in the drawings and disputes of a bygone age? 

The reason is that the challenges and circumstances that the Church faced five hundred years ago bear a striking similarity to the ones the faithful face today, while the truths of the Church that artists so deftly displayed half a millennium ago have remained the same.  Even today, art can assist the Church with several of her needs:

  1. Art is useful in evangelization, the mission of the Church and her faithful to telling the great story of our salvation.  Just as Jesus told stories, Christians recount their personal witness.  Artists can make stories, old and new, come alive in paint, marble, or, in this age, film. 

  2. Art can bring clarity.  In a world of ambiguity and confusion, art allows for the serene discussion of different interpretations of events but can also provide guidance—the tradition of belief and the tradition of beauty go hand in hand, ultimately meeting in transcendentals: truth, beauty, and goodness.

  3. Art is uplifting.  The language of art affirmed Church teaching but also delighted the faithful and enjoyed a universality, thanks to the attraction of the beautiful.  Artists of the post-Reformation era were encouraged to represent the best of humanity even in its worst moments.

Certainly, the written word, the sacraments, and the power of preaching form the core of the Church's mission, but art plays a very important role with people, who tend to privilege the gift of sight.  As in the post-Reformation era, people today are accustomed to understanding and believing through the gift of vision.  So, in a world where people prefer seeing the movie to reading the book, an artistic movement begun almost five hundred years ago can still aid the Church in her mission today.

This book presents the major challenges the Church faced during the age of the Protestant Reformation that were effectively answered through art and architecture.  While some works date from the first response to Luther in the 1520s and a few others from late 1600s, most of the art discussed is the product of the immediate generations following the Council of Trent, from 1570 to 1650.  Three sections are devoted to considering the issues of sacraments, intercession, and the role of human cooperation in salvation, as explored in art.  Each section, in turn, contains seven chapters that look at specific issues and situations, and then present works of art created to address those issues.  The final chapter is dedicated to Michelangelo's Last Judgment, the ultimate Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, summing up the most essential doctrines of salvation and projecting them toward a glorious destiny intended by God for every living soul.

The art of this tumultuous period represented a concerted effort to reinforce ancient teaching with new pictures, confronting modern crises with images of eternal truths.

The art of this tumultuous period represented a concerted effort to reinforce ancient teaching with new pictures, confronting modern crises with images of eternal truths.  The innovations of this period in art were less a reaction to the prodding of the Protestant Reformation and more a dynamic renewal of an engagement with the arts that had been going on since the third century.  For this reason, instead of using the term Counter-Reformation, suggesting that the period was merely a reaction to the tumult of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and companions, this book will employ the term Catholic Restoration to emphasize that, after the shock of the early events, the Church proactively represented her ancient teaching through the powerful language of art.

Fundamentally, the beauty in these pages is the fruit of conflict, where the natural collides with the supernatural, the universal call to sainthood encounters humanity's fallen nature, the personal relationship with God confronts the mission of the universal Church, and man's desire for stability is threatened by the modern options that ever-expanding knowledge brings.  The Church proposed that the most fruitful place for this debate, which ignites creativity like flint and tinder, was on canvas, not in the streets.

The works discussed in this book were primarily selected from the Italian peninsula.  Although Spain and some of the Netherlands also produced magnificent art to reinforce Catholic tenets—particularly Marian teaching and Eucharistic theology—the closest collaboration between artists and theologians took place in the city-states of Italy: Florence, Venice, Milan, Naples, and Rome.  Here, the post-Reformation era created a "terroir" where particular nutrients—popular piety, artistic excellence, public processions—created a fertile soil where many "varietals" could flourish, producing many different yet excellent "vintages."

Many of these works have found their way to museums all over the world, but some remain above the altars and in the chapels for which they were commissioned, so the reader might view this book as an invitation to a pilgrimage to see these works with the same eyes as the faithful who walked from city to city on their way to Rome for the great Jubilee Years.

It is my sincere hope that in reading this book, you will revel in meeting new artists and seeing new works of art, enjoy learning more about the painters you already knew, and take pride in the unique and extraordinary contribution to culture that the Catholic Church gave to art.  Art of the Catholic Restoration was intended to delight and to teach (delectere et docere).  It is my greatest hope that you will find both knowledge and pleasure in these pages.



levElizabeth Lev, "Introduction" How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2018): 1-9. 

Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press. 

The Author

lev121Elizabeth Lev is an art historian and writer based in Rome, where all of her three children were born. She teaches at Duquesne University's campus there, Pontifical University of the Angelicum, and Christendom College. She is the author of How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches with George Weigel, and A Body for Glory: Theology of the Body in the Papal Collections with Fr. Jose Granados. She also writes for Inside the Vatican, Aleteia, and Zenit news agency. Visit her website here

Copyright © 2018 Sophia Institute Press
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