You have to give the Catholic Church its due: it certainly knows how to build a church. From the stained-glass windows, colossal marble statues, hand-painted frescoes, and its architecturally innovative domes, Catholic Churches have a flair for the elaborate. But there was a time in history when such ornateness was at stake.
In the sixteenth century, religion underwent a miraculous makeover that nearly cost Catholicism its prestige. Led by Martin Luther, the Reformation began in 1517 as a reform on the Catholic Church and its doctrines. Through this reform, two prominent branches of Christianity evolved: Protestantism and Calvinism, and later other branches grew. One of the leading factors behind the Protestant Reformation was criticism for the growing corruption within the Catholic Church. Among the arguments in his 95 theses, Luther claimed that the Church had become consumed by wealth and greed. The sale of indulgences to those who wanted to save themselves from purgatory was, in Luther’s and many others’ minds, testament to a decline in the Church’s spirituality and devotion.
Reformers began to build churches much simpler than their Catholic neighbors. Emphasizing the religious service and the need for the forgiveness of sins, Protestants built parishes with very little decoration or splendor. Because many believed that Catholics viewed the creation of elaborate churches as worthy of God’s praise, Protestants condemned idolatry and excessive displays of wealth. Thereby, churches constructed during the reform period included simple wall colors, transparent windows, and a centrally raised pulpit emphasizing its importance as parishioners’ primary focus.
As leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin attempted to persuade the public that Catholicism was leading their lives in the wrong direction, the Catholic Church struggled to know how to respond. In response to the Protestant reform movement, the Church established its own, known as the Counter-Reformation. The Council of Trent, a commission organized to review institutional concerns and possible responses to the reforms, acknowledged a number of faults in Church and thus served a catalyst for Catholic reform.
Unfortunately, one of the decrees coming from the commission impacted the display of art in Catholicism. The Church had long believed that the creation of beautiful places of worships served as a motivator for parishioners to attend mass, but the Reformation forced the Vatican to reconsider whether such elaborate displays were in line with Church teachings. This was an interesting consideration, especially in light of the Church’s extensive history as a patron to the arts. More than thirty years before the start of the Counter-Reformation, Pope Julius II commissioned the painting of the Sistine Chapel to Michelangelo and the walls of the Vatican stanze, rooms, to Raphael, but such works of artistic genius were later called into question. Even the architectural plans of St. Peter’s came under fire during the years of the reform. It is because of the Counter Reformation that many of the sculptures and paintings were later altered; the addition of loincloths and touches of paint were added to cover up excessive nudity or “inappropriate” pagan representations. In a way, the reformed movements of the sixteenth century invoked a new form of censorship and limitation in the Catholic Church. One might wonder how things might have been different had the reformed movements began a century prior.
Nowadays as one explores Europe, it is difficult to imagine a time when the Catholic Church was actually reconsidering its opinion on displays and artistic patronage. In Florence, the Duomo dominates the skyline as a testament to architectural innovation; St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is like a museum, home to Michelangelo’s glorious Pietà and numerous other marvels of marble; the Sistine Chapel houses perhaps the most famous ceiling in the world; and the walls of the Vatican stanze reflect a shift in style for one of the High Renaissance’s most renown figures, Raphael. All of these buildings and works of art serve as symbols of the Catholic identity. In applying what Jean de Jandun said of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris to all Catholic churches, I believe such places “offer[s] the carefully discerning such cause for admiration that its inspection can scarcely sate the soul.”