Triumph of Beauty
The use and role of art in the Catholic faith is boundless and intentionally so. As we can trace it from the graffiti of the catacombs to the great cathedrals of Europe, art has always stood as both sign and symbol of our faith. Catholic artists are called to use their gifts and talents to best reveal the truth and beauty of the faith. For the Church of Rome, the role of art and architecture was and has remained a tool of testimony.
In her latest book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, noted art historian Elizabeth Lev takes us through passages that art historians often neglect. That is, how art assisted the Church and helped restore the faith with the Council of Trent.
The book is divided into three sections, addressing the Protestant challenge to Catholic teaching on the sacraments, intercession, and the human place in salvation. Each chapter examines an issue and then presents and explains art (mostly from Italy) created to address that issue. The last chapter examines Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which Lev calls “the ultimate Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.” The book also includes a twenty-page set of short biographies of the major artists Lev discusses.
After the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and its destruction of sacred art, the Church had to defend its art. The Council is rarely discussed by art historians, and if discussed, almost always treated as an oppressive menace to the artists of the time, rarely as a call to action. Lev points out what Trent and the Counter Reformation meant to artists and the renewed responsibility it gave the artist. To frame her insights, she describes the influence of the saints on the artists of the time including Saints Philip Neri, Charles Borromeo, and Ignatius of Loyola.
As Franciscan spirituality was the inspiration of the Renaissance, the study of the body as the divine in our space and time remained a constant reminder of Christ with us. For the Protestant, the portrayal of the body of Christ became problematic.
With Jesuit spirituality, the stimulus for the artists shifted from the presence and place of the sacred to witness and transcendence. If the Renaissance focused on Christ as the Word made flesh, the artists of the Counter-Reformation were now charged with the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Those very points disputed and rejected by the Protestant Reformation now became central.
Though mostly referred to by art historians as “Mannerism,” the art of the Reformation that followed Luther’s revolt is rarely examined as a statement of faith and as the bridge from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation. Starting with artists of the Reformation such as Michelangelo, Del Sarto, Bernini, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Peter Paul Rubens, and Reni, all working with fever and fervor, Lev carefully shows us how the sacramental faith and the witness to the Most Blessed Sacrament become central in the Counter-Reformation.
With the theme of metamorphosis and the use of tenebrism and deliberate ambiguity of form and void, the painters and sculptors as well as the architects of the Counter-Reformation depicted the Sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Penance, guiding the Church and her faithful to both personal and communal transformation. As Lev tells us, “The debates of the present called upon these witnesses from the past and the artists were expected to close the gap of the centuries between those lives and the present through the employment of their prowess.”
Importantly, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith both answers those unanswered questions of Catholic art history and tacitly asks where we are now. As she writes, “The challenges and circumstances that the Church faced 500 years ago bear a striking similarity to the ones the faithful face today.”
As we find ourselves coming out of a severely mannered period of church art and design, we must ask: Was Modernism indeed our Mannerism? If so, how do we as Catholic artists and architects respond? Elizabeth Lev sheds new light on both the past and perhaps our future as we approach what may be a Second Counter-Reformation in sacred art and architecture.
Anthony Visco is the director of the Atelier for the Sacred Arts where he designs and produces works for the liturgical environment. He also teaches courses in sacred art both in Philadelphia and Florence, Italy.