Ideal Nude or Beauty Exciting to Lust?

The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church

by Marcia B. Hall and Tracy E. Cooper
2013 Cambridge University Press, 356 pages, $99.00


The Visitation by Federico Barocci

Common wisdom has been that the Counter-Reformation sought to undo Renaissance achievements and to enforce a narrow and prurient view of art. This fine set of essays offers a more nuanced view of the debates that accompanied the reform of art during this time. Among the protagonists are bishops, authors, popes, and two saints.

Archbishop Paleotti of Bologna sought to create a list of criteria for religious art, yet others in the Church hierarchy disagreed and the list was never promulgated (for a review of Paleotti’s book see Sacred Architecture, Issue 24). The bishops and the theologians who attended the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563 did not treat the issue of sacred images until the last minute only due to the late participation of the French. As Pope Pius IV and other bishops implemented Trent’s decree on images, they reflected two theological traditions: the Augustinian emphasis on the Fall and Redemption and the emphasis on being created in God’s image. The Council of Trent’s decrees reaffirmed the principle of reaching the invisible through the visible but also criticized lasciviousness and superstition in art.

Beginning in the early Renaissance, it was believed that carnality could express spiritual truths. Inspired by Neo-Platonism, beautiful bodies were understood as expressive of sanctity. Beauty could lead the soul to contemplation and to a higher realm. Nudity, even of Christ, could be acceptable, as seen in crucifixes. As religious reform gathered steam, nudity in art, once generally acceptable, became hotly debated. The centrality of the nude body in Florentine art had been preeminent. People remarked first on the bodies rather than on the religious meaning. Raffaello Borghini’s Il Riposo of 1584 offers a variety of perspectives on the question of the ideal nude in both secular and religious art. One character admires Bronzino’s Christ in Limbo but admits it might be more appropriate for a house than a church.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1536–41) is the most notorious of Tridentine modifications. On January 21, 1564, shortly after Trent, the Sistine fresco was censured for its lack of decorum, and it was decreed that the nude figures should be draped. Aretino and Ludovico Dolce characterized the nudes as an offense to Saint Peter and to the chapel’s visitors. In his Dialogue on the Abuse of History, Gilio criticized the artist of “error in his portrayal of sacred history by nudity and by contorting the body so it appears in a dance rather than in contemplation.” The additions of clothing and the repainting of Saints Catherine and Blaise began in 1564 and continued over the next two centuries.

Paleotti in his Discorso of 1582 divided the audience for art into four types: painters, spirituals, educated, and uneducated (the majority). In their Trattato of 1652, Ottonelli and Pietro da Cortona define “immodest images” as those which cause impure thoughts, while Rosignoli in the Pittura of 1696 writes that nude Venuses can “pervert the imprudent and those with poor dispositions.” If an image was obscene, it could be destroyed, but better would be una spirituale transformatione whereby a painter could add clothing and turn a nude Venus into a penitent Magdalene.

One response to Trent’s rulings was Pope Clement VIII Aldobrandini’s visitation of twenty-eight churches in Rome from 1592 to 1596, which resulted in a number of spiritual transformations. While the main emphasis was the morality and piety of the clergy, art was also treated. The pope made the visits with an entourage that included priests from the circles of Saint Philip Neri and Saint Charles Borromeo, resulting in instructions for repair and ornamentation of the churches. In their review of sacred art, the pope and his committee had a desire for decorum and historical accuracy and requested the removal of profane or pagan imagery. At Saint Peter’s Basilica, Clement ordered that the partly nude allegories on Pope Paul III’s funerary monument “be moved or more decently covered up.” In San Pietro in Vincoli he ordered that a less decent image of the Magdalene be removed from the prior’s cell and be sold. Not surprisingly, the instructions were often met with resistance from the religious community and the patrons. At the Gesu, Clement condemned Pulzone’s Lamentation altarpiece due to the way that the Magdalene was caressing the feet of Christ, but the painting was never modified.

Saint Charles Borromeo, reforming archbishop of Milan (1564–84), promoted the use of a wooden partition down the nave of a church to divide the sexes for greater modesty and devotion. While he allowed benches for sitting and kneeling on the north (or women’s) side, he ordered men to stand or kneel. Borromeo was also likely the inventor of the closed confessional, so that confessor and penitent could not see or touch one another. The first built-in confessional is found in Tibaldi’s drawing for San Fedele of 1567. Saint Philip Neri (1515–95) believed that the senses lead the viewer from mundane beauty to divine glory. Philip would sit for hours in front of a crucifix or Barocci’s Visitation in Chiesa Nuova and go into ecstasy. His canonization proceedings are full of episodes where Christ or the Virgin appeared to him. He saw painting as a language in which the artists spoke not to men’s ears but to their souls. While Saint Ignatius valued interior revelations, Philip believed that exterior manifestations were a necessary means of bringing the human and divine into contact. At Chiesa Nuova, it was Philip’s idea to turn the mysteries of the life of the Virgin into fourteen side altarpieces, where they became silent homilies to move the senses.