By Michael Sauter
We began this course with the problem of modernity, which I noted has generally been understood as Europe’s exit from the Middle Ages. Of course, we also noted questions about the way people have thought about this exit. Did it happen quickly or slowly? Was it a broad movement or a narrow one? Nonetheless, the general argument, even today, and in spite of much debate, still holds that the Renaissance and the Reformation freed the modern world from Europe’s medieval past, and the most important aspect of this manumission was the discovery of the individual.
The individual man—for it was always men—recognized and reveled in his uniqueness, his creativity, and his intellect. So when you look at portrait of, say, Niccoló Machiavelli or Martin Luther, back stare at you the faces of the world’s first modern men.
This is hogwash. Machiavelli was nothing more than an out-of-work Italian courtier with a taste for the classics and lots of free time; and Martin Luther was an angry monk with a taste for medieval theology and disputation. Modernity did not sprout fully formed from the minds of these great men, and to the extent that the modern individual did appear in this period its arrival has, I will argue today, as much to do with the Catholic Church as it does any of the heroes we have discussed so far.
So today I want to begin with a new idea that we will call the Catholic Reformation, for the Catholic Church also devoted great energy to updating its medieval structures. What you need to understand about the Catholic Reformation is that it was not simply a response to Protestantism, but was rooted in a long tradition of reform within the church that dated back to the late medieval period. The Babylonian Captivity (1309-1377) had made some people within the church aware of the need for internal reform, and the Council of Constance (1414-1418) was the first sign of deeper stirrings that ran into the fifteenth century.
Catholic Reformers saw the worldly church as hopelessly corrupt. The Renaissance Papacy, especially during the time of the Borgias, had been a moral embarrassment, as the Popes became so embroiled in politics that they forgot the church’s religious mission. Just about everyone believed that a general council was necessary to fix all the church’s problems, including such famous people as Martin Luther, Charles V, Erasmus, and the infamous Torquemada.
Four individuals provide specific examples of the desire for reform within the Catholic tradition. First, in Spain Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517), who was Isabella I’s confessor and twice regent, reformed pastoral care and the Spanish system of education. He is most famous, however, for sponsoring the publication of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible (1514-17), which printed the biblical text in several ancient languages that were situated in adjacent columns, with the Old Testament appearing in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and the New Testament appearing in Greek and Latin. Second, in France Guillaume Briçonnet (1472-1534), Bishop of Meaux, instituted extensive visitations in the parishes under his control and promoted a religious revival through his sermons and printed texts. Briçonnet was also part of a circle, which included the great Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, and which emphasized Bible study, especially the Epistles of St. Paul, as a path back to true religion. Third, in Italy Gian Matteo Giberti (1495-1543), Bishop of Verona, whose accomplishments included reforming ecclesiastical education, setting up a printing press, and establishing stricter oversight over local parishes. Giberti’s system enjoyed wide influence as the Bishop of Milan borrowed heavily from it, as did Briçonnet in France. Finally, on the lay side we have Ignatius de Loyola, who founded the Jesuit Order in 1521, before the Reformation was truly under way. Originally, it was both a missionary and teaching order that spread Christianity and a rigorous system of education not only to the New World but also to large parts of Europe. The order’s emphasis on education was spectacularly successful. Just to name two of its most famous products in the early-modern period, René Descartes and Voltaire both went to Jesuit colleges, though in the latter’s case the Jesuits created their worst enemy.
Having identified the Catholic Reformation and some of its practitioners, let us consider, now, its general spirit. Much like its Protestant counterpart, the Catholic Reformation wanted to personalize religious belief. Thus, its reformers put a heavy emphasis on reading and writing texts. This is similar to Protestant zeal for putting the Bible in people’s hands, but with a different emphasis. For Catholic Reformers the idea was to give the individual greater access to religion’s comforting power, not necessarily to the Lord’s Word. As we will see at the end of this lecture, this approach to religion had its liberating aspects, especially in art, music, and architecture. For now, however, we need to keep in mind that the Catholic Reformation stressed the worldly church. It reformed pastoral education and care, making certain that priests were both educated and moral. And it also emptied the world of most—though not all—of its mystical elements.
So, in effect, we confront in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries two Reformations that then set about the work of making Europeans truly Christian. More importantly, and although some today may recoil at the notion, these two Reformations played an integral part in making Europe and, later, the New World “modern,” for in their desire to make everyone truly Christian, these Reformations helped to eliminate ideas and practices that were truly medieval, even pagan.
You will surely have noted by now that although there were two reformations, the Catholic one got started later. As I have already noted, it begins only in 1545. So we need to address now an obvious question: why did things get underway so late within the Catholic Church? The simple answer is war. As you know, the French invaded Italy in 1494, unleashing a period of warfare in Italian peninsula that included such awful spectacles as unscrupulous Papal alliance making and unmaking, as well as the sacking of Rome in 1527 by Charles V’s mercenary troops. (I should note here that the sacking of Rome is the traditional date on which the Renaissance ended in Italy.) It was not until 1545 that a council could be called, and even then it was adjourned twice for long periods due to war’s return.
The Council of Trent consisted of three separate meetings: 1545-47, 1551-52, and 1562-63. Taken together these meetings achieved two important things. First, they fundamentally restructured the church’s internal organization. Second, they reaffirmed traditional Catholic dogma against Protestantism’s attacks.
Internally, the council renovated the church’s structure, creating 70 new cardinals and 15 new congregations. This was done, in part, to make certain that all the church’s work was done, since there had not been enough cardinals to provide sufficient oversight. In addition, the council established firm rules for bishops, requiring that he actually live in his see and that he visit every parish in his see at least once every five years to assess the quality of the teaching and pastoral care. Finally, as a result of the council’s work, in 1587 the church opened a Vatican printing press for the distribution of catholic books and pamphlets. The church would now propagandize just as its enemies had been doing for 70 years.
Theologically, the council did extensive work. Among other things, it reaffirmed the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, holy orders, matrimony, and anointing of the sick and dying, accepted the Nicene Creed as the basis of the faith, and set the definition of original sin. It also rejected Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and established a single teaching on transubstantiation.
Early-modern fights over transubstantiation sound strange to us, and for that reason they are worth considering in more detail. First, let us define transubstantiation. In the Catholic tradition transubstantiation refers to the role of the Eucharist in the Sunday Mass. During the Mass the priest reenacts the Seder meal presided over by Jesus of Nazareth shortly before his crucifixion; Christians refer to this meal as the Last Supper. Catholics believe that when the priest blesses the wine and unleavened bread at the altar, Jesus’ flesh and blood enters the substance of both items, though without changing either item’s form. This belief is a product the scholastic distinction between form and matter cultivated by medieval theologians, who were themselves heirs to classical, especially Aristotelian, philosophy.
For all their opposition to Rome, the Lutheran and Anglican churches largely accept the catholic approach to the Eucharist. The Reformed churches, however, have dispensed with it. Huldrych Zwingli, for example, believed that the Eucharist was merely a reenactment of a real historical event. John Calvin, for his part, accepted that Jesus’ blood and flesh were present in spirit in the bread and wine, but not in actual fact. Thus, on distinctions so fine, have entire movements have been built.
Having set an ambitious agenda, it was then left to the Bishops of the church to reform religious practice in their sees. One example is Pierre Saulnier, Bishop of Autun, who instituted a program to raise the quality of parish priests. Until this point, parish priests had been mostly ignored, and the position had degraded into nothing more than a sinecure, a gift to wealthy peasants with political connections. Saulnier discovered in his see that priests were usually drunks, illiterates, and even usurers. After Saulnier’s reforms, however, the priests in his see all went to seminaries and the bishop visited each one regularly.
Indeed, Saulnier’s and others’ visitations offer an interesting perspective on the changes within the church. In the late sixteenth century, many priests were still illiterate and habitually drunk. By 1691, however, most priests were educated and even owned books. Such a development appears minor in from the perspective of our wealthier age, but having literate priests was enormously important to the final eradication of pagan beliefs, which included the persistence of moon worship, fertility rites, the practice of magic, and the general disrespect of the church in such things as stealing the host. You must recall that the state was, as yet, in capable of paying for a general system of education. Parish priests were, therefore, the only way to spread knowledge—especially in rural areas. All told, the church emphasized literacy and dogma more clearly than it ever had before.
The Council of Trent was not, however, all that there was to the spirit of reform within Catholicism. Women, who were excluded from the church’s patriarchal hierarchy, also brought change. Women’s contributions went in two directions. First, some female reformers required that Catholics engage the world. I have already noted the Jesuit order, which subordinated itself to the Pope and created a rigorous system of education that exported the council’s reforms all over. Women also founded such teaching orders. In 1535, a nun named Angela Merici (1470/4-1540) founded the Order of St. Ursula in Brescia Italy, consecrating herself and her fellow devotees to the mission of delivering a Christian education to girls. Unlike more contemplative orders, the original Ursulines did not retreat into the cloister, but remained living with their families, while educating the young girls around them. (Later, Ursulines began living in cloisters.)
The second manifestation of feminine was directed inward, as women became a primary means for the rise of mysticism within the early-modern church. Mysticism’s roots run deep into Mediterranean history, not to mention the history of the Church. Ancient Greece and Rome had numerous mystical cults, and all three great Semitic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have incorporated mystical currents that have appeared and disappeared as the conditions warranted.
Catholic mysticism of the sixteenth century is part of the general yearning for a closer relationship to God. A mystical approach to religion emphasizes spiritual inwardness and the individual contemplation and confrontation with God. Like Martin Luther, Catholic mystics were burdened by a sense of guilt and yearned for an immediate experience of the divine. These mystics cropped up all over Europe, though significantly the most important ones were women, and the most famous such mystic was St. Teresa of Ávila (1518-1552), a Carmelite nun. The Carmelite order was originally a monastic order that appeared in Palestine, during the twelfth century. By the thirteenth century the monks fled Islamic armies and settled in Western Europe, where they prospered. In 1452, the first Carmelite house was established for women, and many more such houses followed. St. Teresa was, therefore, one of many Carmelite nuns in early-modern Europe. In 1555, after suffering a serious illness, St. Teresa made a mystical connection to God through intense prayer sessions. These mystical experiences ended in 1558, whereupon St. Teresa was motivated to institute a rigorous reform program. In 1562, she founded a new Carmelite cloister at Ávila, organizing the community into an intense and austere organization that required the complete withdrawal into prayer and contemplation.
To this point, I have sketched a broad outline of the reform efforts that constituted the Catholic version of the Reformation. Before I move on to discuss art, music, and architecture, I want to summarize the general points of agreement among the various reformations. First, all the reformations cultivated individual forms of belief. Second, the general emphasis was on this world, especially in education and ministering to the poor. Third, reading devotional texts became central to the religious experience in all the confessions. Fourth, all the reformations emptied the world of the divine, attacking those pagan remnants that ascribed worldly power to spirits. Finally, all the reformations created an apparatus of control that extended some form of social and political control more deeply into the average person’s life. By the seventeenth century’s end, most Europeans were subject to the to extensive intervention in their religious lives.
One of the most interventions in people’s lives came through the church’s programmatic use of art and architecture after the Council of Trent. It was especially in Italy, Austria, and Bavaria that the church implemented a program of beautification that was to appeal directly to the person’s senses. Church ceilings and walls were now painted with complex images that were both earthly and heavenly, and were always decorated with rich colors and precious metal. The decorations were designed to pull the viewer’s attention ever higher, from the earth to Heaven.
What I have been describing was, of course, the baroque. This is a notoriously difficult term to define, since it covers so many fields and appears in so many countries. Nonetheless, the term’s origins are architectural and we can use it to understand how art and architecture took on a propagandistic ethos. The impetus for baroque art and architecture began in Rome, as sculptors such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) and architects such as Francesco Borromini dramatically altered the use of space and light to overwhelm the viewer’s senses.
The Italian influence spread outward. In Salzburg successive archbishops had Italian architects beautify their city, as Vincenzo Scamozzi (1552-1616) provided the plans for Salzburg’s town square and Santino Solari drew up plans for the renovation of Salzburg cathedral that began in 1614. The Italian influence spread throughout Austria, as the Karlskirche in Vienna testifies. Started in 1715 with plans drawn by the famous Austrian architect Johan Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723), it virtually drenches the viewer in sculptures, reliefs, paintings, engravings, gold, and silver. The same trends were apparent in other German cities, even Protestant ones. Augustus I (1670-1733), who was both Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, spent lavishly on baroque buildings in the Saxon capital of Dresden, including such structures as the Zwinger Palace (1711-1722) and the Frauenkirche (1726-1743).
The baroque style had many supporters and contexts. European monarchs, regardless of their confession, used its complexity to increase their own splendor, as was the case with the Elector Augustus I in Dresden. Of course, it also extended into music and crossed confessional lines there, as well. The great Johann Sebastian Bach was a German Protestant from Leipzig, while the equally great Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was an Italian Catholic Priest from Venice. Over the course of the seventeenth century a common musical vocabulary developed that not only was understood in all parts of Europe, but was also the object of patronage in many European cities.
So to bring this broad discussion to a conclusion, what we have seen is that the religious revival that we will now call the Catholic Reformation had wide-ranging religious and cultural effects. We will discuss some of the political effects in our discussion of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). For now, however, we need to understand that to the extent that modernity was built on the twin pillars Renaissance and Reformation, the Reformation pillar also had its Catholic aspects. Indeed, Europe would have been a much different—and much more boring place—without the Catholic revival that came in the Council of Trent’s wake.