Art and Religion: The Renaissance Catholic Church

NOV / DEC 2015: BY CHARITY BISHOP

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Upon the arrival of Katharine of Aragon to the great city of London, as she progressed through the streets at the side of a child Henry Tudor, she saw a number of pageants at each point blending the virtues of faith with chivalry and symbolism of the period. Her arrival was such a lavish event that her mother expressed some concern that “too much expense” had been made, in “honoring” a humble daughter of Spain. But pageants, tournaments, and suchlike were a popular form of entertainment, for nobility and peasants alike. Thousands flocked to observe them and just as many made annual pilgrimages to shrines and churches across Europe, observing religious imagery and symbolism along the way (the pilgrimage being representative of our journey from salvation onwards). And once Katharine reached the palace, there she found hundreds of tapestries illustrating Biblical events for her continual study and pleasure.

Modern audiences are familiar with religious symbolism presented in allegorical form in Pilgrim’s Progress, which takes the metaphorical journey of life, salvation, death, repentance, and the divine and transforms it into a literal journey through which the characters mature and grow, some reaching their end through martyrdom before the others, who must take the harder, slower path. In the middle ages, this kind of spiritual pageantry and artistic expression was common, not merely in events but in the art of the churches themselves. A peasant might, on a good year, observe a number of staged events in which virtues and vices were portrayed as characters, illustrating the need for salvation and repentance. In their local church, they would encounter a number of carvings, paintings, and other artwork outlining the seven deadly sins or bringing to life pertinent spiritual passages. Above the altar might be the Stations of the Cross (significant moments in Christ’s journey) in stained glass; or it might be the apostles, surrounding the Virgin and Her Holy Child. Martyrs and saints would be honored through remembrance as a reminder that martyrdom is for a cause greater than oneself and is a holy and divine choosing.

As the printing press came into full use, Biblical paraphrases and rewritten Bible stories, famous sermons, loose translations of scripture, 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and essential doctrinal teachings were made available as pamphlets, along with scholarly works from the great philosophers and thinkers of the period.

Though the Medieval Catholic Church brought on Reformation through its refusal to debate doctrine with Martin Luther, it also employed hundreds of thousands of artisans throughout the middle ages and renaissance in the continual building and beautification of churches across Europe. Faith was so entwined with beliefs of the time that they were inseparable in the minds of many; those who renounced Catholicism also sadly inevitably renounced art, a practice which lasted for centuries and is still obvious in some Protestant denominations, where the Church building is devoid of anything that might be seen as “imagery to be worshipped.” Leaving that argument aside, such imagery kept the disciples, the apostles, Christ, and other Biblical figures (and their vices, virtues, sins, and atonement) present in the minds of laymen as well as the wealthy. What a peasant might not have in daily life, they might glimpse in the Church… for their Church was as glorious and majestic as the Church of the Kings and Queens.

When Martin Luther’s teachings began to spread across Europe, famous martyr and philosopher Sir Thomas More feared the repercussions on the Church… and his fears became reality. Having demolished the Church as an icon of God’s presence on earth, and its servants as mere mortals in the minds of the masses, regard for the sanctity of the Church all but disappeared; the infamous “Sack of Rome” by the out of control (German) imperial army in 1527 leveled most of the Churches and raped and murdered thousands of people (including priests and nuns). Once Henry VIII enforced the “new” religion in England, working together with his Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, the Churches of England were all stripped of their wealth and much of their beauty, the profits going straight into the royal treasury. Irreparable damage was done to most of the Catholic Churches in England—hundred year old murals desecrated by having the faces of apostles and saints scraped off, limbs and heads chiseled or broken off of statues, and ornamentation torn off walls and altars. Anything of worth was sold for profit.

Though to modern eyes, restored or intact Catholic Churches may seem “gaudy,” such destruction of the pure divine creativity of generations of people must have grieved the heart of God. After all, we are “made in His image,” for no other creature on earth is a conscious creator of art in any form; the spider does not think how beautiful her web will be glistening with dew in the first light of dawn, nor does the zebra choose where to stand to make the most striking impact on the observer. It is humans who use their divine gifts in a multitude of ways to celebrate creation, through their own creativity—music, art in all its many forms, literature, poetry, and dance. We alone take pleasure in the beauty of God’s creation, which is much more majestic than ours. It is not God who wants to destroy art or creativity, but the forces of evil.

While the Reformation had a tragic impact on art, the Catholic tradition of blending elements of faith, of transforming virtue into living entities in art, in capturing the essence of a being over its true likeness, has continued ever since in drama, literature and film. J.R.R. Tolkien famously wove his faith throughout his stories of Middle-earth, a tale in which there is no religion, for the religion itself is woven into the characters and their stories. The longstanding tradition of merging art, beauty, and the divine continue to influence artists, filmmakers, novelists, and storytellers in unique ways, as a reminder not only of the enormous impact such teachings have upon our lives, but the power of art as a storytelling technique. ♥

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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