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Catholic Culture in the Age of the Baroque

Catholic Culture in the Age of the Baroque

The Rise of Evangelical Fervor.

During the later sixteenth century both Protestant and Catholic reformers had begun to redouble their efforts to indoctrinate their laity in the tenets of their religions, and by the first decades of the Baroque era, rising evangelical fervor was evident in the efforts of devout Calvinist, Lutheran, and Catholic writers, artists, and theologians. One key element of these new forces was that all tried to win over those who were relatively uncommitted to the cause of a particular religion so that they would take up its standard. From the first, the new propaganda that resulted from these efforts was composed of both positive and negative strains. On the one hand, the new European devout aimed to indoctrinate people against competing religious positions, and so they frequently condemned the ideas of their opponents, not just as wrong headed, but as a dangerous and subversive disease, or in their own words "heretical poison." On the other, the Protestant and Catholic devout sponsored new forms of art, architecture, and literature that were designed to propagate a positive image of their religion's teachings. Certainly, the negative efforts to "evangelize" Europe's population were most evident in the decades leading up to the Peace of Westphalia, that is, the period of the most intensive fighting in the continent over the issues the Protestant and Catholic Reformations generated. In these years a flood of polemical tracts, plays, and printed broadsides appeared condemning the ideas and actions of competitors. At the same time positive assessments of the strengths of each religion were also being generated that left their mark on the visual arts, architecture, and literature of the age. As religious tensions gradually subsided in the years following the Peace of Westphalia, the heightened fervor evident in the early seventeenth century tended to lessen. At the same time the legacy of a Europe divided into opposing religious camps persisted, leaving its mark on the culture of Protestant and Catholic regions. One result of this continuing trend was that by 1700, one's identity and behavior were, in large part, shaped by whether one had grown up in a Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic state, for in each of these a different kind of culture now flourished.

Rome Triumphant.

In the seventeenth century Roman Catholicism emerged triumphant in much of Europe, winning back lands, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, where Calvinism and Lutheranism had acquired many adherents during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This trend continued in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a number of princes in Germany and Central Europe re-converted to Catholicism, thus bringing their lands into the Roman orbit. While Scandinavia, much of Germany, parts of Switzerland, the United Dutch Provinces, England, and Scotland remained Protestant, the majority of Europe was now Catholic. Within this vast and diverse religious sphere, one of the most distinctive features of cultural and intellectual life was a cosmopolitan internationalism. As Rome began to revive as a great cultural center in the seventeenth century, artists and architects from throughout the Catholic world made their way to the ancient city, and the new patterns of Baroque painting and church building spread relatively quickly throughout Catholic regions. The traffic between Rome and the provinces of the Catholic world, though, also moved in the opposite direction. While Catholic artists like Peter Paul Rubens studied in Rome and returned to their own regions to promote the new dramatic intensity common to Baroque paintings, Italian artists were highly prized in Catholic courts and cities throughout Europe. The interconnectivity of the Catholic world in the seventeenth century thus became one of its most distinctive features. Throughout most of the seventeenth century Rome and Italian cities like Venice dominated style and fashions in art throughout the Catholic world, but gradually new centers emerged—particularly in France and Spain—that were to produce movements that spread quickly. The Jesuit order, with its systems of schools and seminaries in every reach of the Catholic continent, was also among the many important forces that nourished cultural connections and exchanges between different regions in this large world.

The Aesthetics of Catholic Devotion.

By far, the dominant aesthetic Baroque Catholicism favored was one in which the senses of sight and touch predominated and in which the Catholic devout concentrated on the symbols of the faith. Since the rise of the Catholic Reformation in the sixteenth century, devotional writers like St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and St. Teresa of Avila, a Spanish mystic, had recommended the necessity of establishing mental discipline in prayer. In contrast to the relatively unregulated world of benedictions and meditations of the later Middle Ages, the Jesuit order, in particular, developed the idea of a spiritual retreat. By relying on St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises they created the idea of a period of isolation in which the disciple could meditate and harness the imagination to avoid sin once he or she returned to society. In these sessions the participant learned how to parse out the hidden meanings behind things and events, and to rely on the senses of hearing, touch, and sight to draw closer to God. Catholics eagerly embraced the new devotions that flourished in this and similar veins in the seventeenth century, all of which emphasized in some way the powers of meditation. One devotion that flourished at this time was to the "Agonizing Death of Jesus Christ." Sponsored again by the Jesuits, it appeared in the mid-seventeenth century and quickly spread. By the end of the seventeenth century there were chapels dedicated to the devotion in parishes everywhere throughout Catholic Europe. The devotion centered around weekly or monthly periods of meditation during which participants contemplated how Christ died so as to prepare them for a "good" death. Like other new devotions, the devotion to the "Agonizing Death of Jesus Christ" was propagated through thin printed books that laid out the liturgy that was to be followed weekly. These texts demanded that the group spend a certain designated amount of time each week meditating on common themes before performing other good works. These good works, in turn, reinforced one of the symbolic themes that the group had meditated on in the days and weeks before.

Art and Architecture.

The contours of much of Catholic devotional life in the seventeenth-century thus emphasized the importance of mental discipline and the use of the senses, particularly vision, to approach God. The importance of forming mental pictures of events like the Agonies of Christ helped to foster a climate in which artistic images and architecture played a vital role, for these arts were seen as helping to sustain and deepen one's devotion. It is hardly surprising, then, that the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were great ages of church building and religious art in the Catholic world. The sheer number of church building and remodeling projects that were begun in these years still manages to astound the modern observer. In Catholic cities and parishes throughout the Continent, construction crews were in almost constant motion to refurbish older churches and build new monuments intended to satisfy and sustain the visual and sensual piety of the Catholic faithful. While the Jesuits and other religious orders commissioned and paid for a great deal of this art, the remodeling of parish churches was a task undertaken and financed at the local level by parishioners. Thus the sheer number of monuments points, in part, to the widespread popularity of Catholic Baroque piety. In Central Europe, the great resurgence in artistic production and church architectural projects was postponed for a generation or two longer than in Italy, Spain, and France because of the depression the Thirty Years' War produced. But when this resurgence began in the decades following the Peace of Westphalia (1648) it soon transformed the religious landscape of the region. In much of Central Europe, particularly in southern Germany, Catholics continued to live side-by-side with Protestant populations, and the building of dramatic Baroque churches thus became a direct counterattack on the sensibilities of Protestants, who worshipped in surroundings that were far more restrained, even dour. Throughout the region most churches were either reconstructed or refurbished in the Baroque style in the generations following the Thirty Years' War. While many projects were commissioned and paid for by religious orders, far more were financed at the local level. In this way the typical parish church in the region acquired the notable features of the Baroque: a sense of dramatic climax, a sumptuous and ornate ornamentation, and a plethora of religious images that expressed the rising popularity of modes of piety that aimed at mental discipline.

Ritual and Display.

Another feature of Baroque piety that has long been noted by scholars was the rising affection for pilgrimages, processions, and other rituals that displayed and defended elements of Catholic teaching. During the sixteenth century the Protestant reformers had generally shared distaste for much of the ritual formalism of the medieval church, and they had often attacked displays of piety like processions and pilgrimages as vain and useless. As the Catholic resurgence began to heat up in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century, pilgrimage shrines began again to attract thousands of pilgrims in the Catholic world. While many made the journey to great European centers of pilgrimage, like Rome or Santiago di Compostella in Spain, by far the most important centers of such devotion were local ones. Every Catholic region in Europe came in these years to possess a large number of local shrines: some quite large and attracting pilgrims from throughout the state, others considerably smaller and having only a regional following. One interesting feature of many of these seventeenth-century shrines was their attempts to copy and imitate developments from other parts of the Catholic world. In the sixteenth century one of the most popular devotions throughout Europe had been the pilgrimage to the Holy House at Loreto in northern Italy, a shrine that since the later Middle Ages had alleged to possess the dwelling in which Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus had lived. During the mid-sixteenth century the Jesuit Peter Canisius had popularized this devotion throughout Europe by publishing the Laurentian Litany, a collection of prayers that had been found in the house and that alleged to have been written by the Virgin Mary. The popularity of the Litany sustained the Italian shrine as a place of popular devotion, but it also bred numerous "copies" of the Loreto chapel and its house throughout Europe, as pilgrims visited the site and wished to have a similar place of devotion nearby. Loreto was just one of many similar devotions that spread throughout the continent in this way, as Catholics in one region copied religious images, shrines, and other elements of Catholic devotion that had proven to be beneficial elsewhere. Journeys to these new centers of devotion were often undertaken in processions, with entire parishes making the trip to a local shrine on some mutually agreed day, usually in the summer months. But processions on saints' days or on major church feasts staged at home in the village, as well as other rituals like the blessing of animals and fields were common events throughout the Baroque Catholic world, too.


Louis Chatellier, The Europe of the Devout (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Marc Forster, Catholic Revival in the Age of the Baroque: Religious Identity in Southwestern Germany, 1550–1750 (Cambridge: England Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540–1770 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Hubert Jedin and John Dolan, eds., The History of the Church in the Age of Absolutism and Enlightenment, vol. 6 of The History of the Church (New York: Seabury Press, 1981).

Michael Mullett, The Catholic Reformation (London: Routledge, 1999).

John W. O'Malley, ed., The Jesuits: Culture, Science, and the Arts, 1540–1773 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).

see also Architecture: The Renaissance Inheritance and Catholic Renewal ; Architecture: The Rise of the Baroque Style in Italy ; Visual Arts: The Counter Reformation's Impact on Art

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