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Religious Upheavals in the 16th and 17th Century - Why Do They Matter?

Updated on July 5, 2012
"The Last Supper" by Veronese
"The Last Supper" by Veronese | Source

The impact the numerous religious upheavals had on the arts and sciences during the sixteenth and seventeenth century was great. I could go on for pages and pages, but I will keep it brief and try to go over only the highlights of the issues that occurred.

Keeping within the Catholic Church, there was the problem with the Vatican attempting to censor and control all literature and science. This effected many scientists, including Galileo and Copernicus. Both were brought before the tribunal for heresy, and their views were officially condemned and others were told not to hold or believe them. While this did not effectively silence all science, it did put a damper on much of it. It was further constrained by The Council of Trent, who issued their “Index of Prohibited Literature,” a list of unacceptable works that Catholics were not to possess or read.

The Catholics were not the only ones who behaved like this, however. The knowledge and artwork that was becoming so accessible to so many was a growing threat due to the discontent that was being sown. Even within the new Lutheran and Protestant sects, there were problems brewing.

Martin Luther split from the Catholic Church, spawning Lutherism, which rejected many of the things that the Catholic Church believed in. One of his followers, Zwingli, took it too far. He believed in getting rid of all statues, paintings, altars, music, and more. He was the cause of serious destruction, some of which we will never be able to understand the scope of. There may be more works than we can ever imagine that have been destroyed.

Protestants weren’t innocent of persecution of artists and scientists, either. John Calvin burned Servetus for his book. While the majority of the book was religious in nature, it also included a very detailed and scientifically correct view of circulatory system. The destruction of the book, along with the burning of Servetus, meant that this information was delayed from reaching an audience that might have benefited from it. (Luckily, Harvey continued this work and made additions to it not too long in the future.)

The Inquisition began in Spain, but its effect was felt much further than the borders of its country of origin. Veronese was questioned because of a “Last Supper” painting that he had done. It did not follow the traditional, accepted imagery, and so was suspect. Veronese, like Galileo, did not want to burn for his intelligence and artistry, and so changed the name to “Feast at the House of Levi,” placating the Inquisition’s argument against it.

Religion was a powerful force that affected all art and science at the time, whether it destroyed or limited it, as it did with Galileo and Copernicus, or helped it, as in the case of Bach, whose masterpiece were largely due to the influence of his position in the church.


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