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The Counter-Reformation During the Baroque Period

Updated on November 1, 2017

Protestantism, and more specifically Lutheranism, is an ideology that emerged and gained social popularity during and towards the end of the Renaissance in Europe, as Martin Luther began to question the authorities of the Catholic Church. Martin Luther along with his followers did not believe in the full righteousness of the church and its attempts to spread Catholicism for the sake of benefitting itself and prospering financially. Supporters of the Protestant Reformation stood for the idea that a person’s faith and level of virtue should be a rather personal concern, rather than having it be directly tied to the church and its authority. The appearance of the Counter-Reformation became a response to Lutheran ideas and a response to the rejection of papal authority. Therefore, art produced by supporters of the Counter-reformation aimed towards supporting ideas about the maintenance of the religious hierarchy and the church’s authority and towards opposing Lutherans’ favoring the Bible and the focus on a rather personal connection between the Christian and the divine.1 Baroque artists in support of the Counter-Reformation were not completely successful in delivering their Catholic messages through their art, as their different methods of incorporating pathos support Protestant ideals and therefore gets in the way of their desired success.

One way in which some artists establish pathos is by setting up religious scenes in places that are familiar to the audience. One artwork that does this is the Calling of Saint Matthew by the Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio in made between the years 1597 and 1601 CE (depicted below). The artwork depicts a scene whose central idea is the spiritual awakening and transformation that Saint Matthew (from the four gospels) experienced when Christ chose him to become one of the apostles after he had been an average tax collector for years. Saint Matthew is represented in a state of astonishment, as he sits with his fellow tax collectors in non-idealized setting. This setting does not follow the Medieval conventions of spatial ambiguity2, the Medieval convention of adding non-human religiously divine to convey a sense of the setting being divine3, nor the Renaissance convention of setting religious scenes in rather contemporary domestic settings.4 The reason why it does not is because the setting is not only non-idealized, but is also rather pedestrian, dirty, and unsafe. The scene is set in what looks like the back of a bar or tavern, with an unclean wall and window, and with supporting figures other than Christ and Saint Matthew – Saint Matthew’s fellow tax collectors – who are dressed formally and are focusing the majority of their mental capacity on greedily counting money.5 The extent to which setting up this religious scene in such an environment is unexpected sends out a message to the viewers about how one’s social and/or political status does not correlate with whether or not they can experience such a spiritual awakening, as this is a possibility for everybody. At the same time, within this scene of multiple figures, Caravaggio places a focus on the rather personal relationship between Christ and Saint Matthew, the awakener and the awakened, through the use of a few artistic techniques, the most prominent of which is the use of chiaroscuro, or the sharp contrast of light and dark. One example of such use is the incorporation of light directly guiding the viewer’s eye from Christ’s hand to Saint Matthew. Another example is the illumination of Saint Matthew’s face, as a way to add a sense of importance to the figure of the awakened, with whom the viewer develops a personal connection, as they see that they could become him one day. Setting up the scene in an unholy and unexpected setting, suggesting that any person could be awakened no matter what their past deeds were, along with the focus on the personal connection between the awakener and the awakened both establish pathos, as they give the viewer a sense of comfort. This sense of comfort makes the viewer more personally connected to the artwork and the ideas that it stands for, when supporters of the Counter-Reformation opposed the idea of being religious simply through the focus on a personal connection.

The Calling of Saint Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
The Calling of Saint Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Another way in which another group of artists establish pathos is by appealing to common human emotions and desires. One example of this is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria (depicted below). The main scene that Bernini chooses to depict in his sculpture is a religious narrative that includes Saint Teresa’s vision of an angel, who has been sent down from God in order to canonize her and make her a saint. Bernini used a specific written account of the angel by Saint Teresa, as a guide to help in his depiction of the scene. The account includes the angel’s carrying a golden spear with a point of fire at the tip, which “he plunged into [her] heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, [she] felt as if he took them with it and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made [her] utter several moans. The sweetness caused [her] by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease.”6

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

When it comes to the text, Bernini established pathos in a number of ways through choosing this text specifically. The text itself appeals to the development of feelings that make one content and the ceasing of effects caused by the development of negative feelings. To clarify, the text appeals to the audience in that it includes a short narrative that leads to experiencing a “sweetness” and that has sexual symbols involved, as a way to convey the extent to which this spiritual transformation is satisfactory. At the same time, the text appeals to the audience through the explanation that even though physical pain was involved, the satisfaction due to the spiritual transformation outweighs the pain.

When it comes to the sculpture, Bernini established pathos through a mix of similar and different methods. Aside from the appealing to common human desires of satisfaction and to human nature, Bernini also incorporates a number of elements in the chapel as a means of bringing a greater amount of focus on the specific personal connection between Saint Teresa and the spiritual realm. One example is the use of drapery. Saint Teresa’s drapery is heavy and so is of an earthly quality, while the angel’s drapery is easily blown by the wind, suggesting he is of heavenly origins, but the two figures’ sharing the drapery, when each is of a different quality shows the intention of blurring the lines between the earthly and the heavenly, as the worshipper is religiously elevated in status, which is what a Christian worshipper would strive for. Another example is the inclusion of a window above but behind the scene, hidden behind a broken pediment, functioning to light up golden diagonal lines representing rays of sunlight, shining down on the scene, and adding importance to the connection between the two figures. A third example is the inclusion of other figures to the right and left representing the viewer, all focused on the scene. This adds emphasis to the personal religious connection, as the viewer sees that figures to the right and left all lead back the viewer to look at the angel and Saint Teresa and as the viewer then feels the need to pay more attention to the personal connection being developed between Saint Teresa and the angel.

The establishment of pathos through the text’s appealing to common human emotions and desires as well as through the sculpture’s focus on the rather personal connection between an earthly figure and a heavenly one goes against Counter-Reformation beliefs, as the audience starts to strive for having such a connection to the spiritual realm, as they wish to experience satisfaction and overcome earthly pain through a spiritual transformation.

Several conventions of Baroque art could have been part of the reason why it might have been difficult for Counter-Reformation artists at the time to create art that is both in support of their ideologies and that follows the conventions. For example, it’s a convention for Baroque art to convey emotional intensity, as naturalistic figures are depicted in scenes where they are experiencing emotion or projecting it unto the audience. Another example is capturing a single moment in time, where the figures do not seem as if they are posing but rather as if they are fully involved in the narrative part of which they are. A third convention is for the figures to look naturalistic and, to an extent, contemporary, as opposed to the idealized and almost “too perfect” figures of the Classical Age and of the Renaissance.7 Maintaining these conventions while creating religious artworks, but ones that oppose the development of a very personal connection between the worshipper and the divine, could have been a difficult goal to reach for several Counter-Reformation artists of the Baroque period. Their placement of the artworks in Catholic churches could have helped, but it did not help enough, as they could have been more successful in defying some of the artistic conventions.


1. Encyclopedia Britannica is an online encyclopedia written by about a hundred full-time editors and over four thousand contributors, who include 110 Noble Prize winners of a variety of subjects and several American presidents.

Many artworks throughout different periods of the Medieval were marked by the focus on the figures occupying the space and not on the space itself as the figures were placed close to each other and often touched the frames. One can see that this is true through the study of artworks such as the mosaic of Virgin (Theoklotos) and child between Saints Theodore and George as well as the mosaics of Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale.

3. One example of this is inclusion of God’s hand in artworks such as the mosaic of Theoklotos as well as the Last Judgement façade of the Church of Saint Foy. Another example includes the depiction of angels in scenes from the Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, such as the Lamentation, where the presence of angels gives the viewer the initial thought that this setting is one associated with divinity.

4. Religious scenes were often set up in domestic scenes, even though this did not necessarily mean the absence of divinity as a theme within. For example, the Annunciation Triptych (Merode Alterpiece) is set up in an average local house, but the archangel Gabriel still has his wings and the figures are still idealized to a certain extent. Another example is Madonna and Child with Two Angels by Fra Filippo Lippi, who depicts the figures in the foreground and leaves a window frame in the background, suggesting that the figures are inside a domestic room, with the figures still being idealized to an extent and still have faded halos above their heads, as opposed to the naturalistic non-idealized figures in the Calling of Saint Matthew.

5. Khan Academy offers students instructional videos, practice exercises, and personalized learning dashboards aiming towards assisting students in learning about a variety of subjects at their own pace. Khan Academy has also partnered with a number of other institutions such as NASA, the Museum of Modern Art, the California Academy of Sciences, and MIT in order to offer specialized content.

6. Khan Academy.

7. A prominent example of this is Doryphoros by the ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos, whose intention behind creating Doryphoros was to have a visual representation of the idea of perfection in the human body. The Renaissance marked a revival in such ideologies and in such depictions in art, with examples of this being the idealized figures Michelangelo had painted on the walls and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where the figures had perfect proportions and followed each beauty convention set by society.

© 2017 Luai Alhasan


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    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 5 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth. between the oceans

      how does any of this work (foolishness) of men have anything to do With Christ and His disciples. It surely has nothing to do this the age we live in or the truths of scripture