Indulgences and Baroque Art

A recent article in the New York Times caught my attention: Catholic indulgences are back.

Indulgences are an interesting topic in the history of art, particularly because the initial selling of indulgences brought about the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther was discontented with the Catholic church for many reasons, including the selling of indulgences. In 1517, he wrote 95 theses which outlined his discontent with the Catholic church. He nailed a copy of these theses onto the door of the Wittenburg church.

To retaliate against the Reformation, the Catholic church began the Counter-Reformation movement. It was hoped that the Catholics could reconvert any souls who had fallen astray to Protestant paths. The Counter-Reformation also allowed the church to defend itself against Luther’s criticisms. The Council of Trent was organized to help the church define the doctrines of the church and also rebuttal Protestant heresies. Also, the Council of Trent stipulated the purpose of art within the Church; these stipulations served as an outline for much of the art produced during the Baroque period.

I love Counter-Reformation (Southern Baroque) art because it is so propagandistic. The art and architecture is dramatic and emotional to help facilitate the process of reconversion. Here are a three of my favorite propagandistic pieces:

Bernini designed this piazza (plaza; 1656-1667) in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral (the seat of the Vatican). This photograph is taken from the top of the cathedral, looking outwards at the plaza. Many art historians discuss how the colonnade of Bernini’s piazza extends itself like two arms, reaching out and embracing those who walk up to the church. This can be interpreted propagandistically: it is as if the church is reaching out to welcome back anyone who was temporarily disillusioned by Protestantism.

To promote reconversion during the Counter-Reformation, there are many Baroque paintings which touch on this theme. I especially like Caravaggio’s painting of The Conversion of St. Paul (1600-1601). This painting is on the wall of the Cerasi Chapel (Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome), and the viewer of the painting is practically standing underneath Paul’s head. The painting is composed dramatically, with Paul’s foreshortened body pushed to the edge of the foreground; it is as if Paul’s body is about to spill out of the picture and land on top of the viewer beneath! Other dramatic elements, such as the tenebristic lighting (violent contrasts between light and dark) grab the viewer’s attention. Dramatic paintings intended to catch the viewer’s attention and evoke an emotional response that would help facilitate piety and reconversion.

Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1645-52) is also located in a chapel (Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome). Oh man, there is so much to say in regards to this sculpture and propaganda. Once again, this sculpture propagandistically depicts a moment of conversion. After Theresa’s father died, she fell into a series of visions and trances. At this time, a fire-tipped arrow of Divine love was repeatedly pierced into Theresa’s heart by an angel. St. Theresa described this “experience as making her swoon in delightful anguish.”1 The dramatic quality of this sculpture is captured in the movement of Theresa’s heavy drapery. The drapery folds and falls around her body in a very energetic way, as if it has a life of its own. I also love the dark shadows that are created by the drapery folds. The contrast of the dark shadows and light marble reminds me of the tenebristic lighting that Caravaggio used in his paintings. The dramatic nature of this sculpture is enhanced because of its location; the niche of the chapel is crowned with a stage-like pediment and marble columns.

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa and Conversion of St. Paul also are propagandistic because they depict Catholic saints. The veneration of saints was a practice that was denounced by the Protestants. Therefore, by depicting the moment of conversion for a saint, the Catholic church visually asserted its stance on saints and sainthood. (I have written a little more about the veneration of saints in Baroque art here.)

What do people think about art and propaganda? Any thoughts on the return of indulgences? What Counter-Reformation works of art do you like?

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya,
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 696.

  • ixoj says:

    VERY fascinating! And it sounds like the indulgence of today is quite different than those of Martin Luther’s day. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the Catholic world responds to this.

    I’m with you- I love Counter-Reformation art. It’s so dramatic!

  • e says:

    Whoa. Really interesting!

  • Emilee . . . says:

    Maybe they would have been successful in converting me — I think all these pieces are so beautiful.

    I’ve always found myself very awe struck by architecture in particular. I mean, really, you should see me at any beautiful building, I always say, “It’s SO beautiful!” It’s rather corny, I’m sure.

    Anyway, I think it’s really interesting how the plaza at St. Peter’s was designed as a arms-open-welcoming thing. Do you have any examples of anything like that in LDS architecture and design?

  • M says:

    Emilee, I don’t know of any examples in LDS architecture that have the “open arms” theme. It seems to me that LDS architecture follows a more austere, Protestant tradition of architecture than a Catholic one.

    I do think that the Palace of Versailles (Baroque period, France), however, follows along this same idea the architectural “arms” reaching out to the viewer. However, the propagandistic message is a little different. As an absolute monarch, Louis XIV was intent on controlling his court and subjects. Even though the wings of the palace extend to meet the approaching visitor, I think there is a different kind of feeling here. Instead of an “open arms” embrace, these palace wings are very rigid, intimidating, and commanding. I think the palace architecture is conveying a powerful statement about the Louis XIV’s authority, wealth, and superior position in relationship to the visitor.

    You can see an aerial view of the palace here:

    And this photo of the entrance can give you a sense of the scale, authority and intimidating factor of the palace wings as they surround visitors:

  • Emilee . . . says:

    I can see what you mean — it does seem much more rigid and controlling. Amazing how beautiful it is though. Thanks for the additional info!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.