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Years of Christianity: Battle of the Sword and Cross in Mactan, Part 8

Like the clay in the artist’s hands, we may convert it into a divine form, or merely into a vessel of temporary utility.”

– Lama Anagarika Govinda

The Council of Trent was convened to counter the Protestant Reformation. The strategic outcome of the Council’s response was to launch its own counter reformation billed as the Catholic Reformation that focused on three main areas meant to clean its internal and external image; and to provide doctrinal clarity.

The internal aspect involved making the priest look professional by having them wear more fashionable outfits and be better trained. To improve the external optics or prestige of the church, the Council of Trent employed the role of liberal arts but in the process, it redefined the Catholic Church and influenced much of the art, music and architecture of that era and beyond. Although religious images and relics were hardly the most important focal points during the Council’s deliberations; they became crucial political tools.

The Baroque art at the time involved use of artificial mannerisms and intellectual sophistication of worldly thoughts and thinking patterns. Artificial mannerisms were exaggerations that made an object or movement appear extraordinary or abnormal. While the rich and the elites found love in such art form, the unlettered were confused by such sophistication.

The Roman Baroque art was meant to be 'rhetorical' aimed to strike astonishment and admiration in the spectator. Mannerism portrayed in art was elegant, refined, but artificial and frankly, depicted royalties who were the avid patrons of such art at the time. When applied to a religious subject such as Parmigianino’s painting of the “Madonna with the Long Neck,” the elongated features (neck/arms) appear unnatural.

The artwork depiction of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus along with angels and a tiny St. Jerome, was often cited as a reason for the Church’s decision to influence the art. From the Church’s point of view, religious art has its place in worship and was therefore a valuable tool.

The Council insisted that bishops exercise their duty to eliminate religious art work whose message to the poor masses that constituted the majority of the Catholic faithful, is confusing or detracts from the religious message being conveyed. European bishops had commissioned the services of famous artists while establishing stringent style guidelines designed to highlight the theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism.

The religious art style focused on the mysteries of faith, the roles of the Virgin Mary, and various saints. The comprehensive campaign involved expensive altarpiece art (mostly art paintings), fresco painting (color pigments mixed solely with water with no binding agent used), sculpture, and wood carving.

Italian painters (Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, etc.) led the way and were joined by famous Spanish artists (Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Bartolome Murrillo, etc.), France (Jean-Francois Millet, Rembrandt van Rijn), and Germany (Sieger Koder, Franz Ittenbach) among other famous artists and sculptors.

The Catholic religious art has produced many of the world’s greatest religious paintings and iconography that many are now displayed at or are part of the grandeur of the Vatican. The elaborate Sistine Chapel painting was done by Michelangelo which features the Last Judgment and The Creation of Adam, Sistine Madonna by Raphael, The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt), The Last Supper (Leonardo da Vinci), Descent from the Cross (Per Paul Rubens), and many others.

Baroque architecture was a major part of the religious superiority struggle to capture the hearts and minds of the faithful across Europe. The Basilica of St. Peter and surroundings – a life size theatrical representation of the urban landscape whose exquisite features evoke a feeling of awe, houses many famous ecclesiastical sculptures and facades that truly capture one’s imagination.

St. Charles Borromeo was perhaps the most influential Catholic bishop in architecture during the Renaissance along with Cardinal Gabrielle Paleotti. Between the two of them, they established guidelines for the creation of religious art.

Borromeo insisted on sacred themes that clearly instruct on Catholic teaching. In particular, Borromeo wanted art work to evoke mental images such as the Passion of the Christ (torture, cruel treatment, and eventual crucifixion) and images of martyred saints to evoke fear (and repent from sinful ways). Non-compliance resulted in fines. He practically censored art by outlawing early Baroque mannerism features that veil or mask meanings.

The Council of Trent’s stand to embrace past traditions and history resulted in the Church’s championing of more extravagant religious art. The Protestant’s criticism of the excesses of wealth and opulence in churches and art was answered by the Catholic Reformation by emphasizing the richness and beauty of art. But perhaps unintended, these art creations have now become favorite tourist attractions and destinations.

While the art work themselves were heralded creations, the Church’s vivid presentations in Catholic countries were extravagant featuring ceremonial robes and expensive jewels worn by the clergy. Some of these martyred saints still wore their jewels when they were “resurrected” from the dead and placed in holy catacombs as part of the relics the Council of Trent wanted venerated.

Many of these extravagant art works were commissioned by the Church through taxation, church revenues and donations from rich families who were recruited by the Jesuits. But as capitalism crept in, many Western states transitioned into modern industrial states and adopted new economic models. Capitalism became the Vatican’s new enemy as it removed wealth from the Catholic Church and circulated through the economy.

Philippine colonial art espouses much of the baroque artistry of Spain and has influenced the church’s architecture. Some of the artwork were brought to the Philippines from Europe or Mexico as part of evangelization. Foremost of course, is the huge wooden cross Magellan planted in Cebu. Many of these jeweled saint imageries have been destroyed (war, fire), were looted or stolen, or sold by unscrupulous priests.

Informal versions of European saints became a cottage industry in the Philippines as they became objects of household veneration. Such practice was aggressively promoted by the Catholic Church for their value in people’s spiritual life. Some rich collectors adorn their treasured images with expensive jewels, rich garments and adornments. Whether rich or poor, images of veneration became integral to the Filipino Catholics’ beliefs that such practices contribute to salvation and daily living.

Such affectionate devotion to a medium of intercession expresses familiarity and tenderness akin to human relations. In poetical prayers, a devout Catholic addresses the image with familiarity and reciting written and continuous phrases, at times weeps or shows an incomprehensible religious enthusiasm while imploring the mercy and protection of the Heavenly Father.

The mysticism of the unseen has materialized in the form of images. The enigma of the spiritual world has merged with the physical world through the image that represents the mystery. The devout converses with the image bedecked with expensive adornments, surrounded with flowers, lighted with candles; kneels down before it and confides life’s shortcomings; asks for forgiveness and invokes the padrino system for intercession. (To be continued…)


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