Art for an ugly time

Once upon a time the Church was wracked by tempests of doubt and division. There was widespread confusion among the faithful regarding the significance of the sacraments and, as a result, the clear path to salvation was obscured.

The Eucharist and penance seemed to have lost their celestial and binding power, becoming more motions than mysteries, and humanity’s cooperation in its own salvation appeared to diminish as exhortations to “Be a sinner and sin boldly” began to undermine people’s concern for adhering to ancient moral teachings.

All the while, the faithful were pelted by a hailstorm brought on by new technology. The printing press deluged people with information, misinformation and opinions, often driven by a polemical, incendiary tone that served more to drive the members of the battered Ecclesia apart rather than gather them together.

This tale, for all its odd familiarity, took place 500 years ago in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, unleashed by Martin Luther in 1517. The Church faced an apocalyptic spiritual landscape in those dark years, as brother turned on brother, Rome, the capital of Christendom, was sacked, and the papacy seemed to fiddle for personal interests as the city burned (Clement VII wanted a dukedom for his nephew, and no one quite knows what Julius III was doing …).

It was, however, in this dark and ugly time that the Church produced some of its most lasting beauty – the lives of the exceptional saints that rose up in this era as well as the clear affirmation of doctrine by the difficult, drawn-out Council of Trent. Today, however, we often overlook and under-appreciate the third great ally to the teaching of the true faith: the beauty of Catholic art. — from How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art