The Counter-Reformation hinged not only on a theological debate with the tenets of the Protestant faith, but culminated in a fundamental reform of the Catholic Church. Again, art came under the influence of theological decisions.
Churches that were emptying, a lack of ethical behavior by priests, and their poor training – criticisms of the Church as an institution within Catholic ranks. Moreover, the swift spread of the Reformation above all north of the Alps forced the Catholic Church to act.
Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent in 1545; it was continued until 1563 under Popes Julius III and Pius IV. There, key changes were resolved, including how religious painting was to be treated, one of the Protestants’ major criticisms.
The first writings on art by the Counter-Reformation focused on how in future the “right” kind of religious works could be guaranteed. Art was not supposed to prompt a Catholic to veer from the right path, nor to offer the Protestants a weapon against the Church of Rome. The Council of Trent’s resolutions not only legitimated art for religion, but also expanded it to become one of the most important weapons of propaganda.
The resolutions were immediately implemented. Swiftly, sections of the naked bodies in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” were painted over. Even if not all artists kept to it – the decrees of the Counter-Reformation clearly rejected the achievements of the Renaissance and Humanism, and took a critical take on the connection of Christian and Classical Greek themes. Instead, artists were to present religious themes in a clear and “appropriate” way that the faithful could readily comprehend.
The Catholic Reformation’s demands initially meant strict limitations on artists. Only in the course of time did things turn the other way, as the Jesuits increasingly gained sway: The faithful were to grasp things not with their powers of reason, but with their hearts and all their senses. This offered artists unexpected opportunities. The preachy style gave way to paintings emphasizing the emotions that relied on all the possibilities for staging things to overwhelm the senses. The door to Baroque painting had opened.