At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Catholic church, modeled upon the bureaucratic structure of the Holy Roman Empire, has become extremely powerful, but internally corrupt. From early in the twelfth century onward there are calls for reform. Between 1215 and 1545 nine church-councils are held with church reforms as their primary intent. The councils all fail to reach significant accord. The clergy is unable to live according to church doctrine, and the abuse of church ceremonies and practices continues.

In the first half of the sixteenth century western Europe experiences a wide range of social, artistic, and geo-political changes as the result of a conflict within the Catholic church. This conflict is called the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic response to it is called the Counter-Reformation. The Reformation movement begins in 1517 when a German Augustinian friar named Martin Luther posts a list of grievances, called the Ninety-Five Theses, against the Roman Catholic Church. As the spirit of reform spreads other leaders appear: Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, French-born John Calvin who settles in Geneva, and John Knox who carries Calvin's teachings to Scotland.

In the Roman church a series of powerful popes including Leo X and Paul III will respond to reform demands in various ways. Mendicant orders such as the Jesuits are formed to reinforce Catholic doctrine, and the Church will continue to be supported by the major European monarchies. Ultimately, the Reformation creates a north-south split in Europe. In general the northern countries become Protestant while the south remains Catholic.

The Reformation and Art

Protestant reformers reject the use of visual arts in the church. A wave of iconoclasm sweeps through the north. Stained glass windows are broken, images of the saints are destroyed, and pipe organs are removed from churches. The Catholic churches respond to this iconoclasm with an exuberant style of art and architecture called the Baroque. The Baroque is in ideological opposition to Protestant severity. Not until the Neoclassical style of the eighteenth century will there be an effective attempt to resolve this dichotomy. The theatrical designs of Saint Peter's and the Ges in Rome are a triumphant symbol of the Roman Catholic church's belief in itself and its history. The plain churches of the north are reminders of Protestant beliefs.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546) while studying law at the University of Erfurt in Germany experiences a spiritual conversion. He joins a monastic order, the Augustinians, and is eventually assigned as a lecturer at the University of Wittenberg. While working as a parish priest, Luther becomes disgusted by the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences. The purchase of an indulgence assures the buyer a remission of sins and thus a shorter period in purgatory. The selling of indulgences is a papal privilege which had been worked to the breaking point.

In 1517 a jubilee indulgence is being preached near Wittenberg to generate funds for the building of Saint Peter's in Rome. Luther uses this opportunity to draw up a list of church activities for which he demands resolution and change. This list, the Ninety-Five Theses is centered around a call to eliminate the sale of indulgences. The Church demands that he retract a number of his protests. Luther refuses.

Luther is summoned to an imperial Diet in Augsburg in 1518. Retribution for his crime should have fallen rapidly, but the election of a new emperor, Charles V (1500-1558), slows the justice system. Luther uses his time to plan a complete reform program for the church. His reforms include:

  • National, rather than Roman, control of church finances,
  • Permission for the clergy to marry,
  • A series of sacramental reforms which reduce the sacraments to Baptism, a reformed Mass, and the Holy Eucharist.

Due to the invention of the printing press, Luther's reforms are quickly spread through Europe bringing much support. However, Luther is condemned as a heretic by Pope Leo X in the Edict of Worms. He is is forced to escape and live for a year in hiding, but his reforms have taken root. The split in the Roman Church is now irreconcilable.

 Europe Divided

The Low Countries, which are today called Belgium and the Netherlands, had long been under the rule of the Spanish Hapsburgs. In 1517 Luther's reforms will split the Low Countries. In the south, Belgium, Catholicism remains strong, while in the provinces of the north, the Netherlands, Protestant reforms are adopted and the Dutch Calvinists rebel against the Catholic Habsburg rule.

Though the Catholic Holy Roman Empire does not end until 1806, the German states are irrevocably separated from the influence of Rome during the age of the Reformation. The German princes of the north protect Luther from the pope and the Holy Roman emperor, while gaining political power by assuming many of the privileges once reserved for the church. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 temporarily reconciles the Protestant north and the Catholic south in the German states, and the conflict moves west into the monarchies of Spain and France.

The Spanish Habsburgs and the French Valois come to an uneasy truce in 1559. Both monarchies are strongly Catholic, and both realize that only together can they hope to quell Protestant uprisings.

Once the Reformation is under way the common people perceive it as a means of social empowerment. The peasant class senses the potential for secular, though not necessarily spiritual, freedoms. The Peasants War, which begins in 1524, is a response to Luther's urgings of democratic reform and a reaction to an unbalanced social system. Luther, initially sympathetic to the peasants, is eventually appalled by the war and angrily addresses the warring faction in his pamphlet, Against the Thieving and Murderous Gangs of Peasants. To Luther the sectarian groups represent an attempt not at spiritual elevation, but at an easy redemption. The social revolt has unfortunate consequences for Luther's reformation. The humanist view that human beings might be brought to higher spirituality through education and innate ability, is a source of contention for the Reformers. Instead the Reformers depend on the concept of man's embodiment of original sin and his incontestable need for redemption and the Grace of God.

Luther's Protestantism has by and large beneficially cleaned up the decadence of church accoutrements, but as time goes on the uglier specter of an ill-tempered iconoclasm begins to arise. Reformers more extreme than Luther begin to make further demands for change. Among these is a scholar Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. Beyond rejecting the usual discrepancies between biblical teachings and church practice, Zwingli wants all ritual abolished. No imagery is acceptable, not the crucifix, the bishop's crozier, the chalice of the holy wine, clerical vestments, or even organ music.


The response of the Roman Church to the reformers' demands is the Counter-reformation. The Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola, aggressively lead a campaign to support Catholic doctrine. The members of the order acting behind the scenes in the Catholic monarchies, exercise a strong influence in political spheres. Jesuit priests often act as confessors to major political leaders. Counter-reformation forces will uphold papal authority and will ensure that, canonization and veneration of saints remains a cornerstone of celebratory ritual. In addition the visual grandeur of the church is to be encouraged and generously financed.

Charles V strongly recommends that the papal Curia convene to resolve issues of internal dispute, and after many delays a council convenes in Trent in December of 1545. Three basic issues are under examination; two involve broad resolves to clarify doctrinal issues in order to still internal disputes and definitively solve the problem of ecclesiastical abuses among the clergy. The third issue is the initiation of a crusade against the infidels. Paul III frankly hopes to get widespread approval to condemn the Protestant heresy, and thereby gain support for a suppression of the reformers by force. In the end, the Council of Trent succeeds not by condoning violence, but simply by presenting a united front against the Protestants. The Church proves itself capable of action, and of reinforcing its representation of the orthodox faith.

In the second half of the 16th century the theological conflict becomes a political power struggle. By the time Martin Luther dies in 1546 and John Calvin in 1564 the Reformation message is complete. The Protestant movement has split into a number of sectarian churches, and no more great Protestant reformers are to appear. Ignatius of Loyola dies in 1556 and the Council of Trent ends in 1563, thus also bringing the Counter-reformation to a theological halt.

The Visual Arts

The Reformation is the inevitable outcome of earlier Renaissance discoveries in science, literature, and the visual arts. During the early Renaissance humanist scholars shed new light on an earlier literary age. Classical texts in original languages circulated, sparking intellectual debate and reevaluation of conventional thought. The wide impact of Luther's great translation of the Bible into German and the appearance in England of the King James Version is due, in part, to the linguistic education begun by the humanists.

Until the invention of the printing press, spiritual teachings rely on mural painting, mosaic, and stained glass which are common in Catholic churches. Protestant reform rejects visual imagery and insists upon the primacy of the word. Mass production of printed material means that religious and philosophical literature is widely available to individuals. Despite the fact that the literature of reform is widespread, the peasantry remains largely illiterate. Churches, devoid of visual didacticism become a n abstraction to the illiterate. Hence, the spoken words of the preacher become central to the church liturgy.

The Flemish influence reaches the arts of Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries after a round trip to Italy. Artists such as Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Rogier van der Weyden had been received by the Italians as great masters of a previous age. Italians considered the brilliance and technical exactitude of French and Flemish artists an astonishing innovation and adopted many of the techniques of northerners from Utrecht, Amsterdam, Ghent, and Bruges. The resulting International Gothic style with its rich detail will impact the arts of north and south during the sixteenth century.

In Germany, Albrecht D rer and his contemporary Matthias Grunewald personify the split between north and south. Though Durer is a follower of Luther's teachings he is most receptive to classical, humanistic ideals. He travels extensively in Italy and looks to Italian art, especially Venetian art, for inspiration. D rer is an exceptional draftsmen, excelling at printmaking, engraving, anatomical study, and scientific illustration. He is also influential in promoting printmaking as a major art form, and printmaking techniques continue nearly unchanged for some four hundred years after D rer. Gr newald's paintings rely on northern art, literature, and reformation theology for inspiration. His apocalyptic visions are a disturbing illustration of the darker side of Protestant theology.


While rationality, experience, scientific observation, experiment, and individual consciousness shape northern art and architecture, the semi-mystical religious realism of Bernini is the absolute peak of the Baroque experience in the Catholic south. But as the Baroque's  display and operatic frenzy become excessive; a more restrained style, the Neoclassical,  replaced the Baroque.

The Aftermath

Before and during the years of the Reformation, exploration and westward colonization broaden horizons and help relieve pressures among the warring factions in Europe. Holland establishes a matrix for the economic development of the western nations. Dutch merchants willingly do business with Reformation and Counter-Reformation factions.

The new merchant class becomes a supporter of the arts partly through a desire for respectability, and partly because art, paintings exclusively, is a good investment. Without the patronage of the church or an aristocratic class, artists are forced to regard their work as a commodity, with earning potential defining spiritual content. For example, the tormented spirituality of Rembrandt's later work, brings him no more than a decline in commissions and a life ended in poverty. A fascination with the objective world spreads throughout Europe. Objective Dutch painters such as Vermeer, de Hooch, Hals, and Ruysdael prosper.  Seventeenth century Flanders however is artistically arid. With the single exception of Peter Paul Rubens, virtually no major artist emerges from the Catholic provinces.

In spite of religious controversies the Reformation is a period of economic revolution, as mercantilism and commercial capitalism gains strength. Science and mathematics come to influence nearly every facet of life. Shakespeare's dramas hold public attention as do Moliere's, and in the arts northern realism vies with the southern baroque for attention. In politics the Dutch and English retain constitutional, representative governments, and hold fast to their civil liberties. France and Spain in spite of internal dissonances are primarily guided by the strong hands of rulers such as Philip II (1527-1598) and Henry IV(1553-1610).

20th century Europe bears the imprint of Reformation. Italy, France, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, the south of Germany, Austria, and Hungary, Poland, and parts of the Balkans in eastern Europe, have continued to be predominantly Catholic. The rest, Scandinavia, England Scotland, Switzerland, the north and east of Germany, and parts of eastern Europe have largely remained Protestant.