- The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church Edited by Marcia B. Hall and Tracy E. Cooper
As Protestant iconoclasm denuded churches in the North, Catholic bishops reaffirmed the traditional place of art in worship in the decree on the “Invocation, Veneration and Relics of Saints and on Sacred Images,” concluded at the last session of the Council of Trent in 1563. The art-historical studies in the present volume—edited by Marcia Hall, well-known expert on art and Catholic Reform, and her colleague, architectural historian Tracy Cooper—attest to the ensuing, intense discussion about the form and function of the religious image. A newly invigorated sacred art, appealing to the viewers’ senses, sought to inspire devotion and eliminate potential abuses lurking in overly carnal representations of saints and the divine.
Several papers stand out in a strong collection that addresses the sensory in the making and reception of ecclesiastical art during the Council of Trent and its immediate aftermath. Complementing the editors’ introductory essays, John O’Malley contributes a masterful summary and analysis of the Tridentine decree, which serves as a corrective to pervasive misconceptions and is mandatory reading for all art historians. In his subtle analysis of Florentine artistic debates, Stuart Lingo demonstrates that a surprisingly wide range of opinions guided the making of altarpieces for local churches, negotiating between the ideal of the nude in art and the requirements of decorous devotional imagery. In Rome, however, official censorship threatened artistic license, as documented in Opher Mansour’s comprehensive and informative account of Pope Clement VIII’s personal inspection of altarpieces in local churches during his apostolic visits in the 1590s. Peter Lukehart offers instead the artists’ vantage point by examining the Academy of St. Luke, founded in the aftermath of Trent, whose mission statement and activities revolved around its members’ professional identity as virtuous Christian artists. Richard Schofield’s paper, a welcome exception to the Roman and Florentine emphasis of the volume, tells a colorful story of Milan, where Archbishop Carlo Borromeo rigorously interpreted the Tridentine decrees in his parish, reinstating earlier practices—the use of the veil for women, partitions, separate entrances, controlled access and contact—informed by prevailing gender biases. The strict separation of the sexes in worship evokes analogous rules in observant Muslim and Jewish religious communities today. [End Page 609]
One of the strengths of this volume lies in the careful coordination of the contributions. When raising key concerns, authors refer in many instances to their colleagues’ essays, stimulating the reader to reflect further, for example, on the theme of decorum in art—whether on its imperative to reconcile “sensuous form and spiritual content” (Bette Talavacchia) or its place in a long rhetorical tradition (Robert Gaston). Nonetheless, the narrow geographical scope of the collection is regrettable. What of Bologna, home of the great reformer and art theorist Archbishop Gabriele Paleotti, or Venice, with its distinctive state-church relationship, its tensions with Rome, and its famous encounter between Paolo Veronese and the tribunal of the Inquisition over the very issue of decorum in his monumental Feast in the House of Levi? Yet the volume offers an indispensable reference for all students of religious art in the second half of the sixteenth century.