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  • The Visual Culture of Catholic Enlightenment by Christopher M. S. Johns
  • Wendy Wassyng Roworth
Christopher M. S. Johns, The Visual Culture of Catholic Enlightenment (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015). Pp. 440. 56 color/104 b&w illustrations. $89.95.

This groundbreaking book is the first comprehensive study to illustrate how progressive papal policies and institutional reforms in the eighteenth century had a direct impact on the visual arts and design. The Catholic Enlightenment, a concept once considered a contradiction in terms, has been reassessed in recent years, and the landmark exhibition Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia Museum of Art and Houston Museum of Fine Art, 2000) showed the range of religious as well as secular art produced in the papal city. Christopher Johns goes beyond previous studies to achieve the ambitious goal of reconstructing “the social context of an understudied era and to understand how the products of its visual culture . . . shed light on the relationship between society and visual culture and the role of religion in both” (31). He convincingly demonstrates that the “reforming impulse” (1) of the Catholic Church was a major factor in the creation of new ways of envisioning sacred subjects for a modern audience, and his original, compelling examination of the range of Settecento visual culture includes ephemeral festival decorations, medals, porcelain, clerical vestments, and liturgical items along with the fine arts.

The book’s introduction provides an overview of the historical and social contexts of the Catholic Enlightenment as background for its seven chapters and epilogue. The Settecento papacy engaged with the modern world and secular governments to meet the challenge of changing times by seeking to reconcile faith and [End Page 549] reason through reforms that promoted social utility and education over mysticism and miracles. Enlightened popes embraced advances in science and medicine and established institutions to preserve and protect the Church’s cultural heritage. The role of women within the Church changed as a result of the greater emphasis on the daily practice of religion, the decrease in cloistered convents, and the increase in the number of tertiary nuns, who lived and worked in society to provide relief to the poor, nurse the sick, and educate young girls.

The first chapter addresses the theological issues that were the basis for reform, with a focus on Italian Jansenism, a movement that embraced empirical scholarship and the free exchange of ideas in opposition to traditional Jesuit philosophy. In chapter 2, the author examines how reformed ideas of sainthood were represented in the visual arts, particularly canonization pictures commissioned to honor new saints. Instead of dramatic baroque depictions of miracles, ecstasies, and supernatural visions, painters were encouraged to create naturalistic portrayals of the saints’ humanity and earthly good deeds in order to reflect the Church’s new priorities. Johns presents case studies of paintings by Pierre Subleyras, Pompeo Batoni, Pier Leone Ghezzi, Marco Benefial, and other artists whose portrayals of new saints illustrated their charitable work, self-sacrifice, and renunciation of earthly wealth in contrast to the preceding century’s images of visionary mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila. This chapter also considers the colossal statues of saints in the Founders Series in St. Peter’s.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine ambitious projects to conserve monuments and improve taste during the reigns of Benedict XIII, Benedict XIV, and Clement XIII. Most noteworthy was the 1734 creation of the first public museum, the Capitoline, in order to protect the papal collection of antiquities from both export and decay. This was followed by the establishment of the Pinacoteca Capitolina to halt the sale of works by Titian, Caravaggio, Domenichino, and other old-master paintings, and the founding in 1754 of the Accademia del Nudo to train new artists. Johns notes that these institutions established practices of art conservation and display that are still in use today. Chapter 5 examines the new emphasis on government responsibility and enlightened administration through a study of the popes’ residence, the Palazzo del Quirinale. Johns gives particular credit to Benedict XIV (Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini, 1740–1758) as the most enlightened of the eighteenth-century popes for his progressive views, which included support for...


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pp. 549-551
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