In 1435 the humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla arrived in Naples to offer his services to its future king, Alfonso of Aragon. At the time Alfonso was locked in a political struggle with Pope Eugenius IV over possession of Naples. Valla went to work on a text of direct political relevance to his new paymaster: the Donation of Constantine. The Donation was one of the founding documents of the Roman Catholic Church. It purported to be a grant issued in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine that awarded sweeping imperial and territorial powers to the papacy. It was one of the most powerful and convincing justifications of papal claims to worldly authority. Lorenzo Valla exposed the Donation as a fake. Using his humanist skills in rhetoric, philosophy, and philology, he demonstrated that its historical anachronisms, philological errors, and contradictions in logic revealed that the Donation was an 8th-century forgery.
The deftness of Valla’s textual analysis was matched by his scathing attack upon the Roman Church and its pontiffs, who had either ‘not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they forged it’. He accused them of ‘dishonouring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes’. Valla ridiculed the inaccurate and anachronistic Latin of the Donation, before again posing the rhetorical question ‘can we justify the principle of papal power when we perceive it to be the cause of such great crimes and of such great and varied evils?’ This rhetorically elegant invective concluded with an attack upon the imperial pretensions of the pope, who, ‘so that he may recover the other parts of the Donation, money wickedly stolen from good people he spends more wickedly’. Alfonso was delighted with Valla’s demolition of the Donation and used its arguments in his ultimately successful attempt to secure the kingdom of Naples despite concerted papal opposition.
The story of Valla’s revelation represents a new development in the relations between Renaissance religion, politics, and learning. The rise of political organizations like the sovereign state created the need for new intellectual and administrative skills to organize political structures and successfully challenge the authority of institutions like the church. The fact that Pope Martin V subsequently employed Valla as a papal secretary may seem surprising in the light of his exposure of the Donation. However, it reveals the church’s attitude towards such scholars (better the devil you know). It also shows how politically strategic humanists like Valla were prepared to be when new opportunities beckoned.
This story helps us to understand the complex interrelation of the religion and politics of the Renaissance. Between 1400 and 1600 religious belief was an integral part of everyday life. It was also impossible to separate religion from the practice of political authority, the world of international finance, and the achievements of art and learning. As the Catholic Church struggled to assert its temporal and spiritual power throughout this period, it faced perpetual conflict, dissent, and division. This culminated in the Reformation that swept through 16th-century northern Europe, creating the greatest crisis in the history of the Roman Church. The Catholic Counter-Reformation of the mid-16th century transformed the Church forever and, combined with the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther, established the general shape of Christianity as it exists today. The Reformation also raised complex questions concerning Christianity’s relationship with the other two great religions of the book, Judaism and Islam, both of which asserted their theological superiority over Christianity, and which in the case of Islam was quick to exploit the schisms of the 16th-century Christian church. Religion in the Renaissance was in perpetual crisis. Doubt, anxiety, and inward contemplation remain cornerstones of modern thinking and subjectivity, and their origins can be traced back to the religious ferment of the period 1400–1600.
The other development that transformed religious authority within this period was the rise of new forms of political authority. From the late 15th century political organizations increasingly came to control the everyday lives of many people. The wealth and administrative innovation that accompanied the uneven commercial and urban expansion of the 15th century created the conditions for significant political upheaval and expansion. Italian cities like Florence and Venice experimented with republican governments, while the courts of Milan, Naples, Urbino, and Ferrara ruled as petty principalities. In the north, the peace and prosperity following the Hundred Years War concentrated wealth and power in France and the Low Countries, spawning the great Habsburg Empire. To the east, the Ottoman Empire provided a model of global imperial power against which all others must compete. By the middle of the 16th century, Europe was in the control of a series of sovereign states and empires – France, Portugal, Spain, and the Ottomans. Their rise was in inverse proportion to the worldly power of the church.
By the beginning of the 15th century, the Catholic Church was in crisis. The word ‘Catholic’ came from the Greek word for ‘universal’, but by 1400 the church looked anything but universal. The church had already experienced division with its separation into the Western, Roman Church and the Eastern, Orthodox Church based in Constantinople in 1054. Over the following three centuries the Western Church battled to assert its theological and imperial authority in the face of opposition from inside and outside. The pope claimed by biblical authority that, as Christ’s representative on earth, he held political sway over worldly issues.
Throughout the 14th century the papacy was split between rival claimants in Rome and Avignon in France. The Papal Schism allowed dissident cardinals from both sides to propose the conciliar theory of church governance. This led church councils to impose their collective authority over schismatic popes. In 1414 the church fathers convened the Council of Constance to put an end to the schism. The Council ruled that ‘all men, of every rank and condition, including the pope himself, are bound to obey it in matters concerning the Faith, the abolition of the schism, and the reformation of the Church of God’. This allowed the Council to appoint Martin V as the first uncontested Roman pope for nearly a century.
An orthodox marriage
The Council of Constance unintentionally increased the autocratic power of the papacy. Both Pope Martin V and his successor, Eugenius IV, consolidated their authority by embarking on ambitious plans to rebuild Rome and unite with the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1437 Eugenius convened the Council of Florence to discuss the unification of the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Churches and deflect the Council’s attempts to reduce papal authority. In February 1438 the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus arrived in Florence with a retinue of 700 Greeks and the head of the Orthodox Church, the Patriarch Joseph II. As well as the Greek delegation, deputations arrived from Trebizond, Russia, Armenia, Cairo, and Ethiopia. As with many Renaissance transactions ostensibly concerned with religion, this momentous official meeting between east and west had profound political and cultural implications. John VIII proposed a union between the eastern and western branches of Christendom as the only realistic way to prevent the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the capture of Constantinople in the face of the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The pope was eager to unify the two churches as a way of extending his own political power throughout Italy.
Away from official council business, delegates enthusiastically explored each other’s intellectual and cultural achievements. The Greeks admired the architectural achievements of Brunelleschi, the sculpture of Donatello, and the frescos of Masaccio and Fra Angelico. The Florentines marvelled at the extraordinary collection of classical books that John VIII and his scholarly retinue had brought with them from Constantinople. These included manuscripts of Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Euclid, and Ptolemy and other classical texts which were ‘not accessible here’ in Italy according to one envious scholar. The Egyptian delegation presented the pope with a 10th-century Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, and the Armenian delegation left behind 13th-century illuminated manuscripts on the Armenian Church that reflected its mixed Mongol, Christian, and Islamic heritage. The Ethiopian delegation also circulated 15th-century Psalters written in Ethiopic and used in churches throughout north-east Africa.
Twenty years after the council, Benozzo Gozzoli completed his frescos in the Palazzo Medici that celebrated the Medici role in bringing together the Eastern and Western Churches. In Gozzoli’s frescos John VIII, Joseph II, and Lorenzo de’ Medici have become the three Magi. For political reasons Lorenzo’s forebear, Cosimo de’ Medici, had bankrolled the entire Council. The Medici had been negotiating commercial access to Constantinople throughout the 1430s, but an agreement was only reached in August 1439 as a token of John VIII’s thanks for Cosimo’s lavish hospitality throughout the Council of Florence. Cosimo’s pious act of financial sacrifice for the good of the church was actually a clever sleight of hand. Eugenius remained even more financially indebted to the Medici, and Gozzoli’s frescos make it clear that the family regarded their involvement in unifying the two churches as even more important than the mediation of the pope.
8. Benozzo Gozzoli’s fresco The Adoration of the Magi: an artistic attempt by the Medici to take the credit for uniting the Eastern and Western Churches
On 6 July 1439 the Decree of Union was finally signed between the two churches. It rejoiced that ‘the wall which separated the Eastern Church and the Western Church has been destroyed, and peace and concord have returned’. The rejoicing was short-lived. Back in Constantinople, the union was rejected by the populace, stirred up by members of the Eastern Church, while the Italian states demonstrated their reluctance by consistently refusing to provide military aid to assist the Byzantines in their struggle against the Ottomans. With the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II in May 1453, the union came to a bloody and ignominious end.
The Council of Florence was a defining moment of the Renaissance. As a religious summit, it was a failure, crushing the papacy’s hopes for the consolidation of its own imperial power through unification with the Eastern Church. As a political and cultural event, it was a triumph. It allowed the Italian states to challenge the authority of a weakened papacy, and strengthen commercial relations to the east. Ruling families cleverly manipulated their own role in the Council, through sumptuous art objects like Gozzoli’s frescos that claimed Medici pre-eminence in bringing about the Decree of Union. Culturally, the transmission of classical texts, ideas, and art objects from east to west that took place at the Council was to have a decisive effect on the art and scholarship of late 15th-century Italy.
What of the everyday reality of religious observance for the millions of people across Europe who regularly attended church and identified themselves as Christians? It would be idealistic to believe that debates about papal authority and textual exegesis had much impact upon many of these people. The church was part of the fabric of everyday life for most individuals, and this meant that the distinction between the sacred and the profane often became blurred. Churches were used for festivals, political meetings, eating, horse-trading, and even storing merchants’ goods and valuables. The clergy were everywhere. By 1550 out of a population of 60,000, Florence boasted over 5,000 clergymen. Poorly educated and badly paid, they were often to be found working as masons, horse dealers, and cattle traders, keeping lovers and children, and carrying weapons.
In theory, the Catholic Church acted as the earthly manifestation of Christ’s incarnation. It mediated between God and the individual, and was exclusively responsible for dispensing God’s grace through the sacraments – baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, ordination, marriage, and extreme unction. According to the theory of transubstantiation, the priest possessed the miraculous (arguably magical) power of transforming the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the real body and blood of Christ. Without the intercession of the church and the priest, the individual had no direct contact with God. In the performance of the sacraments, the priest alone brought God into direct touch with the laity. It was this mediating role which made the church such a powerful institution.
In practice, the most enthusiastic public interest in religious observance revolved around what one historian has called a passionate ‘appetite for the divine’. The ‘miracles’ of the sacraments were often interpreted as magical acts, and led to the adoption of a range of popular practices, from the fervent worship of relics, saints, and images to the superstitious use of holy water, the Eucharist, and holy oil. Although such magical practices went against religious orthodoxy, the church often turned a blind eye to such transgressions, eager to sustain the mystical power of the church and its authority.
For most people, the church provided a ritual method of living day to day, rather than a set of rigid theological beliefs. The sacraments of baptism, confirmation, marriage, and extreme unction provided rites of passage through crucial moments in an individual’s life. As a consequence, many people only went to church once or twice a year, and court records reveal remarkably low attendances, as well as profound ignorance on basic points of religion. One English preacher told the story of a shepherd who when asked about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost replied, ‘The father and the son I know well for I tend their sheep, but I know not the third fellow; there is none of that name in our village.’ At best, this attitude represented religious ignorance and indifference; at worst, it suggested heresy and unbelief, which took various forms throughout the Renaissance period and beyond.
In the 1440s the bishop of Tournai, Jean Chevrot, was so concerned at the poor attendance and observation of the sacraments that he commissioned Roger van der Weyden to paint an altarpiece that would educate people in the ritual significance of the sacraments, simply entitled the Seven Sacraments. The left panel of van der Weyden’s triptych shows baptism, confirmation, and confession, while the right panel shows ordination, marriage, and extreme unction. The central panel is reserved for the most important sacrament, the Eucharist, which takes place behind the revelation of Christ. To avoid any confusion, angels helpfully float above each sacrament, holding banners with explanatory verses. By using contemporary figures, architecture, and clothing, van der Weyden’s triptych employs a typically Renaissance technique of ‘vulgarization’, where the mysteries of the church are set against modern settings that encourage the congregation’s close identification with the painted image. The quiet intensity of the scene was also noticeably devoid of the jostling, hawking, joking, spitting, swearing, knitting, begging, sleeping, and even gun-firing that were a daily feature of church life.
9. Roger van der Weyden’s altarpiece the Seven Sacraments tries to educate a 15th-century congregation about the sacraments
Building the Reformation
When Pope Martin V ended the factional schism and returned to Rome in 1420, ‘he found it so dilapidated and deserted that it hardly bore any resemblance to a city’, never mind the capital of both the former Roman Empire and the future Catholic Empire. The response of Martin and his successors was to begin an ambitious building programme that would celebrate the glory of the newly centralized Roman Church. It would also turn the city into a building site for the following 150 years. In the words of Pope Nicholas V, the laity would find their ‘belief continually confirmed and daily corroborated by great buildings’ that were ‘seemingly made by the hand of God’. Alberti, Fra Angelico, Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli were just some of the artists who came to be associated with the rebuilding of the city.
The biggest problem that successive popes faced was the renovation of the crumbling basilica of St Peter’s, built on the saint’s tomb by Constantine in the mid-4th century. As has already been said, Rome was already competing with Constantinople as imperial capital of the Christian world. The competition became even fiercer once that city fell to Sultan Mehmed in 1453. Rome and its popes did not want to be outshone by Istanbul and its sultans. In April 1506 Pope Julius II laid the cornerstone for the new St Peter’s, having appointed Bramante as its architect. The foundation medal cast by Caradosso shows how closely Bramante’s original design was modelled on Hagia Sophia. Subsequent revisions by Raphael, Sangallo, and Michelangelo throughout the 16th century led to the completion of St Peter’s as it looks today.
Ironically it was the cost of completing this monumental celebration of papal authority that started a protest that would ultimately challenge the core of the Catholic Church, and transform the social and political landscape of Europe forever. In 1510, four
10. Caradosso’s medal commemorates the beginning of work on St Peter’s in 1506, and shows that the early designs borrowed from Byzantine and Ottoman architecture
years after work began on St Peter’s, and as Michelangelo laboured on his frescos for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the German monk Martin Luther arrived in Rome. His disillusionment with the corruption and conspicuous consumption he witnessed provided the inspiration for the beginning of his attack upon the abuses of the Catholic Church – the circulation of his 95 theses against indulgences in October 1517. In March of that year, the pope had issued an indulgence to finance the building of St Peter’s. An indulgence was a papal document that granted the buyer remission from the need to do penance for his sins. So eager was the church to finance the rebuilding of Rome that indulgences were even sold to individuals to cover uncommitted future sins. The church had created a trade in salvation that allowed the individual to buy and sell deliverance. Luther was outraged. He wrote to the archbishop of Mainz, complaining:
Papal indulgences for the building of St Peter’s are circulating under your most distinguished name . . . I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived from them; to wit – the unhappy souls believe that if they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of their salvation.
Luther repeated his protest in the 95 theses famously circulated throughout the town of Wittenberg. ‘Why does not the pope’, wrote Luther, ‘whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?’ The first shot of the European Reformation had been fired.
Like the term ‘Renaissance’, ‘Reformation’ is a retrospective term applied to the consequences of Luther’s ideas. Luther did indeed set out with the idea of reforming the church, but reformation quickly turned into revolution. Luther’s protest against indulgences soon crystallized into a systematic rejection of every religious assumption upon which the Catholic Church rested. Luther argued that the individual possessed a direct relationship with God, and could not rely on the mediation of priests, saints, or indulgences to grant salvation; the individual could only maintain absolute faith in the grace of an inscrutable but ultimately merciful God in the hope of being saved. There was nothing weak and evil individuals could do in the face of God, but hold on to faith, the ultimate gift from God. Worldly attempts to change the state of one’s soul through indulgences and penances were meaningless. As Luther himself concluded, ‘A Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no works to justify him.’
The implication of all this for the Catholic Church was profound. Having abandoned papal mediation between God and the individual, at a stroke Luther rejected the authority of both pope and priest. The theatre and paraphernalia of church ritual were rejected, as was the distinction between clergy and laity. Luther also condemned all but two of the sacraments. He argued that God gave faith directly to the individual, and did not appear through intermediaries, be they priests or sacramental rituals.
The impact of Luther’s ideas was complex but immediate. As he refined and expanded his position in response to increasingly alarmed Catholic reaction, ‘Lutheranism’ spread throughout northern Europe with astonishing speed and profound consequences way beyond Luther’s control. By the time of his death in 1546, councils with reformed church tendencies controlled Wittenberg, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, Zurich, Berne, and Basle. Lutheranism found fertile ground amongst a predominantly civic, urban laity disaffected with Catholicism. Monastic orders and traditional worship were abolished, church property was smashed or confiscated, and religious images were destroyed in iconoclastic riots. In their place came new sites and methods of worship, and idealistic experiments in social and political reform. In 1524 the German peasants rose up, seeking justification for their grievances in Luther’s teachings. He contemptuously condemned the ‘poisonous, hurtful’ rebellion, revealing the limits of his radicalism when it came to more worldly matters.
Luther was also unable to control the intellectual impact of many of his arguments. By the 1540s Geneva was under the control of the theology of John Calvin, who argued that man was powerless to influence divine predestination. For Calvin, God had always already decided who would be damned and who saved. In England, Henry VIII’s political decision to split from Rome in 1533 led ultimately to the excommunication of Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, for what was by then called her ‘Protestantism’.
Printing the Word
Humanism and printing lay at the heart of the rise and spread of Luther’s ideas. Luther and his followers utilized humanist training in philology, rhetoric, and translation to produce a theology based on ‘the Word’ and ‘Scripture alone’. What united reformers like Luther and humanists including Erasmus was a commitment to close biblical interpretation, or exegesis, which challenged the perceived ignorance and superstition of earlier scholastic thinking. Luther could match the finest papal scholarship, boasting in his discussion On Translating (1530) that ‘I can do their dialectics and philosophy better than all of them put together’. He parted company with humanism when he realized the limits of its commitment to change, telling Erasmus that ‘it matters little to you what anyone believes anywhere, as long as the peace of the world is undisturbed’. However, humanism had already supplied Lutheranism with the intellectual tools to transform religion. It had also provided Luther with the object that would transmit his new ideas all over Europe: the printing press.
Writing on the spread of his ideas in 1522, Luther claimed ‘I did nothing; the Word did everything’. He was right. It was the medium of print that circulated ‘the Word’. Earlier challengers to papal authority had little ability to circulate their ideas to a wider audience, but the technology of the printing press allowed Luther to disseminate his ideas in thousands of printed books, broadsides, and pamphlets. The German states were also the perfect location from which to spread a religious revolution, being at the geographical and technological heart of Europe. By 1520 62 German cities possessed printing presses, and between 1517 and 1524 the publication of printed books in these cities increased sevenfold. One of the reasons for this increased output was Luther himself. He soon realized the radical potential of the printing press, calling it ‘God’s highest and extremest act of grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward’. Between 1517 and 1520 Luther wrote over 30 tracts, with more than 300,000 copies printed. One admiring friend claimed that, ‘Luther is the man who can keep two printers busy, each working two presses’. Luther also realized the power of spreading his Word in the vernacular, rather than the elite church language of Latin. By 1575 his printed German translation of the Bible had sold an estimated 100,000 copies. It has been further estimated that his works represented one third of all German-language books sold between 1518 and 1525. By 1530, Luther had become the first best-selling author in the short history of print.
Lutheranism emerged from a world in which the commercial, financial, and political centre of gravity had gradually shifted northwards. By the beginning of the 16th century Antwerp was overtaking Venice as the commercial capital of Europe, and the German states that gave birth to Lutheranism were also forging new political identities that would create a recognizably modern map of Europe by the end of the century. By 1519 Charles V of the House of Habsburg added Austria to his dynastic inheritance of Spain, Naples, the Netherlands, and the New World. His election to the title of Holy Roman Emperor initiated a monumental political power struggle throughout Europe that saw Charles, King Francis I, and Henry VIII, as well as John III of Portugal and Sultan Süleyman, vie for territorial and political control, with the city states of Italy reduced to the status of helpless bargaining counters. The seeds of nationalist revolt were also beginning to stir in northern Europe, and to the east Charles faced the overwhelming imperial power of Süleyman, who conquered Belgrade in 1521 and by 1529 was laying siege to Vienna. The rise of Lutheranism only compounded Charles’s difficulties.
Charles was keen not to alienate his German allies by excommunicating one of its monks. However, following Luther’s personal promise to the emperor himself that ‘I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience’, Charles condemned him as ‘a notorious heretic’. The German states resisted papal calls for the destruction of ‘Protestantism’, as it was called from 1529 when a group of German princes ‘protested’ against calls for the condemnation of Lutheranism. Charles was distracted by the administration of his overseas possessions as well as being faced with the spectre of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent beating at the door of his own empire.
By 1529 Süleyman’s empire stretched across North Africa, the Mediterranean, and most of eastern Europe, and was in league with Charles’s enemy, Francis I. While the Ottomans continued to confront Charles as political equals, their faith also became an issue in the increasingly polarized religious atmosphere of the 1520s. Like Francis, Luther and his followers considered the possibility of a strategic alliance with the Ottomans as a bulwark against Charles’s Habsburg Empire. Luther studied the Koran, and participated in the publication of several German texts on Islam. Following the calls of various Lutheran pamphleteers to ‘seek the enemy in Italy, not in the East!’ he cautiously argued that ‘if we must have any Turkish war, we ought to begin with ourselves’. This suggested that the Ottoman threat was sent by God to plague the Catholic emperor and pope. Süleyman also realized how Lutheranism could play into Ottoman hands by distracting the Habsburgs from concentrating on the military threat from the east. Both Islam and Protestantism were aware that theologically their belief in the power of the book and opposition to idolatry made a political rapprochement a distinct possibility in the volatile years of the mid-16th century.
Charles V was far less ideologically flexible. His dynastic heritage was based on the expulsion of both the Jews and the Moors from Spain in 1492. He and his advisers soon became convinced that Luther and Süleyman represented two sides of the same coin, both ‘heretics’ that must be exterminated. In 1523 the papal nuncio based in Nuremberg wrote that ‘we are occupied with the negotiations for the general war against the Turk, and for that particular war against that nefarious Martin Luther, who is a greater evil to Christendom than the Turk’. In 1530 Cardinal Campeggio wrote to Charles that Luther’s ‘diabolical and heretical opinions . . . shall be castigated and punished according to the rule and practice observed in Spain with regard to the Moors’.
As the zeal for religious reformation collided with increasingly ambitious claims to global political authority, religious intolerance intensified. Jewish communities had lived throughout Europe for centuries, in spite of their official expulsion from England in 1290 and Spain in 1492. However, in such a period of polarized religious positions, the Jews soon found themselves persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants, accused of crimes that ranged from poisoning wells to murdering Christian babies. In 1555 Pope Paul IV issued a papal bull attacking the Jewish faith, claiming that the church only ‘tolerates Jews in order that they may bear witness to true Christian faith’. Jews could convert to Catholicism, otherwise they were forbidden to own property, and were confined to ghettos where they were required to wear a yellow badge as a sign of infamy. Protestantism was hardly any more tolerant. In 1514 Luther claimed that ‘the Jews will always curse and blaspheme God and his King Christ’. He later claimed, ‘I would rather have the Turks for enemies than the Spaniards for protectors: for barbarous tyrants as they are, most of the Spaniards are half Moors, half Jews, fellows who believe nothing at all.’ The Spanish Catholics in turn saw Protestants as heretics comparable to Muslims and Jews. As Catholicism responded to the threat of Lutheranism, and Protestantism tried to define itself in clear theological distinction to other religions, both increasingly attacked the two religions of the book that did not subscribe to the belief that Jesus was the Son of God.
These conflicts also changed the shape of Renaissance art. As the papacy in Rome sensed the erosion of its political power, it responded with even more lavish displays of art and architecture in an attempt to reaffirm its authority. The strain showed in the art of Michelangelo and Raphael. Michelangelo’s frescos of scenes from Genesis that decorate the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Pope Julius II, offer a comprehensive view of creation based on the teachings of Rome. The graceful dynamism of the scenes and the powerful, straining musculature of its characters also idealize the power and potential wrath of the Roman Church if questioned. This tension is also detectable in Raphael’s frescos for the Vatican’s Salon of Constantine. They tell the story of the life of the Emperor Constantine, and the shift in church power from the east (Constantine’s imperial seat of Constantinople) to the west (St Peter’s in Rome).
The final scene in the fresco cycle, entitled the Donation of Constantine, shows the Emperor Constantine handing over his worldly and imperial power to the pope, wearing a tiara that demonstrates both his spiritual and worldly power. Just months after work began on the Constantine Salon, Luther wrote,
I have at hand Lorenzo Valla’s proof that the Donation of Constantine is a forgery. Good heavens, what darkness and wickedness is at Rome. You wonder at the judgement of God that such unauthentic, crass, impudent lies not only lived, but prevailed for so many centuries.
Valla’s treatise on the Donation had been printed for the first time in Germany in 1517 as part of the growing attack upon the Roman Church. The frescos in the Salon of Constantine, with their towering popes, warring factions, and dramatic scenes of papal authority are aggressive, mannered, and anxious responses to religious and political change. The printed ‘word’ from the north was triumphing over the towering monuments and glorious frescos of the south.
The empire strikes back
The Roman Church soon realized that triumphant art was no answer to the questions posed by the dramatic rise of northern European Protestantism. In 1545 Pope Paul III convened the
11. The fresco the Donation of Constantine was painted in the Vatican by Raphael’s workshop between 1523 and 1524. Religious conflict shapes its imperial content and mannered, aggressive style
Council of Trent to reform the church and refute Lutheranism. Over the next 18 years the council drafted decrees that formed the basis of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The Council reaffirmed the sanctity of the seven sacraments, transubstantiation, purgatory, and papal authority. It endorsed the veneration of saints, relics, and the purchase of indulgences, while also reforming the abuses that had so angered Luther. Religious orders were reformed, seminaries were established for the training of priests, and bishops were expected to take a more proactive approach to the administration of their dioceses. The Council endorsed the creation in 1540 of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuit order), led by the Spaniard Ignatius Loyola, and the establishment in 1542 of the Roman Inquisition that hunted down heretics and reformers.
The Council also turned its attention to the most pernicious carrier of the Protestant Reformation – the printed book. In 1563 it issued an index of forbidden books deemed ‘heretical’, declaring ‘if anyone should read or possess books by heretics or writings by any author condemned and prohibited by reason of heresy or suspicion of false teaching, he incurs immediately the sentence of excommunication’. The Index forbade thousands of books, starting with the works of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, but also including the works of Machiavelli and selected writings of Erasmus. Trent implicitly conceded the power of the printed book (partly through the funding of Catholic printing presses to publish orthodox texts), but at the cost of establishing one of the first modern attempts at mass censorship.
The Council of Trent’s zealous mix of reform, piety, militancy, and repression was remarkably successful. It has been calculated that by the end of the 16th century nearly a third of the laity lost to Rome had returned to the fold as a result of the Counter-Reformation. However, its attitude towards religious observance, books, and even images further polarized the religious landscape of the later 16th century. Trent underlined the widening gulf between the ideology of Protestantism and Catholicism, and in the process paved the way for the religious wars of the latter half of the century that would redefine the shape of Europe.
By 1600, Europe had changed beyond all recognition from the illdefined collection of city states and principalities that made little reference to the entity of ‘Europa’ in 1400. Nation states and emerging global empires set the political agenda, and the fluidity of religious encounters and exchanges between east and west had hardened into the programmatic belief systems of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. This signalled the birth of the modern institution of the state and the concomitant rise of nationalism. The great imperial powers of Europe would go on to claim most of the newly discovered globe over the next three centuries. But the legacy of the period was also a series of seemingly irresolvable religious and political conflicts in regions as diverse as Ireland, the Balkans, and the Middle East, whose origins lay in the collision of church and state that first took place in the Renaissance.