[On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this series of articles looks at how the Church responded to this turbulent age by finding an artistic voice to proclaim Truth through Beauty. Each column visits works of art to looks at how the iconography was designed to confront a challenged raised by the Reformation with the persuasive voice of art. – Ed]
If there were any category of Catholics that the Protestant reformers viewed with maximum skepticism it was those mystics who experienced visions of divine union. It wasn’t that the Protestants eschewed closeness to Christ through prayer—John Calvin even drew from St. Bernard of Clairvaux when developing his ideas of “election” with its deep, personal, certitude of salvation—but they recoiled at the “excesses” of the Catholic Church. The Protestants saw mystic experience as a quiet, peaceful assurance, while the Catholics had more flair for the dramatic.
Catholic mysticism was deeply-rooted, passionate, and often described in physical or even sensual terms. Literature, art and music tended to portray mystical transport as intense and fleeting, an overwhelming foretaste of the peace and joy that is to come. Medieval scholars defined mystical theology as “the experiential knowledge of God thorough the union of spiritual affection with him.” This “affection,” or perhaps this more naked realization of God’s love, left at times more than just spiritual or intellectual awareness, but also physical marks like the stigmata. The body, made in the image and like of God, and assumed by God-made-man, shared the experience of divine love with the soul, at which point the Catholics and the Protestants parted ways.
As Protestants increasingly subsumed knowledge of God into the intellectual sphere, Catholic art strove to manifest the experiential, even the sensual nature, of oneness with the Lord. Art was especially equipped to be of service for this challenge, since it was already expected to excite piety by stimulating the sense of sight.
After the Reformation, the Catholic Church increased its commemoration of mystics, both on the altars and in art. Thanks to the finest painters, the visions of Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi, Aloysius Gonzaga and a rapt St Ignatius became a common sight above the altars. Even older saints with more established iconography found a new attitude, reminding the faithful that long before the Reformation saints had basked in the Lord’s consuming love.