The art world produced its first celebrated female painters here, commissioned and supported by the Church.
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 looks at how art was designed to confront a challenge raised by the Reformation with the soothing and persuasive voice of art.
This may come as a surprise, given that many Protestant churches have championed women’s ordination, but the first phase of the Reformation was not particularly good to women. The elimination of Mary’s role as supreme intercessor, the abolition of women’s religious orders (indeed Martin Luther had married a nun), and the rejection of the female martyrs of the Paleo-Christian era as mere legends and fantasies left women of the age without role models or guides in the complicated waters of late Renaissance society.
Furthermore, several of the Protestant leaders saw women as unfit for any kind of leadership. John Calvin wrote that women ought to be subject to men for two reasons, “because not only did God enact this law at the beginning, but He also inflicted it as a punishment on the woman.” German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, a close friend of Luther, depicted women as sly, provocative and simpering, with a sidelong glance—whether when offering Adam the forbidden fruit or seducing a foolish old husband. These ideas were certainly not limited to the Reformers, but the Protestants lacked a repertoire of beautiful and holy women to temper the harsher view of woman as weak temptress or to develop a more nuanced appreciation for the role of women.
The Catholic Church had the advantage of centuries of Marian veneration and a liturgical calendar filled with heroic, holy women, and also knew, much like advertisers today, that nothing sells better than a beautiful woman. Women in the Church found a new impetus in the Counter-Reformation, especially in the extraordinary lives of people like St. Teresa of Avila, who reformed the Carmelite religious and wrote powerfully about her experiences, or the extraordinary Vicaress Pernette de Montluel of the Poor Clares, who courageously contested the reformers in Geneva as recorded in Jeanne de Jussie’s The Short Chronicle.
Depictions of women — created by women — flourished in this age, not only as heroines, but also showing women new ways that they could use their unique gifts to spread the Gospel.
Images of formidable Old Testament women proliferated in the Counter Reformation, from Judith slaying Holofernes to Susanna defying the lecherous elders, while Mary Magdalene became the model par excellence of conversion and repentance. The rediscovery of the bodies of St. Cecilia and St. Agnes in the newly excavated catacombs reignited the devotion to the bravery of the virgin martyrs.
The devotion to St. Catherine of Alexandria, however, enjoyed a particularly significant renewal during this period.
The 5th-century saint was a well-educated Christian aristocrat, who was sent as an envoy to the Roman Emperor to protest the persecution of the Church. Beautiful as well as wise, Catherine suffered under Emperor Maximin’s attempts first to seduce her, offering her the role of “second wife,” and then, upon her refusal, to break her through a grueling interrogation before 50 of his most erudite philosophers. Catherine converted them all with her reasoned arguments for the truth of Christianity and was thereupon sentenced to death. The spiked wheel devised for her torture (ubiquitous in her iconography and lending its name to a firework) was destroyed by angels before being used, so Catherine was swiftly beheaded and her body carried off by angels to Mt. Sinai.
Counter-Reformation artists were inundated with commissions for images of this saint, the patroness of philosophy. Where Luther had claimed, “No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise,” this lovely woman had gained Heaven not only for herself but for all seekers of truth that came into contact with her. Caravaggio painted her in contemporary dress, with a fair but familiar face, as if one might run into this heroic paragon of wisdom on the street. The 1,300-year-old saint was given a new look for the modern age that had disdained reason and embraced salvation through faith alone.