The Return of the Martyrs

Rome Versus Luther

Tour guides in Rome love the term “baroque,” and I too find it useful. The implied motion of Bernini’s sculptures, the undulations of Borromini’s church facades, and the drama of the paintings of da Cortona and Caravaggio help to link them together as baroque. And their example was followed by many others, to the point that one can almost say “Rome is a baroque city.” The baroque is everywhere in Rome.

Roughly speaking, the baroque period is also that of the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church sought to answer the several challenges of the Protestant Reformation. Art and Architecture were among the weapons in the popes’ arsenal, and much of what we see in Rome from this period is guided by the intention of advancing the Catholic view of Christianity. Curiously, the opulence of St. Peter’s and outrageous way of funding its building helped to spark Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church, but its costly magnificence was also part of the way the Catholic Church tried to answer his attack. While Protestants, and especially Calvinists, were destroying religious art as idolatry, the popes subsidized sumptuous and emotionally charged art to help viewers feel a stronger attachment to the saints and martyrs who had devoted their lives to a just and loving God.

One of my several pods on St. Peter’s will show this especially in the sculptures of Gianlorenzo Bernini, and comments on other works of art around the city will further illustrate this suggestion.

One easily observed point is that those who died for their faith again become a common subject for paintings. We will see this especially in a fresco cycle in the quiet and somewhat isolated church of Santo Stefano Rotundo, but it is evident also elsewhere. The sacrifices made by early members of the Church were intended to awaken a similar readiness in those who viewed them a thousand-plus years later.

The Jesuits were born to give aid to the Counter-Reformation, and a couple of pods will take them up, mostly in reference to their two great Roman churches, the Gesù and St. Ignatius, and their school, the Roman College.

Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of St. Peter

Above is Caravaggio’s dramatic rendering of the Crucifixion of St. Peter (Photo Wikimedia)

Peter viewed as a martyr makes for an easy contrast with those representations that show him as holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Modern Rome