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The Reformation and the Baroque Age


The roots of Baroque go back to the 1500s and the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation. Art was the media and the advertising of the day. It told the story of the religious wars — the way each side wanted it told.

Complete Video Script

[5, St. Steven's Cathedral, Vienna] The roots of Baroque go back to the 1500s, to the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation. People were questioning Europe's most powerful institution — the Roman Catholic Church. This was big news and art, the media of the day, told the story.

[6] When a German monk named Martin Luther hammered 95 points for debate on this door, he opened a Pandora's Box of issues — from Church corruption to the role of art in religion to the legitimacy of the pope — unleashing long-pent-up frustrations.

[7] Soon, the protesters — called "Protestants" — were breaking away from the traditional Catholic Church. This religious revolution, called the "Reformation," plunged Europe into a century-long series of wars. Each side expressed its intense passion through its art.

[8, Religion Overthrowing Heresy and Hatred statue, Gesù Church, Rome] Here, a Catholic nun wails on a bunch of sinful Protestants while a determined cherub rips pages from a Protestant book and an angel wrestles with the "serpent of heresy."

[9, pipe organ in Grote Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands] For their part, Protestants took over Catholic churches and purged them of Catholic iconography. These iconoclasts destroyed statues of saints and whitewashed all they distained. Churches were converted to fit Protestant values: preaching from a prominent pulpit, and music with thunderous pipe organs.

[10, Four Apostles, 1526, Dürer, Alte Pinakothek, Munich] People had to choose: "am I Protestant or Catholic?" These worried saints — with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other — capture the tension of the times. Art was weaponized. Here, St. Michael, on Team Rome, hurls Lucifer out of Heaven, sending a clear message: Protestants who rise up against the Church shall be crushed.

[11, Amstelkring church, Amsterdam] This non-descript building hid a Catholic church. In Protestant lands, Catholic citizens were forced to worship at low-profile churches like this- — a plain exterior hiding a small yet beautiful church inside complete with the rudiments of Catholic worship in miniature.

[12] This religious divide turned political. In England, King Henry VIII broke with the pope, confiscated Catholic lands, and destroyed monasteries. Violence flared. In Catholic Spain, the Church Inquisition arrested, tortured, and executed countless Protestants, Jews, and anyone they considered heretics — burning many at the stake. And in Germany, 6,000 peasants — armed with little more than shovels — were slaughtered in a single battle.

[13] Artists captured the misery and the epic scale. As religious wars spread, nearly a third of all Germans died. War crimes became commonplace, with each side convinced that God was on their side and that they were fighting the Devil himself. Paintings show how most of Europe was at war…swept up by powerful forces…as if the fighting might go on forever.

[14] After decades of war, in 1648, an exhausted Europe reached an uneasy peace that enabled Protestants and Catholics to co-exist. But it left Europe split into two camps: Protestants mainly in the northern countries, Catholics in the south — each with its own culture and style of art. The art of the day was Baroque and it fit Catholic lands perfectly.

[31] St. Charles Church is classic Baroque: grand columns, stately pediment, and an elliptical dome. Ascending into the clouds with cupids and angels, you notice a trick the artist employed: he warped the perspective, understanding that his images would be seen not from straight on but from far below and at an angle.

[32, St. Charles Church, Vienna, with scaffolding to let visitors see dome up close] As always, the art had a purpose: teaching…or advertising — depending on your perspective. Here, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Catholic priests triumph and inspire — while Protestants and their trouble-making books are trashed. At the very top is the dove of the Holy Spirit, surrounded by a cheering squad of sweet-lipped cupids…a grand Baroque vision of how all was right with the world thanks to their enthusiastically Catholic rulers.