Religion Overthrows Heresy: The Art of Anti-Protestantism

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I’m thinking of founding a museum of incorrect religious art.

We currently live in a world of vast ecumenism and tolerance. It is therefore instructive to recall how religious debate over the centuries has been so extremely divisive and downright vicious, and this is especially true of conflicts in religious traditions. No church or denomination has a monopoly on this rhetoric. We quite readily think of the rich anti-Catholic tradition that has so often surfaced within Protestantism, but the traffic was definitely two-way. (The Orthodox also have their own story, but that’s another story). We pay far too little attention to anti-Protestantism as a theme in Christian history.

This came to mind a few years ago when I visited the mighty Roman Church of the Gesù, the mother church of the Jesuits. The order’s founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, is buried here and his tomb is marked by two impressive sculptural compositions from the 1690s. Both were designed to be completed ready for the Holy Year of 1700. To the left of l At the altar we see “Faith Overcomes Idolatry”, the theme of which is quite controversial (or was until the rise of modern sensibilities). On the right, however, we’re in much more interesting territory. Here we see Religion overthrowing heresy and hatred, by the French sculptor Pierre Le Gros, the younger. Religion here is a vigorous and distinctly angry young woman, who, through the cross, subdues and defeats two sinister and restless figures.

“To leave no doubt as to the persons specifically considered heretics, three books bear the names of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, whose book is torn by a put,” an angel. These Protestant leaders must be completely annulled and their writings done away with.

However, such a polemic is hardly shocking when it is put next to centuries of Protestant representations of the Pope as the Antichrist or the Prostitute of Babylon. But it is striking to see such venom directed specifically at the leading Protestant reformers. Besides, nothing you see in the church today draws the slightest attention to the controversial quality of these pieces: either you already know what it is, or you won’t.

It is also a powerful reminder of how late the Catholic Reformation could reasonably hope to achieve a worldwide victory that would sweep away Protestantism once and for all. “Religion” (Catholic) is a young figure, while heretical Protestantism is for the decrepit and deranged

Also in 1700, Frenchman Louis XIV was by far the most powerful European ruler, engaged in repeated wars with the British and Dutch, while the Habsburgs were regularly engaged in the suppression or expulsion of their remaining Protestant minorities. The great era of English world power had not yet begun. In retrospect, one might think of the 18th century in terms of the Protestant northern European hegemony that was soon to take on global dimensions. At the time, however, Catholic hopes were still high, and plausibly so.

It’s also worth remembering how quickly this all changed. In 1704, the English suddenly became a great military power when the Duke of Marlborough defeated the French at Blenheim. At the same time, a series of papal rulings in the so-called Chinese Rites controversy have devastated Catholic hopes of securing mass conversions in East and South Asia. Suddenly, almost overnight, it became clear that the two churches were much more equal than they would have been a few years earlier.

Never count your heretics before they are dispatched.

And just to provide denominational balance, here is a Lutheran depiction of the papacy as the apocalyptic whore of Babylon, from 1534.

This all boils down to a much larger point, namely the enormous power and pervasive influence of anti-Protestant thought throughout Catholic history over the past five centuries. I will come back to this in my next post.


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