Thursday, August 20, 2015

Josephology Part 12: Burning the Hagiographies

“Can I at least hang on to my first editions of Harry Potter?”

[This article offers some historical background helpful to understanding the context of our 10th entry in this series, concerning Francisco Suárez.]

Try to imagine an Ecumenical Council going wrong. Imagine a Council making some recommendations for reforms that get hijacked and blown completely out of proportion by an influential school of theologians, so much so that the actual changes basically tear down all the bastions of what existed before and replace them with things mostly fabricated from scratch.

Now imagine that I am talking about the Council of Trent.

During the twenty-fifth session of the Tridentine Council, in December 1563, the Council Fathers wrote a decree “On the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics of Saints, and on Sacred Images.” It is relevant enough to the discussion at hand that I will quote it at some length, with some emphases added.
And the bishops shall carefully teach this—that, by means of the histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in (the habit of) remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith....
And if any abuses have crept in amongst these holy and salutary observances, the holy Synod ardently desires that they be utterly abolished; in such wise that no images, (suggestive) of false doctrine, and furnishing occasion of dangerous error to the uneducated, be set up. And if at times, when expedient for the unlettered people; it happen that the facts and narratives of sacred Scripture are portrayed and represented; the people shall be taught, that not thereby is the Divinity represented, as though it could be seen by the eyes of the body, or be portrayed by colours or figures.
Moreover, in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust; nor the celebration of the saints, and the visitation of relics be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness; as if festivals are celebrated to the honour of the saints by luxury and wantonness.
In fine, let so great care and diligence be used herein by bishops, as that there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.
And that these things may be the more faithfully observed, the holy Synod ordains, that no one be allowed to place, or cause to be placed, any unusual image, in any place, or church, howsoever exempted, except that image have been approved of by the bishop: also, that no new miracles are to be acknowledged, or new relics recognised, unless the said bishop has taken cognizance and approved thereof; who, as soon as he has obtained some certain information in regard to these matters, shall, after having taken the advice of theologians, and of other pious men, act therein as he shall judge to be consonant with truth and piety.
Émile Mâle
The Council’s guidelines are reasonable enough: regarding the cults of the saints, remove clear excesses (moral and liturgical) and errors (theological and historical), so that the saints’ celebrations may be in keeping with proper Christian piety. In the face of the Protestant epidemic, the Catholic clergy were on the defensive, and especially needed to strengthen the faith of the laity against heretical attacks. The emerging art forms began to reflect this reactionary approach. As the great French art historian Émile Mâle wrote,
An art conceived during the tragic years when the papacy saw large portions of Christendom break away could no longer, like medieval art, express repose in faith. Art was committed; was obliged to struggle, to affirm and to refute. It became the auxiliary of the Counter Reformation, one of the aspects of apologetics, defending what the Protestants attacked—the Virgin, the saints, the papacy, images, sacraments, works, and prayers for the dead. It developed themes which in the past had been only sketched; and it expressed sentiments and forms of devotion which were entirely new. (Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century, p. 198)
Since this was a period of chaos, it was a period when pastors and teachers were anxiously looking for ways to order and stabilize the situation: if the heretics are attacking the Virgin Mary, we must intensify our Marian devotions and theology; if they are denying the Real Presence, we must elevate and centralize the tabernacles in our churches; if they are preaching that the Bible is the only guide for religion, we must ensure that all Catholic Bibles have sufficient and orthodox notations; and if they are mocking the cults of the saints as ahistorical and unscriptural, we must carefully scrutinize every line of every hagiography to ensure its accuracy.

Unsurprisingly, these reactions often spiraled into overreactions, and the scrupulosity about the hagiographies grew so compulsive that in 1572 Pius V was inspired to strike the feasts and services of such a popular saint as Joachim from both the breviary and the calendar, due to fears of his ahistoricity! Working supposedly within the Spirit of the Council, books on the proper making of religious images abounded, as did the number of rules to which artists and hagiographers were suddenly subjected. Churchmen such as Federico Borromeo, Gabriele Paleotti, Andrea Gilio da Fabriano, and Johannes Molanus all had their say—and sway. These men condemned as sinful all hints of frivolity, luxury, rudeness, and scenes without clear scriptural foundation in sacred art. Strict precision was to be the standard from this time forward, and gone was the playful liveliness and inventiveness of the Medieval spirit.

Giotto: Sacrilegious!
A perfect example can be found in the older theme of the Swooning of the Virgin, which appeared as early as the twelfth century. This heartfelt depiction of the most terrible Sorrow of Mary was condemned heartlessly by the counter-reformers. Believing that the Theotokos should display only a restrained grief upon beholding the death of her Son, these iconoclasts argued that depictions of the Virgin collapsing or fainting at the foot of the Cross were immoral and degrading to the true honor of Mary, who was perfect in every way. Borromeo, Paleotti, Molanus, and even St. Peter Canisius joined forces in protecting the faithful from such a dangerous image.

Cranach the Elder: Wimpy!
Also condemned by Molanus were common depictions of the Final Judgment, which he thought were too merciful. He opined that,
We may not think that at that day the Virgin Mary will kneel for us before the Judge, baring her breast to intercede for sinners. Nor may we think that John the Baptist will fall upon his knees to beg mercy for mankind in the way the painters show. Rather, the blessed Virgin and St. John shall sit beside the supreme Judge as assessors. The mercy which is extended now will have no place then. There will only be strict justice at that day. (source)
Molanus’ Treatise on Sacred Images was severe and influential, wiping out centuries-worth of iconography and hagiography with single strokes. Some examples:

  • He denounced the Golden Legend, popular among clergy and laity alike, as ahistorical and completely untrustworthy. He named it a legend of lead.
  • He demanded that St. Peter be painted bald, much contrary to artistic tradition, and confusingly similar to St. Paul.
  • Moses must no longer be painted with horns but with rays of light emanating from his head, due to a mistranslation.
  • St. Luke’s reputation as an iconographer could not be clearly traced earlier than the sixth century, so it must be expunged.
  • St. George was no longer allowed to fight a dragon.
  • Protestants believed Jesus to have blood brothers from Mary, so St. James must not be painted to bear a striking resemblance to Our Lord.
  • The Unicorn Hunt, a symbol of the Annunciation, was too fanciful and confusing to be depicted.
  • The Death of the Virgin must never be portrayed, for she died without suffering, and certainly without some legendary reunion of the Twelve Apostles.
  • Last, but certainly not least, St. Joseph must be painted as a young man, someone virile enough to journey with his family to Egypt, to support them with manual labor, and to most virtuously restrain his carnal desires.

This new purification of artistic doctrine would only be halfway successful. Catholic piety is conservative by nature, and resents change imposed from above, especially when it intends to destroy something widely loved. Older iconographic traditions and hagiographies died hard, but some still survive in small pockets to this day. The newly approved artistic themes (exaltations of the Virgin, the glory of the papacy, the Eucharist, monastic mysticism, and saints performing charitable works) were too didactic for the laity to affectionately love. New devotions were created to fill these gaps, particularly those of the Christ Child, the Holy Family, St. Joseph, the Guardian Angels, and the Sacred Heart (which was a devotion already known, but more widely disseminated by the Counter Reformation). These new devotions lacked the imagination and delightful frivolity of earlier cults.

The commissioned painters of religious art, restrained in their choice of subject matter, channeled their creativity by way of effulgence and abundance during the Baroque period. This “doing more with less” approach would eventually sputter out into a “doing less with less” reality when the paucity of subject matter eventually took its toll. The final degradation into a culture of holy cards and plaster statues would be the impetus for the modern revolt of minimalistic and anti-symbolist religious art we are suffering from today.

Next time, I will examine the roots of later Josephite devotion in the Counter Reformation period, and show how his new blank slate was exploited as a propaganda tool by contemporary moralists.

(For further reading: Émile Mâle on the Death of Medieval Art.)

St. Joseph, collector of weird animals (everybody needs a hobby), pray for us!


  1. Fascinating, thank you. So not only were 'problem' texts revised but art itself.

  2. "St. George was no longer allowed to fight a dragon."
    As someone whose patron is St. George, I would have punched the progenitor of that one in the face.

    "The Death of the Virgin must never be portrayed, for she died without suffering, and certainly without some legendary reunion of the Twelve Apostles."
    I'd like to see someone try to tell some Byzantine Catholics that the 12 apostles never reunited for the Theotokos' death...

    1. I would like to see someone tell that to St. Dionysius!

  3. Also images of the LActating Virgin where prohibited, IINM. Mideival liturgical and paraliturgical life seems to have been quite more dynamic than what came out of the Counter-Reformation.

    1. The "Virgin Lactans" genre was permitted by Molanus, but he didn't like it, and broadly condemned nudity in sacred art. His frowning disapproval was strong enough that the genre disappeared even without an explicit demand that it be discontinued. (Cf.

  4. BTW, J. will you cover the two people responsible for changing St. Joseph from an old man to a virile one as well as other novel opinions, St. Bernardine of Siena and Jean de Charlier de Gerson?

    1. I will discuss them in passing, at least.