After the Protestant Reformation, religious wars exploded across Europe. Struggling to restore a unite of faith and love of the Eucharist and other sacraments, Catholic theologians and clergy turned to artists to help them reaffirm Catholic doctrine and catechize a largely illiterate population.
In her latest book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in the Counter-Reformation, Elizabeth Lev shares how an edgy Caravaggio, graceful Guido Reni, technically perfect Carracci, colorful Barocci, and passionate Gentileschi affirmed the beauty of the Catholic Church through art after the Reformation.
Lev’s book is bursting with gorgeous prints, incredible dialogue, interesting facts, and thought-provoking ideas. The first part of her book is dedicated to the depiction of sacraments in art.
Have you been looking for some art pieces to inspire your love of the Eucharist? Check out these four incredible pieces of Catholic Restoration-era and learn about the subtle, beautiful Eucharistic themes in them!
1. Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Andrea del Sarto
Running from the plague, Andrea del Sarto decided to stay in a monastery. In 1523, he painted a panel for the Church of Saint Peter in Luco. Surrounded by disease and the victims of the plague, Andrea found peace in the monastery and wanted to express his feelings through art.
“Andrea del Sarto became one of the first painters off the mark to provide artistic clarity to Catholic teachings on the Eucharist,” writes Lev. In his work, Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Andrea’s contemporaries commented that Christ seemed to be a real corpse.
In the piece, Christ is propped up on a slab of stone, eluding to the Eucharistic altar at church. But that isn’t the only Eucharistic imagery in the painting.
“At the exact point where the chalice would be lifted before the altarpiece, Andrea del Sarto painted a golden paten, with the host resting on the edge,” Lev explains. “The extraordinary capabilities of the painter allowed him to render the Host almost translucent, even as Jesus’ body appears to bear down it. The beautiful rendition of transubstantiation was well suited to the visually sophisticated faithful of the Medici court.”
2. Institution of the Eucharist by Federico Barocci
Inspired by Andrea del Sarto’s use of color, Barocci was another incredible artist of the Catholic Restoration period. He hailed from Urbino, the hometown of the famous Raphael. In 1603, Pope Clement VIII personally summoned Barocci to paint his parents’ burial chapel in teh church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
“The composition is formed out of three triangles, the apex of each at the head of Christ,” explains Lev. “Pope Clement repeatedly weighted in on the painter’s sketches, insisting that he make the Eucharist more evident. Barocci depicted a simple yet compelling ‘recipe’ for the Eucharist: matter plus prayers become the Body and Blood of Christ.”
3. Entombment by Caravaggio
Eucharistic imagery catapulted Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to fame. He favored naturalism in his paintings, as emphasized in Entombment by Mary’s aged expression, the dirty feet of Christ, and the emotional reactions of the women gathered.
“Again this darkness, supernatural light draws immediate attention to the gesticulating female figure at the summit of the composition,” Lev writes. “Whereas compositions usually lift the gaze upward, the extended hand of Caravaggio’s female figure draws the focus towards the base of the canvas, where lies the altar. Following the arrangement of the figures, the viewer is almost compelled to bow physically before the host.”
But the real brilliance in Caravaggio’s piece is only understood when a priest stands before the painting in the Mass. At the moment of consecration, the priest raises the consecrated host and completes the picture.
“Building on Michelangelo’s Pieta, Caravaggio added a greater urgency to participate in the sacrament, as if the entire group in the painting were waiting for the faithful to step up and accept the offering made for mankind,” Lev writes.
4. Last Communion of St. Jerome by Zampieri
In 1612, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini commissioned Domenico Zampieri to paint The Last Communion of St. Jerome for a high altar.
St. Jerome, nearing his death, is surrounded by a crowd of people. “Rising above the turbulent sea of humanity stands a priest, holding the Host moments after the Consecration,” writes Lev. “The deep bows of the priest, the deacon, and the sub-deacon evoke the solemn dignity of the Lord’s presence amid the chaotic suffering of life.”
Near death, Jerome raises his eyes as he looks at the Eucharist. In the right corner of the painting, four angels represent the approaching passage of the saint from this life to the next.
Unfortunately, three of these four paintings were looted by Napoleon in the the late 1700s. Although they were returned in 1815, they were mostly displayed away from the altars they were intended to be placed behind. Their messages are now “muted by clinical assessments of style and form.” Only Barocci’s canvas was returned to it’s original setting.
Want to know more about how art saved the faith after the Protestant Reformation? Pick up a copy of Elizabeth Lev’s latest book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith, at your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.