For several centuries the Catholic Church played a central, decisive role in the development of European art and architecture. The dominance of Catholicism is evident even if, allowing for the Reformation, you broaden the term Catholic slightly to Christian churches. Any typical history of western art acknowledges that fact.
It’s also true that any typical history reflects what might be described as the gradual secularisation of art and architecture, a process that paralleled scientific and philosophical inquiry, and political and technological changes, and the slow erosion of the church’s role in social and political life. By this reading, we are led to a point where, by early modernity, the church has lost its connection to artistic greatness and the religious art produced lapses into relative insignificance.
Suzanna Ivanič’s beautifully presented book Catholica is refreshing and innovative in that it flips this narrative. Rather than being an account of past glories and subsequent decline, her book evidences no inclination to explore that familiar historical terrain, or trace that trajectory. It’s not even a history as such, though it does encompass a mass of detailed and informative historical material. Rather it’s a kind of guide book, in the sense of resembling one of those dense, packed volumes you might acquire before visiting an unfamiliar city. And Catholica turns out to be a stranger place than you might think.
Imagery and opulent display played essential roles throughout, in the form of didactic biblical narratives and dazzlingly ornate objects
Several of the highlights of European art and architecture do inevitably feature prominently. They include one of the best known of all – thanks to Dan Brown – Leonardo’s the Last Supper, as well as Velázquez’s superb paintings of The Crucified Christ and The Immaculate Conception and Vermeer’s Allegory of the Catholic Faith (painted when the Dutch Republic, Ivanič points out, had driven Catholics underground). Giotto’s 24-panel fresco masterpiece of the life of Christ gets a double-page spread, as does Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. But Catholica is not just a collection of high culture highlights by any measure, and thank goodness. There are plenty of those already.
Ivanič is an academic based in Kent, and her research interest in “lived religion and material and visual culture in central Europe” accurately encapsulates the nature of her book, albeit it has a wider geographical reach: as Catholicism expanded not just throughout Europe, but , from the 16th century, to Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Imagery and opulent display played essential roles throughout, in the form of didactic biblical narratives and dazzlingly ornate objects. The most precious and expensive materials and the finest artists and craftspeople were enlisted to “glorify God”. The visual culture of Catholicism, though, extends far beyond Julius II commissioning Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
It’s hardly surprising that Catholic visual culture continues to imbue and influence the contemporary world on myriad levels, from haute couture to pop.
It’s not just cathedrals, she points out; it extends “to tiny, personal devotional objects worn as accessories or used in the home”. She finds room for, and carefully, the vast wealth of ex-voto objects, personal thank-you offerings to saints, in the form of intriguing explanatory paintings or objects fashioned in wax, paper, metal or wood; holy picture cards of various kinds; books of hours; reliquaries; rosary beads; medals and much more.
The emergence of Catholic visual culture is almost paradoxical. The Second Commandment forbade the worship of idols. That might have put paid to the use of religious imagery but, as far back as the beginning of the seventh century, Pope Gregory I (“also known as St Gregory the Great”), formulated an ingenious and pragmatic defense of the image as an essential didactic instrument: “For what writing conveys to those who can read, a picture shows to the ignorant … a picture is like a lesson for the people.” Still, Ivanič notes, the whole issue remained contentious. Artists had constantly to “tread the line between devotional object and idol”.
In retrospect, you’d have to think, Gregory’s argument was a stroke of genius in terms of corporate strategy. The combination of pictorial instruction and conspicuous display was a winner. It’s hardly surprising, as Ivanič emphasises throughout, that Catholic visual culture continues to imbue and influence the contemporary world on myriad levels, from haute couture to pop.
If you are already to some extent at home in Catholica – if you were raised as a Catholic, say – you may be familiar with a great deal of the territory she explores. Her “decoding” of Leonardo’s Last Supper, for example, reveals that … Jesus is flanked by the 12 apostles. Other decodings are rather more informative, to be fair. In anchoring her concerns so tightly to what is Catholic, she can appear indifferent to related issues, such as colonialism. Without doubt, Catholic visual culture flourished in Mexico but, in the Museum of Cultures of Oaxaca several years back, it struck me forcefully that the richness and subtlety of pre-Hispanic culture there gave way, with the arrival of the Spanish, to something close to a Catholic theme park culture.