Monday 28 October 2013

Book Review: The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church

This book review is dedicated to the memory of my good friend, Hasan Niyazi. I just wish it had been a book on Raphael, about whom who he knew so much. Thank you for your help my dear...

With every new papal regime the Catholic Church undergoes a subtle change with attempts to re-engage and invigorate the hearts and minds of the faithful. For me, it seems that every fresh endeavour is nothing more than a manifestation of the ripple effect of sixteenth-century reformation Rome, where all means were employed to win back those tempted by the inflammatory protestant sects. A combination of enthusiastic new saints to venerate and an immersive theatrical experience to rival any playhouse would have given the average Catholic quite a jolt, if not a complete sensory overload.

Editors Marcia Hall and Tracy E Cooper bring together a collection of essays which explore ideas of sensuousness in the Catholic reformation church. Each author is a specialist in late sixteenth century religious subjects and well known for scholarly articles and/or monographs. The introduction makes it quite clear that the editors have defined ‘“sensuous” as related to, or derived from the senses, usually the senses involved in aesthetic enjoyment’ (p1). Some essays make reference to sexual pleasure, however they stress that is not their primary focus.

Religious aesthetic enjoyment and wonder seems to be a central part of the Catholic faith. If you are told and accept as part of your faith that the art in church isn't idolatrous, then you are free to be moved, inspired and educated by your devotion to images of Jesus, Mary or any other saint. The Church had formulated its position on images during the iconoclasm debates in the eighth or ninth centuries and throughout Trent, it was clear that the Church would not be taking the Protestant whitewashing route. They clarified and codified the doctrinal and devotional purposes of sacred images, and in response to this, as Marcia Hall said in her ‘Sacred Image’ book, ‘[artists] learned how to create images that were beautiful and sensuous without being erotic’ or idolatrous.

What seems most valuable here is the breadth of topics covered. Although all of the essays are tied together to a greater or lesser extent by the important political, religious and social upheavals of the time, each contribution brings something new to the conversation. I found Bette Talvacchi’s discussions about the differing public attitudes to the nude in religious, civic and classical art illuminating. We see David as the pinnacle of as renaissance sculpture, however when it was moved under the cover of darkness to the Piazza Signoria, it was pelted with stones. There are many reasons for this but large scale civic nudity was more of an issue than religious nudity. However she unfortunately doesn’t stray into the reformation and focuses on the period before Trent.

Probably the most complicated and involved of all the essays is the one on the rhetoric of decorum. A difficult, slippery, ever changing topic, Robert W Gaston opens by stressing how postmodern art has essentially swept all decorum aside, therefore it is hard to appreciate how it was perceived and understood outside our own world view. However its impact on art in the past means that it is still very much a relevant topic for art historians. His ideas regarding the fundamental importance of the role of the image in comparison to ‘the book’ are not as developed as I would've liked. He admits the whole topic of decorum needs to be fruitfully explored elsewhere, so the point of this essay is to get the reader thinking about the ideas and sources he mentions.

Although the first half of the volume is relevant, it is the last five essays that really seem to grasp the essence of the sensuous. It is the absence of the sensual that is embraced in Richard Schofield’s piece. His insight into the curiously austere – verging on the Calvinistic - reformer Carlo Borromeo and the lengths he would go to in order to prevent any form of interaction between the sexes is fascinating. Adding internal architectural features such as nave partitions and enclosed confessionals seems to go against the prevailing reformist ideas regarding decluttering the church space. Even more sadly is his notion that people should be parted in death; in St Maria Podone, tombs for men and women were kept apart. His strict austerity is contrasted beautifully with Constanza Barbieri’s essay on the emotional and mystical St Philip Neri – you can almost feel the protagonists within each bristling with impatience with each other. The passion of the visual to excite and inspire the spiritual is absolutely central to the idea of the sensual in the catholic reformation church and the images in St Philip’s church are perfect examples of this.

The key essay in the entire book is the one by Jeffrey Chipps Smith. He focuses on Christoph Schwarz’s Mary Altarpiece for the Jesuit College in Munich. The Jesuits provide a wealth of material for art historians of this period, offering perfect Catholic examples of architecture, propaganda, confraternities, and here we see their art and music being discussed. This is the first time that music appears in this book, which I find quite surprising for a collection of material on the sensuous. Is there anything more sensual, powerful and uplifting than ethereal voices emerging from a candle lit choir? The Jesuits recognised the power of music to ‘stimulate emotional memory’ and they commissioned influential composer Orlando di Lasso to write music for their Marian devotions. He is now recognised as one of the most important religious and secular composers of his time and he readily incorporated post-Tridentine musical requirements with the emotional needs of the faithful.

For me personally the book could not have come out at a better time. Grappling with unfamiliar religious concepts has occupied my time recently and this book has solidified many ideas with which I was struggling. Essays are useful because they are brief enough to read and understand quickly, yet are focused enough to provide real insight into a broad range of areas. An excellent biography is provided for further reading. My only gripe is the lack of musical references which I feel is an essential part of reformation catholic sensuousness. I think an opportunity was lost to say something about touch; what mysteries do relics hold and when the faithful queue to kiss, hold and be cured by sacred objects, what is going on in their mind? How has this changed since this exciting and important period in the church? On the whole, I would say this book is an excellent summation of current art historical research into the Catholic Church in Reformation Europe.

Marcia Hall and Tracy E Cooper, eds., The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church, Cambridge University Press, July 2013

For more information about Marcia Hall, there is an interview with her on the fabulous Three Pipe Problem blog.

This book review was done for my good friend Hasan Niyazi, who went by the twitter name of @3pipenet. It was never published. I want to write more about his friendship, how our inspiring our conversations were and what contribution he made to the emerging area of digital art history but this isn't the time or the place.


  1. Thank you for the touching dedication to our dear friend, Hasan. He will be missed!

  2. Thank you. Utterly stunned at our loss.

  3. Looks like a great book! I recently taught a class on Counter-Reformation art last year; I wish this book had existed back then!

    Also, thank you for dedicating to review to Hasan. He will truly be missed.

  4. Clareangela, it's only when I began reading your review that I realised about Hasan. My God! I'm shocked... What a loss both to art history and the blogging world...

  5. Sounds great. I was recommended this book, so I'll probably get around to it sometime.

    David Packwood

  6. I'm interested in anything Marcia Hall has a hand in. What a shame your review wasn't published on Three Pipe Problem.

  7. Oh well least I could publish it here. I may not have the same reputation or gravitas as Hasan did, but a few people have seen it :)