National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ

The Counter-Reformation

Like Caravaggio, all these artists were working at the time of the Counter-Reformation, a period when the Catholic Church set out to reform itself and strengthen its position in the face of the rise of Protestantism in northern Europe. The Council of Trent, which gathered to discuss reforms between 1545 and 1563, also discussed the role of religious images. On the one hand it condemned paintings that represented false doctrine or lascivious subject matter, fearing that they would mislead or corrupt the viewers. On the other hand, the council recognized the power of the painted image. More immediate in its impact than the spoken word, a painting was an effective tool for inspiring devotion and teaching doctrine. Paintings representing scenes from the lives of the saints also provided good moral exemplars on which viewers could model their own behavior. Artists were encouraged to represent religious subjects in an accessible way, with clarity and immediacy, in order to engage viewers directly with the sacred subject. In a similar way, devotional handbooks of the period encouraged readers to enter wholeheartedly into the stories of the scriptures. The most influential handbook was Saint Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, which advised readers to employ all five senses to help them imagine the experiences of saints and biblical characters, both emotionally and even physically. Images of the early saints proliferated, notably scenes of penitence, martyrdom, and mystical visions. These works reflect the fervent religious tenor of the time, promoting Christian ideals, condemning sinful ways, and reaffirming the efficacy of the Catholic saints.

Brochure Images | Exhibition Information
Lost and Found | The Taking of Christ | Caravaggio and His Followers
The Counter-Reformation | The Penitent Sinner | Scenes of Martyrdom
Dreams and Visions | Secular Subjects and Sinners