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The Demystification of Religion

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by Peter Barnett

One of the fundamental shifts which marks the movement out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance was the humanization of religion, clearly seen in the changes in religious imagery from the 12th to the 17th century.  It is seen first in the cult of the Virgin that swept Europe during the late Middle Ages, replacing images of terrible Christ in judgement with images of the Madonna and Child.  The Virgin Mary was seen as an intercessor between humankind and her son, a human face with a sympathetic ear.  Thus, by the time of the flowering of Renaissance humanism, a vast change in attitudes was already well under way.


There is no way that two images can give you the richness of the evolution in religious imagery.  In choosing the two images above, I am leaving out the classic statements of the High Renaissance, such as Raphael’s perfection of the Madonna and Child image. Instead I have chosen an early renaissance work with its roots still in the mystery of the middles ages, and a 17th century work by Caravaggio which brings the changes to their logical conclusion.

The “Annunciation” by Simone Martini is a fascinating compromise between the traditional medieval religious panel and the emerging sensibility.  Done in the relatively conservation Sienese school, at a time when more experimental work was beginning to appear in Florence and elsewhere, it is clearly still aiming at a precious religious icon, with the splendor and mystery of its golden ground and fine workmanship.  It is not ready to sacrifice this otherworldly splendor for the greater realism of an illusionistic backdrop, as seen in contemporary Florentine works.  However, there is something new happening in the treatment of the figures.  The recoiling Virgin, visibly overwhelmed by the angel’s message, shows a new psychological interest that is clearly humanistic in origin.

The Caravaggio is a distant descendant of the evolution of attitudes seen emerging in Simone Martini’s work.  Caravaggio’s religious works, done at a time when the Catholic church was trying to compete with the inroads of the new Reformation churches, are aggressively ordinary and lacking in mystery.  In the “Angel Appearing to St. Matthew”, the apostle is a peasant without learning, struggling with the need to record his gospel.  Caravaggio explains the “miracle” of his eloquence by having the angel “feed him his lines”.  In another version of the same subject, Caravaggio has the angel literally guiding Matthew’s hand as he writes.

It is interesting that the Catholic church quickly decided that it could not compete with the reformation churches on their own terms and returned to ritual and magnificence as a way of holding on to the faithful.  The influence of Caravaggio’s vision of religion is seen most strongly in the art of protestant countries such as the Netherlands, particularly in the religious work of Rembrandt.


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