Passion For Art

Humanism and Clericism Of The 16th Century

Humanism and Clericism Of The 16th Century

The two paintings, The conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio, and lady writing a letter with her maid by Vermeer, reflect the religious conflict between the Protestant and catholic cultures of 16th century Europe.
Before we take a look at why they reflect the religious dispute, first we must know some background on what caused it. Humanism and Clericism. During the renaissance humanism stood for the intellectual attitudes of the ancient world paired with the wide acceptance of the existence of God. Humanists were interested in aesthetics, saw the usefulness of historic knowledge, and were convinced that man’s main duty in life, was to enjoy his life soberly and to be active in his community. It was believed that those who studied the past would be able to lead better, more responsible lives. On the contrary, there is something called Clericism, where people believed God reigned supreme to all and that humanism remained useless because the mere man was worth so little.
The statue of David best describes the ongoing influence of Protestant and catholic controversy on the visual arts. Michelangelo uses David, a character from the Old Testament as his subject matter. The story goes that David, a mere man throws a stone with a slingshot at the mighty giant Goliath and kills him. (Your basic good vs. Evil.) Michelangelo uses Clericism in this piece by incorporating a story from the bible, and on the other hand also incorporates his humanism influence into the work of art by placing himself as the character David; Giving us the impression that even the mere man can overcome his problems with knowledge of how to defeat them, instead of continually relying on the almighty to solve your problems for you. David shows the two conflicting views in a magnificent statue form.
Another Magnificent piece of artwork is Leonardo’s sketch of a man within a circle. Vitruvius adding a quote to the piece later on, “man in his perfect proportions, is the centre of all things”, suggests that this piece was influenced by humanism. We say this because the piece portrays a mere man as the centre instead of what the Catholics may have placed, that which god would be in the centre of the circle. Catholics, Priests, and church officials alike would not approve of this irrational idea and the sketch itself.
A Christian priest & scholar, Martin Luther, was a man of thought, as well as a man of action. He was the beginning of the reform within the church, which many people wanted. Instead of changing the views within the church & cleanse it, the reform brought about a split. The protesters formed another branch of the Catholic Church which was known as the protestant church. The artistic consequence of this reformation caused many artists to become unemployed because their main source of income, the patronage from the church, was no longer available in protestant countries. Instead of being commissioned to create artwork to decorate the church or church officials’ home, artists were left to the street to find alternate ways of obtaining another source of income.
When we talk about what helped cause this sudden revolution in both the Catholic Church and in art, we are also able to look upon a man named Galileo. Galileo discovered that the earth revolved around the sun and not visa versa. The Catholic church believed this was heresy, a belief in conflict with religious beliefs, because it was the idea that God did not control the planets and the stars, but in fact science over through those naive religious beliefs.
Catholic’s effect on art (Clericism) was that of the Baroque era. Baroque art attempted to bring people back to the churches and re-establish the power of Rome. Mainly found in southern European countries such as the Mediterranean, it was a style widely used as propaganda. This style of art, like many other retains specific attributes that would classify a painting as a ‘Baroque’ style of art, such as; a direct sense of motion; strong contrast of light and dark; heightened emotion; the blurring of distinction between illusion and reality; and the breaking down of the barrier between the painting and the viewer. All these traits can be found in the painting the conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio (1601). Measuring a grand 90 1/2 x 70 in., this painting really catches you attention and is somewhat ‘in your face’. It contains a picture of St. Peter falling off his horse, with hands outstretched towards the light of God. All outside areas are nearly pitch black, giving us our contrast between good and evil (light and Dark.)
When looking at the paintings of the protestant countries, with the influence of humanism, we can see in their art that light is used to symbolize ‘the light of reason’, shadows are kept to a minimum; and the light makes everything clear and understandable. Instead of glorifying the church as the subject matter like baroque does, subject’s chosen for painters dealt more with the average person and their daily life. This is exactly what Vermeer used when choosing his own subject matter. In one particular painting, lady writing a letter with her maid (1670), the 71 x 59in composition moves the eyes towards the women from both sides. From the right we see a chair and a rich oriental rug covering the table; the chair invites us in, while the table is a barrier. From the left the sequence is a dark curtain, the window, and an exquisitely rendered translucent curtain that seems to be painted from light itself. The mistress is dressed in a starched blouse, rendered with sharp polygons of white, and pearl jewellery. On the floor in front of the table is a seal and sealing wax for completing the letter, and also a crumpled sheet, which may be an initial version of the letter she is writing, or it may be the letter to which she is responding.
The large painting on the wall behind the women is The Finding of Moses. This indicates that somebody must be rescued and cherished, but it is not clear who that is. On the window that the maid looks at can be seen the emblem for Temperance.
When we compare both works from Vermeer and Caravaggio we first must look at the content of the 2 paintings. Vermeer portrays a lady sitting down at table writing a letter, while her maid looks out a window placed within the room. This painting depicts a point in time of this lady’s life and has no direct religious content. Whereas Caravaggio uses  St. Paul, (a religious figure), falling off a horse, outstretching his arms to the light of the lord. This gives us an amazing religious impact of ‘if you don’t convert back, you will be forgotten, and therefore will not be helped in desperate times of need’. Caravaggio uses the Baroque style of art to show clericism’s view on the society & since being a incredibly large piece, would in a indirect way try to get people to follow in catholic fellowship; and would be directed to those who fell away from the catholic view. The naturalism style Vermeer uses is intended for all people in its minute size, and is used to make you think and interpret your own beliefs of what the church really is meant for.
16th century Europe’s dispute between protestant and catholic beliefs greatly effected the art world as they knew it. Humanism & Clericism divided not only countries and cultures but also the artists of the century forever. Split between baroque and naturalism, viewers were left with the pressure of whether or not to rebel, and take the path leading to the protestant church or not.


February 24, 2010 - Posted by | Articles | , , , , , ,

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