16th-Century Spanish Art & the Catholic Counter-Reformation Video

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  • 0:01 Art & the Sixteenth Century
  • 1:05 The Counter-Reformation
  • 3:35 Spanish Art & the…
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How did Spain become the center of the Catholic faith and how is this related to art? Find out as you explore the dynamic 16th century and test your understanding with a brief quiz in this lesson.

Art and the 16th Century

A painting

Look at this painting! Look at it! Man, the 16th century must have been a crazy time. Obviously, there was some serious stuff going on. I mean, just look at this! You know what I mean? Okay, maybe some context is in order. The 16th century was a pretty crazy time for Europe. Kingdoms were beginning to transition into nations, empires were expanding, new technologies and discoveries were being made, and two of the most contentious issues in human history were the hottest topics.

I'm talking, of course, about politics and religion, which back in the 16th century were essentially inseparable. And, at the center of this crazy hodgepodge of war, learning, expansion, and religious fervor was art. If art is a mirror of society, reflecting the values, attitudes, and thoughts of the people who made it, then we can tell that people in this time must have been crazy. And in few places was this more prevalent than in Spain. You'll see what I mean.

The Counter-Reformation

Okay, let's start right off with the most contentious, most hotly debated issue of the 16th century. In 1517, a German priest named Martin Luther published a list of complaints against the Catholic Church called the Ninety-Five Theses. In so doing, he managed to kick off the Protestant Reformation, the creation of the Protestant branch of Christianity and division from Catholicism. Protestantism spread really quickly, which, of course, made the Catholic Church pretty upset. Well, more than upset.

At the Council of Trent, a gathering of religious leaders from 1545-1563, the Catholic Church reaffirmed all of its spiritual practices, formally declared Protestants to be heretics with whom there could be no compromising, and kicked off a period of intense Catholic revival that involved the persecution of non-Catholics known as the Counter-Reformation. The result included a new emphasis on preaching and ministry, as well as the creation of the Inquisition to hunt down, torture, and at times execute heretics.

So, Reformation, Counter-Reformation. See how that works? So, where does Spain fit into this? Well, in 1519, a man named Charles V was named Holy Roman Emperor, which essentially meant that he was crowned by the pope to rule Europe's largest Catholic empire. Charles V was also the king of, you guessed it, the Netherlands! What, you thought I was going to say Spain? Well, that's true, too. Born in the Netherlands, Charles inherited the Spanish throne from his grandparents, and then ruled the Holy Roman Empire from Spain.

As the leader of the largest strictly Catholic empire in Europe, Charles V became charged with protecting the Catholic faith. Now, Italy at this time was not getting along very well with the Catholic Church. The Renaissance in Italy involved the revival of Classical, Roman art, which often meant pagan themes and the use of nude figures, which the Church really cracked down on after 1517. Spain hadn't fully embraced the Renaissance, and their art was still strictly within Catholic guidelines. So, between the rise of Charles V and his heirs as the defenders of the Catholic faith and the feud between religious and artistic cultures in Italy, Spain in the 16th century became the effective leader of the Counter-Reformation.

Spanish Art and the Counter-Reformation

Now, there are a lot of things we could talk about as far as Spain embracing its role in the Counter-Reformation, defending Catholicism against heresy. But we're going to focus on art. Why? Well, like I said, Spain kind of missed the Renaissance, since they didn't really exist until 1492. So, they were pretty eager to catch up and dedicated themselves to art in the 16th century. To Europe at this time, art equaled education, economic and political strength, and modern government. So, it was very respected, and Spanish art became a focal point of the Counter-Reformation.

Counter-Reformation art emphasized the emotional and personal religious experience.
Painting by Luis de Morales

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