The Early Modern World, C. 1300–1600

Sixteenth-Century European Art and Architecture

How did the Reformation affect art during and after the sixteenth century?

The Protestant Reformation had an enormous impact on all of Europe, forever changing the political power of the Catholic Church and shifting allegiances among European countries according to religion. The Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses, a declaration of protest against the Catholic Church, specifically with regards to the church’s selling of indulgences, and questioned the authority of the pope. Luther even mentions the Pope’s extravagant spending on the new St. Peter’s Basilica project as a point of contention. Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Pope, but those who shared his feelings vowed to break away from the Church, resulting in violence that lasted decades. Those Christians who broke away from the Catholic church were called “Protestants.”

During the sixteenth century, Europe was divided among countries that supported Catholicism, and those that supported the Protestants. The Catholic countries included: Italy, Spain France, Flanders, and Belgium. The Protestant countries were: England, Switzerland, Germany, and the northern Netherlands.

Protestant artists and patrons approached art differently than their Catholic counterparts. In Protestant countries, religious subjects were less in demand and most patrons were wealthy individuals who favored portraits, scenes depicting moral proverbs, still lifes, and eventually landscapes. In response to the Reformation, the Catholic church launched the Counter-Reformation in an effort to revive Catholic faith. Catholic patrons commissioned Christian art that emphasized reverence of the Trinity and of the Virgin Mary, as well as demonstrated restraint in the use of nudity and pagan subject matter.


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