The Council of Trent: nothing unusual, nothing profane, nothing dishonest.

When Lutheranism became a reality, the Catholic Church had to react. Pope Paul III called the Council of Trent in 1543 supported by the Emperor Charles V of Germany, I of Spain. In its XXV session, the last one held, images were analyzed and also how they should be made, resulting in a change in the History of Art. Hence, making the difference between image and idol appeared to be essential, but if we speak about differences, the biggest one was established through a triple negation: from then onwards “nothing unusual, nothing profane, and nothing dishonest” was to be represented. In addition, in the opinion of the joint authorship of The Realisms of the Baroque, book used as reference to elaborate this article, “the path was opened, at least in theory, for a very innovative “avant-garde” current in the artistic scene” (Caba, García, Soriano, Parras, & Pérez, 2018, p. 37).

Nothing profane

When we speak of nothing profane, we mean that the image can not lie. The example found in our bedside book is in the Museo del Prado: The Descent from the Cross, by Rogier Van der Weyden. In this masterpiece of the XV century, Mary is represented fainting. The author uses this device to tell us that Mary is suffering as much as her son did and, moreover, giving an action to a painting that had never been seen before… Well, that was over. After the Council of Trent, painting Mary fainting is discouraged because she stood firmly according to the Bible. 

Nothing unusual

Have you seen those memes based on medieval images? Well, in the Council of Trent they also were aware. And of course, they did not like it. So they decided from then on, that there was no room for weird images in our collections. The example found in our book is an image of the Trinity as a body, but with three heads. Confusing, to say the least. 

Nothing dishonest

It is known that Caesar’s wife must not just be honorable, but must appear to be so. Something similar happened with images: they did not only have to be sincere and “normal”, but convenient too. This is why images should have, above all, decorum. Which is what the Council refers to when speaking of dishonesty. That was how nudity was forbidden among other things. In fact, nudity and “everything that contained a provocative beauty that would corrupt the devotional and pedagogical purpose of the image” (Caba, García, Soriano, Parras, & Pérez, 2018, p. 41). 

The consequences of the Council of Trent

El Greco 

Did El Greco suffer when being told how to do things? Well… We can imagine he paid no mind to these indications. In any case, he really was a censored man. In the Escorial he was commissioned to paint The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, which Sigüenza said, as collected by Urquízar y Cámara: “(…) And after this (like our mute said in the way he spoke) the Saints must be painted in a way in which they do not take away the will to pray” (p. 287)

This is also why the episode of breastfeeding in Egypt was not told. Going back to The Realisms of the Baroque, these indications -at times prohibitions- did not stop “El Greco, demonstrating the freedom of thought that characterizes him, from painting the scene for the Hospital of Tavera” (p. 42).

Carracci y Caravaggio 

Three years before the Council came to and and, in 1560, Annibale Carracci was born in Bologna (Italy). Eleven years later, Michelangelo Merisi was born, commonly known as Il Caravaggio. Carracci was the most revered painter of his time by the Academy, sticking to the changes imposed by the Council, but adapting to the times he lived in. In the Museo del Prado we can find The Assumption of the Virgin, dated around 1587. Even though there are certain features of Naturalism, Mary is idealized, conveniently decorous

Meanwhile, Caravaggio painted The Death of the Virgin. As collected by Cámara and Carriò-Invernizzi, Giovanni Baglione said that Caravaggio “had painted the Virgin with little decorum, bloated and with her legs exposed” (p. 36). Which is all the more reason why the Carmelites rejected his work, that was later put on sale. It was Rubens who told the Duke of Mantua to acquire it. We can imagine him saying: “Surely it will be revalued in the future”. 

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Caba, V. S., García, P. M.-B., Soriano, A. S., Parras, A. P., & Pérez, J. P. (2018). Los realismos en el arte barroco. Madrid: Editorial Universitaria Ramón Areces.

Herrera, A. U., & Muñoz, A. C. (2017). Renacimiento. Madrid: Editorial Universitaria Ramón de Areces.

Muñoz, A. C., & Carrió-Invernizzi, D. (2016). Historia del Arte de los Siglos XVII y XVIII. Redes y circulación de modelos artísticos. Madrid: Editorial Universitaria Ramón Areces.

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