The Reformation and Wars of Religion--4

The Counter Reformation

[ Wecome ] [ Reformation ] [ English Reformation ] [ Last Tudors ] [ Counter Reformation ] [ Helpful Maps ]


The Reformation and Wars of Religion raged for a generation before Church leaders addressed their religious and political challenges. Indeed, the first Reformation Popes (Leo X and Clement VII--both from the Medici family,) as indicated earlier, at first joined the enemies of Charles V. Finally, Paul III convoked the Council of Trent in 1545 to:
reunite Christendom
reform abuses,
restate doctrine,
strengthen the faith,
wipe out heresy (Palmer, at al 93, 95).

Paul III (Alessandro Farnese) was an unlikely religious reformer: he benefited throughout the early days of his career from the abusive system that had so outraged Martin Luther. One of his first acts was to appoint a commission to identify abuses and recomment reforms. It was almost too late! Upon meeting Loyola, Paul supported the " of a new order of paramilitary zealots who swore total allegiance and obedience to him alone irresistible" (Goldstones 206).

< >
In the painting of the aged Pope (above) Titian depicts him with his two grandsons,
Ottavio and Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.
He set in motion a process to regenerate the Catholic Church.

Paul III, despite the secular extravagance of his court and his pride in his sons and grandsons, initiated long overdue reforms. He urged Francis I and Charles V to halt their devastating wars and turn as one against Suleyman; he appointed men of virtue and faith to the College of Cardinals; he convinced Michelangelo to complete The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; he sponsored the formation new orders of devotion, notably the Ursuline Sisters. Most important, Paul confirmed Ignatius Loyola's Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, to educate the faithful and to wage war on the enemies of the True Faith. He attempted to call a conference a decade earlier than he did but was thwarted in these endeavors by the politics of the day. He was almost eighty when the Council of Trent met for its first session in 1545.

image source < >

The Council of Trent convened in 1545 to respond to the religious revolution unleashed by Luther, Calvin and other Protestants. One of its goals was a thorough-going reform of abuses, those practices that had ignited Luther's crusade in 1517. Princes, dukes, and kings who remained stauchly Catholic, such as Charles V and Sigismund of Poland, welcomed the assembly, hoping that it was not too late. The Council of Trent spearheaded the Catholic or Counter Reformation: it reformed abuses, restated doctrine, strengthened the faith. It did not heal the schism. Although Paul III convened the Council, he did not live to see its completion of its tasks. Paul IV(1555-1559) and Pius IV (1559-1565)--both protégés of Paul III--carried on and completed his work.

< >
Palmer, et al. 93-94

Pius IV presided over the final sessions of the Council of Trent and issued the Tridentine Creed that remained the accepted expression of Catholic doctrine and was reaffirmed at Leo XIII's 1870 Vatican Council. Its precepts included: sole right of the Church to interpret scripture; affirmation of the seven sacraments, purgatory, veneration of saints and relics, transubstantiation; fidelity and submission to the Pope; condemnation of heresy and heretics.

< >
The driving force of the Catholic, Counter Reformation was Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Like Luther, he experienced a religious epiphany that led him to dedicate his life to the Virgin Mary. At the age of thirty-three he began his preparation for the priesthood, studying at universities in Alcala, Salamanca, and Paris. In 1538, he celebrated his first mass in Rome; shortly he and his companions appealed to Pope Paul III to approve their new order; the Pope authorized the Company/Society of Jesus in 1540; it grew to encompass 8000 members during Loyola's lifetime. The activities of the Jesuits focused on education: they founded schools and colleges all over Catholic Europe, and as far away as the New World, China, and Japan. Matteo Ricci went as a Jesuit missionary to China, Francis Xavier to Japan. Many Jesuits attended the Council of Trent as special papal advisors. Loyola's extraordinary work and dramatic successes during the Counter Reformation led to his beatification in 1609 and his canonization in 1622.

< >
Palmer, et al. 95-96

The work of the Reforming Popes and the Jesuits led to renewed Catholic strength and energy. Many lapsed Catholics returned to the faith of their fathers and went to war to defend it. In doctrine, the Council of Trent reiterated the litany of the medieval Church: no salvation outside the Church; no salvation without the sacraments. It reaffirmed all seven sacraments with the mirace of transubstantiation as a core belief. It pronounced one official version of the Bible, the Vulgate, in Latin, with an approved interpretation by the Church. It reaffirmed the veneration of saints, the cult of the Virgin, the efficacy of images, relics and pilgrimmages. It proclaimed, in contradiction to Luther and Calvin, that faith plus good works were required for salvation. The Roman Catholic Church was enriched and strengthened by the Counter Reformation.


An example of the renewed vigor of Catholicism could be seen in the explosion of religious art of the Baroque during and after the Counter Reformation. Movement, light, and emotion characterized painting, sculpture, and architecture, particularly religious architecture. Bernini (1598-1680,) who created The Ecstasy of St. Theresa to your left, "adopted a style that was passionate and full of emotional and psychological energy" (Harden). St. Theresa of Avila was a Carmelite nun, a major figure, along with Loyola, who sparked devotion during the Spanish-led Counter Reformation. St. Theresa saw visions, heard voices, and experienced a piercing pain in her side, which she identified as "the fire-tipped dart of divine love" (Tansey and Kleiner 826). Bernini enjoyed the patronage of Counter Reformation popes who recognized his talent and the way his art captured the essence of the Church Triumphant.

< >


Pope Urban VIII, the great adversary of Galileo in the 17th century, commissioned Bernini to add to the decoration of St. Peter's. Bernini began the stunningly beautiful and immensely awe-inspiring Baldacchino over the Altar in 1624, to "mark and memorialize the tomb of St. Peter." (Tansey and Kleiner 823) It, like The Ecstasy of St Theresa above, provides eloquent testimony to the Catholic Church's triumphal militancy in the 17th century. This was the era of the great missionary movements all over the world, as well as the founding of orders that operated more closely to home such as the Ursulines and the Order of St. Vincent de Paul.

< >--site has flown
You can find other images of Baldacchino with a Google search
Baldachin is Italian for canopy


Another painter of the Baroque, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640,) was a devout Roman Catholic who infused his many religious paintings with the emotional intensity of the Counter-Reformation. In Italy he studied the works of the great masters, Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio. Here Rubens' The Miracles of Francis Xavier shows the 16th century Jesuit missionary to Japan performing miracles, such as raising a child from the dead, restoring a blind man's vision. St. Francis Xavier was canonized in the same ceremony as St. Ignatius Loyola. Rubens, himself a sincere believer, epitomized the "dramatic, intense subjects, rich textures, and exaggerated lighting" of Baroque art, so favored by the Counter Reformation (Cumming 46). He, and other Baroque artists, appealed to the senses and emotions (Cumming 46).



Cumming, Robert. Annotated Art. London: Dorling Kindersley, Ltd., 1995.

Goldstones, Lawrence and Nancy. Out of the Flames. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.

Harden, M. "Gianlorenzo Bernini." The Artchive. Online available.
< >

"Pius IV." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.
< >

Tansey, Richard and Fred Kleiner. Gardner's Art through the Ages, vol. ii, 10th edition.
Fort Worth, et al.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.