The Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation with the Counter-Reformation. Catholic Counter-Reformation Art was designed to communicate the distinctive tenets of the Catholic liturgy and faith so as to strengthen the popularity of Catholicism. It was launched at the same time as Mannerist painting was taking hold in Italy - a highly expressive style that used distortion for effect, as exemplified in Parmigianino's picture Madonna with the Long Neck (1535, Uffizi). Concerned that Catholic art was attaching too much importance to decorative qualities, and not enough to religious values - thus negating its educational effects on churchgoers - the Catholic authorities decreed that Biblical art should be be direct and compelling in its narrative presentation, which itself should be accurate rather than fanciful, and should above all encourage piety. Nudity, and other inappropriate imagery was banned. For an example of a pious Mannerist artsist who adapted his style in line with the Church's teaching, see: Federico Barocci (1526-1612).

The Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation to fight for the hearts and minds of those Christians who had 'gone over' to Protestantism. To this end, the Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu) - founded by S. Ignatius Loyola and commonly known as the Jesuits - was formally established in 1540 by Pope Paul III, as an important teaching body and missionary order. Jesuit art was suitably inspirational. First, the architect Giacomo Barozzi (Vignola) was commissioned to design a church for the new order - The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus (Il Gesu) (1568-73) - for which the Baroque painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli painted the fabulous trompe l'oeil ceiling frescoes. Another Jesuit church, the San Ignazio, was the setting for what is arguably the greatest example of quadratura painting ever created - The Triumph and Apotheosis of St Ignatius of Loyola (1691-4) by Andrea Pozzo. There exists no greater exemplar of Counter-Reformation painting, and no better example of the differences between Protestant and Catholic art.


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With the fall of Rome and the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Western Europe entered the Dark Ages (400-800), a period of political uncertainty and cultural stagnation. The only possible unifying force was Christianity, but with Rome sacked and the Roman Church under pressure, its influence was limited. Only in Ireland, a country cut off from the European mainland, did Christianity flourish. In fact, Irish Monastic art and culture was critical in keeping alive the ideas of classical antiquity, as well as the message of the Bible. Early Medieval art in Ireland was dominated by the making of illuminated manuscripts, notably the Cathach of St. Columba (c.610), the Book of Durrow (c.650-80), the Lichfield Gospels (c.730), the Echternach Gospels (690-715), the Lindisfarne Gospels (698) and the stunning Book of Kells (800). Because of the country's ongoing tradition of Celtic art, most Irish manuscript illustrators used abstract Celtic designs, rather than figurative imagery preferred by Continental artists. Christian Wall Art
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