The Counter-Reformation and the position of Catholicism in the seventeenth century

The Counter-Reformation (1545-1648) was the reform movement of the Catholic Church that started in the sixteenth century. The Counter-Reformation was partially a response to the Protestant Reformation that was started by Luther in 1517. It was also a reaction to the problems within the Catholic church. There is much debate about the phrase 'Counter-Reformation', and whether the term Catholic Reformation would be a better expression. The Counter-Reformation was not only a response to the Protestantism, it was more the only a reaction to the protestant ideals. It also included the revitalizing of the Catholic Church itself, which had already started before Luther and the Protestant Reformation.[1]

1. Council of Trent
2. Counter-Reformation and Baroque art

Council of Trent

The Council of Trent played an important part in determining the outcome of the Counter-Reformation. It started in 1545 and ended eighteen years later in 1563. There were three separate sessions, that lasted four and a half years in total. The Council of Trent caused the definitive split between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Council of Trent was a reactive move by the pope to the Protestantism of Luther, that criticized the Catholicism. The Catholic faith and the pope had become too concerned with wealth and personal power and the worship of God was not the most important issue anymore[2]. Critics of the Catholic Church were not heard in Rome[3].

The Council of Trent had three goals: removing the religious schism, reforming Christianity and to bring peace to Christians, and recapturing holy places in Palestine. Removing the religious schism was the most important goal for the pope. Many disputes between the Catholics and the Protestants were not resolved in the Council of Trent[4]. These disagreements caused the definitive split between the Catholics and the Protestants. Eventually, reformation came in the Catholic church. However, the change was small, as especially the strengths of the Catholic Church were highlighted.

Counter-Reformation and Baroque art

The Counter-Reformation coincided with the Baroque era. Baroque art is meant to inspire awe into its audience, it appealed directly to emotion. Therefore the Roman Catholic Church made extensive use of Baroque art to strengthen the Catholic faith. The appeal to emotions was a standard part of the strategy of the Counter-Reformation. Only through emotions and not via difficult concepts could a larger audience be reached. Furthermore, the common churchgoer would understand what was intended by the sculptures and painting, because these artworks appealed to their emotions instead of to difficult theological concepts. So the result was that the Catholic Church used Baroque art to appeal to this emotions and mobilize the Catholics. The Baldachin of Saint Peter is a great example of this.


  1. D.M. Luebke, The counter-reformation: the essential readings (Blackwell) 1999, pp. 21-22
  2. R. Po-Chia Hsia, The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770 (Cambridge university press), 2005, p. 11
  3. D.M. Luebke, The counter-reformation: the essential readings (Blackwell) 1999, pp. 33-35
  4., retrieved on 1-12-2014