In the sixteenth century and seventeenth centuries, the Catholic Church was engaged in an ideological war with (among others) Martin Luther, the young professor and preacher from the North. As his teachings spread across Europe, the Church needed a way to combat his teachings. This was done through internal reforms (which had really been an ongoing process since the fifteenth century for other reasons), refining and standardizing the Catechism (at the Council of Trent in 1563), and, of course, art. In Baroque Rome, commissioning and creating art was an extremely important – if not the most important – undertaking. Faced with a growing Protestant population, the Church needed to reassert Rome as the central, glorious, pious, pure, and mighty power that it was for the Catholic world. Rome achieved this through art, for how else were the laity to understand proper Catholic doctrine if not through seeing?
One dangerous difference between the Church’s doctrine and Luther’s was their respective teaching on heaven. To the Church, believers would enter heaven after purgatory, after a second chance at redemption and absolution. Heaven was a celestial place that could not be fathomed. It existed in the hope of life everlasting. And, most importantly, heaven itself and the thought of it were sources of undying joy.
How does this differ from Luther? Luther, ever bold in his criticisms of the Church, wrote in one of his books of sermons:
“But those who die according to the doctrines of the pope, depending on the intercession of saints and the merit of other men, will not die a happy death; for he has not the company which God has appointed and sent unto him, that is, he is without the true Word and Absolution. And though he has Baptism, he does not know how to derive comfort from it. This calamity the devil has brought about by popery, and now tries it anew with the fanatics. He cannot endure the Word; it is very offensive to him.”
In this one small paragraph, Luther undermines a large portion of Catholic belief: heaven is not a place that “others” (saints) can help believers earn their way into. Luther expresses sorrow for those abiding by the teachings of the Pope, for although they are Christians, they misunderstand heaven and will die unhappy. Why? Because these Christians don’t understand one of the key tenets of the Gospel, one that Christ discussed frequently on earth: the “the kingdom of heaven.” This kingdom, heaven itself, is a place that can and should be found and experienced here on earth:
“Therefore whenever you hear of the kingdom of heaven, you should not merely gaze up to heaven, but look around you upon the earth and seek it among the people, in the whole world, where the Gospel is taught and Christ is believed in, and the Sacraments are properly used. … Learn to understand then, in the first place, that the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus and is to be found wherever the Word and faith are. In this kingdom we have life in hope and are, according to the Word and faith, cleansed from all sin and delivered from death and hell.”
Luther once again distinguishes his doctrine from Catholic doctrine. As I briefly mentioned, for the Church, heaven was the hope and wellspring of happiness for the laity. If heaven was to be experienced here on earth, there would be no need for intercession of the saints nor would there be anything majestic to look forward to, to hope for, in the impoverished and difficult lives that the majority of the populous experienced in Renaissance and Baroque Italy.
For the poor and devout populous, churches functioned as escapes from the often dreary existences that many parishioners led outside these sacred walls. Heavenly art became glorious and overwhelming. Laity would enter their churches, look up to the ceiling, and be reminded of the majestic celestial home that awaited them. Artists employed trompe l’oeil – tricks of the eye – to give viewers the sense that their church ceiling, dome, or cupola was literally opening up to reveal the heavens. The heavenly realm became a key proponent of worshippers’ experience as they entered and ambulated churches. Churches functioned as a visual reminders of doctrine, salvation, and heroic stories told in the Scriptures and handed down through generations. Upon leaving these sacred spaces and re-entering the difficulty, noise, and poverty of the outside world, the laity were meant to have hopeful hearts and renewed spirits, marveling at and meditating on what was displayed in the art that they were surrounded by.
Meditating on the heavens was encouraged for the joy that everlasting life brought. Heaven itself was a place of happiness, as was the mere thought of heaven. Life was meant to continue forever for the believer, and they could rest in the hope of heaven – that the sorrows of this world would fall by the wayside, seemingly insignificant to the glory that awaited them. Life would continue in joy:
“Amongst the blessings which we instinctively desire, life is, confessedly, esteemed one of the greatest: by it principally, when we say ‘life everlasting,’ do we express the happiness of the just. If then, during this short and chequered period of our existence, which is subject to so many and such various vicissitudes, that it may be called death rather than life, there is nothing to which we so fondly cling, nothing which we love so dearly as life; with what ardour of soul, with what earnestness of purpose, should we not seek that eternal happiness, which, without alloy of any sort, presents to us the pure and unmixed enjoyment of every good? … [The] glory of the blessed shall be without measure, and their solid joys and pleasures without number. The mind is incapable of comprehending or conceiving the greatness of this glory: it can be known only by its fruition, that is, only by entering into the joy of the Lord, and thus satisfying fully the desires of the human heart. …”
How could artists portray joy and joy within a place that is beyond comprehension? Further complicating their task is that the body of heaven itself is not just incomprehensible, but so is God:
“Dearly beloved! We are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when he shall appear, we shall be like to him: because we shall see him, as he is. These words inform us that the happiness of heaven consists of two things: to see God such as he is in his own nature and substance, and to be made like unto him.”
Artists tackled the problem of the celestial realm and celestial bodies in wondrous ways. Andrea Pozzo and the rest of the Dynamic Baroque fresco painters such as Pietro da Cortona represented heaven as a light-filled, “airy,” space, surrounded by sky, populated with robed saints. Trompe l’oeil allowed these artists to give the viewer the illusion that heaven was descending on, or could be seen through, the ceiling of their churches. Heaven wasn’t burdened with heavy palettes, shrouded in darkness. It was clearly visible to all, and the majesty of the sight above enlists the most powerful feeling of glee,
“that thus excited by the recollection of divine things we may be the more intensely inflamed to adore and love God himself.”
For El Greco, heaven was an ethereal realm punctured with light and filled with ghostly figures. El Greco relied on light, abstraction and liquid-like movement across the composition to portray even the slightest notion of heaven, enabling the viewer’s imagination to soar with the thought of what heaven might be like. (You can read more about heaven meeting earth in El Greco’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz here.)
For the Venetian master Tintoretto, heaven was not just painted; conceptualizing it was the highlight of his career, painting Paradise on massive scale canvas, the likes of which have not been matched. In fact, when just a concept of the painting was revealed,
“all the world thought that heavenly happiness had indeed been disclosed … and the painter was unaminously praised on every side.”
Tintoretto’s masterpiece is overwhelming in scale and subject. Rightfully so, for it represents more than heaven. Being in the Sala Maggiore Consiglio, where the Doge and his tribune would gather, the painting is also a symbol of the divine right and blessedness of the Venetian Republic. 1 Paradise replaced a Glorification of the Virgin by Guariento that hung in the same spot until it was destroyed by a fire in 1577. Paradise focuses on Christ, the giver of light. The heavens literally revolve around him: the multitude of angelic figures and saints overwhelm the canvas in a circle around the source of light, Christ, and the glorified Mary. F.P.B. Osmaston wrote of the composition:
“It is, in short, the apotheosis of Christian aspiration, centered in one focus, and finding in that centre its fountain-head of Light and Life. … Tintoretto passed, as his great composition grew more articulate in his mind, from a composition which was simply a paradise in the material heavens to one that had become entirely unrelated to terrestrial associations. The shadow of Earth disappears, the clouds virtually disappear, and what is yet more significant from the idealist’s standpoint, the Almighty Father disappears also. Here we have a deliberate departure from the conceptions of previous painters and an attempt to approach the sublime conceptions of Dante. We have left us the circle of Light which inevitably reminds us of the circular Light which Dante describes as making the Creator visible to the creature that is able to receive peace in the vision. And it is this Light as it lives in the Son, emanating from its lucent source in the Father and in union with the Holy Spirit, which descends from circle to circle and is the illuminating source of the entire picture.” (Emphasis mine.)
Tintoretto achieved something remarkable with this painting, not only in technical skill, but in theological significance. His Paradise, commands the artistic attention of the Sala and the eyes of all who enter. In the gilded and ornate Sala, viewers think not of the watery world that waits for them outside; they think of the glorious heavens that wait for them above. (For a detailed and excellent examination of Tintoretto’s Paradise, please click through to read The Paradise of Tintoretto by F.P.B. Osmaston.)
I hope this brief exploration has explained how heaven was perceived and represented in sixteenth and seventeenth century Catholic Italy, and why the Church made the artistic choices they did in that time. Art was a way to visually represent newly standardized Catholic doctrine, as well as a way to bring a sense of peace, awe, and wonder to all viewers.
“All that remains to be done is that God remove the partition which still separates us, that is, that we die, then all will be heaven and salvation…” – Martin Luther
1Thomas Worthen, “Tintoretto’s Paintings for the Banco del Sacramento in S. Margherita,” The Art Bulletin , Vol. 78, No. 4 (Dec., 1996), pp. 707-732.