D17 Counter Reformation

Room D17 houses the Uffizi’s best examples of Counter-Reformation art (sometimes called Post-Tridentine art).

The Counter-Reformation is the name scholars gave to the period of Catholic resurgence and reform that began after repeated criticism launched by the newly forming Protestant faiths during the 16th and 17th centuries. It came to a head in 1545 when the Catholic Church began holding conferences, known as a Synod, to settle matters of doctrine and reform in light of the growing Protestant threat. This series of conferences, held from 1545 through 1563, became known as the Council of Trent (after the city in which it was held: Trento, Italy). During this Council, the Church reaffirmed its central doctrines, including the worship of the martyrs and transubstantiation, both of which were vehemently dismissed as superstition by the Protestants. Most importantly for our purposes here, the Council discussed the role of art in Catholic belief and in its churches.

Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: Council of Trent, Anonymous (1565), courtesy of the Met

The Council increased Roman Catholic Church commissions of grandiose works of art that were intended to inspire, and even intimidate, viewers. The thinking was that parishioners were less likely to convert to Protestantism if their churches were awe-inspiring (at the time, Protestants believed that religious artwork violated the First Commandment – thou shall not have any God but me – because artwork encouraged viewers to worship the images rather than God himself so their churches were generally whitewashed). Therefore much of the art produced during this era was highly stylized, focusing on a frozen moment of time, which was generally a moment of crises or high drama. The works plunged viewers into a narrative in media res, creating the feeling that the viewer has been sucked into the narrative and is watching it unfold in real time, as if he or she was part of the story.

Such art was also supposed to be instructive, demonstrating to the viewers – the majority of which would have been illiterate at the time – how to behave. To ensure the “uneducated” would receive the right message, the Council of Trent decreed that images should be simplified and not include any frivolous decorations that would perplex the viewer. Thus, the art should be straight-forward and clear.

A subject matter that appears over and over again in Counter-Reformation art is the Sacrifice of Isaac, a story in the Old Testament wherein God asks the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his only son, only to stop Abraham prior to the knife strike:

1. And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

2. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

3. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. ...

9. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

10. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

12. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

This story obviously provides a high moment of drama, as the new Counter-Reformation style demanded, but it also reaffirmed the Catholic tenant that to receive God’s grace, one must act. Indeed, one of the major disputes between Catholicism and Protestantism was whether an individual was required to perform good acts during his or her lifetime to earn his or her place in heaven. Catholics believed that an individual had to live a holy life to get to heaven (known as “Doctrine of Merit”) while Protestants believed an individual could get into heaven solely by believing in God. Thus, the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac provided Counter-Reformation artists with a high drama moment that demonstrates Abraham’s choice to live a holy live according to God’s instructions; key here is choice. Thus, this story firmly rejects the Protestant decree that a person may be saved by his or her faith alone. Instead, he or she must prove him or herself to God, as Abraham did when he offered up his only son.

One version of this story is the work by Jacopo Ligozzi (1596), which was produced at the tail end of mannerism, which explains Ligozzi’s use of twisted elongated figures.

As the Council of Trent demanded, this work centers on the main action of the story with no distractions or frivolous details included. Instead, the scene focuses on the main figures in the foreground, and a simple, undecorated landscape in the background. Some scholars believe that this piece was Ligozzi’s submission to a competition to paint a Sacrifice of Isaac for the Serragli chapel in San Marco, Florence, which he lost to Jacopo da Empoli. In fact, Empoli’s version is located right next to that of Ligozzi in this room.

Ligozzi, as well as Empoli, was inspired by the recently rediscovered Greek sculpture, known as the Belvedere Torso. The Belvedere Torso (so called due to its original placement in the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard) dates from the 1st century BC and owes much of its fame to Michelangelo’s admiration of it. In fact, during and after the sixteenth century, the Belvedere Torso became the model for nudes in multiple works, including Ligozzi’s Sacrifice of Isaac.

Allori Alessandro also painted a version of the Sacrifice of Isaac (1601), which is located in this room next to Ligozzi’s version.

Courtesy of Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93551354

Unlike the version by Ligozzi, this piece does not focus on a single moment in time, yet it can still be considered as a true example of the Counter-Reformation style because it tells the complete story, from left to right, and therefore fulfilled the Counter-Reformation mandate that art be instructive to the illiterate masses. The narrative starts at the far left-center where Abraham and Isaac leave their house, depicted in the upper left corner. Then, Allori depicts Isaac collecting the wood for the sacrificial fire, thinking that his father is preparing for an animal sacrifice. Next, the climax of the story is shown at the top right hand side, where Allori depicts the arrival of the angel who stops Abraham’s from killing his son. Finally, in the top right corner, the two give thanks to the life-saving angel.

Interesting, in this work, as compared to that of Ligozzi, is the intense focus on the landscape. Allori’s attention to the depiction of each flower/plant demonstrates his interest in Flemish and Venetian art, in which color and detail are deemed to be more important than the design of the work.

Allori’s other work in this room is known as the Portrait of Ortensia de’Bardi di Montauto (1559). Ortensia was the wife of Tommaso de Bardi, a member of the Accademia Fiorentina, a literary and philosophical academy in Florence.

Ortensia directly engages with the viewer in a direct break with Allori’s teacher, Anglo Bronzino, whose portraits are characterized by the sitter’s icy, untouchable demeanors. Allori’s move away from Bronzino’s style is possibly due to the new Tridentine rules, which demanded works of art demonstrate more candor. The new rules stated that art should not recall graven images or be sources of adulation; instead, portraits were supposed to be moral examples of figures that occupy the earthly plane.

Tommaso’s membership is alluded to in the chair’s intricate carvings, which depict a river god, the personification of the River Arno (the river that runs through Florence), a lion (also a symbol of Florence), and a laurel tree that has split bilaterally, the new offshoot of which is known as the broncone and was adopted by the Medici as a heraldic device to symbolize the family’s resilience despite multiple exiles and deaths of its members. As Vasari explained, the branch symbolized “the house of Medici, once dead but now in the person of Duke Alessandro able to produce offshoots for ever.” (As trans. by Mary Hollingsworth in The Family Medici: The Hidden History of the Medici Dynasty).

On either side of the river god carving are busts of the Emperor Augustus, an allusion to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Cosimo I de’Medici. Charles V appropriated much of Emperor Augustus’ branding, including the astrological sign Capricorn and the motto festina lente. Cosimo I, in turn, appropriated the same branding from Charles V.

In Ortensia’s hand is what is known as a cameo, an object that has been carved to produce a raised relief that could be worn as jewelry. Typically the relief was done in a contrasting color to the background. Here, the cameo is framed in gold with a black background and white foreground. Portraits with cameos became popular around this time:

In the cameo held by Ortensia, we can see a young figure holding a wand (known as a caduceus) and winged helmet, attributes of the Greek god Hermes. The caduceus was often a symbol of good governance, and therefore it was likely an allusion to the Medici family. Hermes was also the Greek god of commerce and could be a symbol of the Bardi family itself because it, like the Medici family, was a banking family. Therefore, even though the portrait does not inspire adulation of the sitter itself, it subtly, yet explicitly celebrates the Medici family.

Speaking of the Medici family, their court painter, Giorgio Vasari, is represented in this room in two pieces. The first, is known as the Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (1541). This relatively small piece is actually a replica of Vasari’s altarpiece commissioned for the Chapel of the Altoviti family in the Church of the Santissimi Apostoli.

This work is supposed to visually display the concept of the Immaculate Conception. A common misconception is that the Immaculate Conception is related to Mary’s conception of Christ via the Holy Spirit, but it actually is a reference to St. Anne’s conception of Mary, who, according to the Immaculate Conception doctrine, was without sin since the moment of her conception and was therefore a worthy vessel for Christ. (Although starting to be generally accepted at this time, the doctrine did not become official church doctrine until Pope Pius IX issued the bull known as the Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854).

In the work, the Virgin is bounded by sections of a scroll, which reads “Quod Eva tristis abstulit, tu redis almo germine” translated as “What the sad Eve took away, you return with a tender bud,” verses from the hymn O Gloriosa Domina. (O Heaven’s Glorious Mistress), which allude to the Virgin’s role as the “new Eve” who entered the world free from Original Sin. Vasari takes his iconography from Genesis (Gen 3.15) and Revelation (Rev 12.1), depicting Adam and Eve, nude as they would have been in the Garden of Eden, at the bottom of the work, chained to the Tree of Knowledge, demonstrating their enslavement to the taint of Original Sin. Mary, on the other hand, hovers in the upper portion of the painting, demonstrating her place in the heavenly sphere. Meanwhile the earthly sphere located beneath Mary is filled with Fathers of the Church and saints, who are also bound to the tree based on the varying levels of absolution. For instance, John the Baptist and Samuel are bound to the tree by only one arm because both were blessed in the womb, while the seven others (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and David) are all tied together by their wrists.

Vasari also painted a similarly small work known as The Prophet Elisha, which, like the Allegory, discussed above, is a copy of a larger work. This work was commissioned by the Basilica of San Pietro in Perugia to decorate the refectory, and therefore it centers on the theme of food.

By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93700594

This picture depicts the moment from the Bible where Elisha transforms poisonous gourds into a wholesome meal that would feed the sons of the prophets during a famine (KJV 2 Kings Chapter 4).

38. And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets.

39. And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not.

40. So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof.

41. But he said, Then bring meal. And he cast it into the pot; and he said, Pour out for the people, that they may eat. And there was no harm in the pot.

42. And there came a man from Baalshalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof. And he said, Give unto the people, that they may eat.

43. And his servitor said, What, should I set this before an hundred men? He said again, Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the LORD, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof.

44. So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof, according to the word of the LORD.

In addition to this commission, Vasari was commissioned for two other miraculous feedings: Christ at Cana and St. Benedict. (The three full size paintings now hang in the Sacramental Chapel of the Abbey Church). This small work demonstrates Vasari’s skill for adapting his larger works for private devotions.

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