Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2014
Marcia B. Hall and Tracy E. Cooper, eds. The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 322 pp.; 76 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9781107013230)

The subject of this collection of eleven essays (plus two introductions) is exceedingly broad: in the words of co-editor Marcia B. Hall, it is “the promotion of the sensuous as part of religious experience in the Roman Catholic Church of the early modern period” (1). Broadening the subject even more is her immediate qualification that “here ‘sensuous’ refers to the dictionary definition of the term: of, related to, or derived from the senses, usually the senses involved in aesthetic enjoyment” (1). In other words, this is not merely the "sensual"—that is, the sexually titillating—whose problematic presence in early modern religious art kept certain celibate ecclesiastics in such a state of agitation in the wake of the Council of Trent. Therefore, for weal or for woe, very little is theoretically excluded from the scope of this important but eclectic volume, for there is very little, if indeed any at all, of external religious experience that in some way does not depend on, or relate to, the senses.

Accordingly, the subjects of the essays range from Robert W. Gaston’s “How Words Control Images: The Rhetoric of Decorum in Counter-Reformation Italy” (a survey of the many connotations of the term “decorum,” all the way from the ancient Greeks to twentieth-century critics), to Richard Scofield’s “Carlo Borromeo and the Dangers of Lay Women in Church” (about the prelate’s fanatical campaign against the temptations created by the mere presence of females in sacred spaces), to Peter M. Lukehart’s “The Counter-Reform and the Reform of Artists’ Education in Rome Between Guild and Academy” (with much discussion of Federico Zuccaro’s thoughts on the question), to Meredith J. Gill’s “‘Until Shadows Disperse’: Augustine’s Twilight" (asking—and answering in the negative—whether Augustine’s “complex philosophy of light” holds the key to understanding the symbolic valence of the “storied tenebrism of early modern painting” (252)), and, finally, to the concluding essay, Amy Powell’s “A Machine for Souls: Allegory Before and After Trent” (about the gradual, post-Tridentine transformation of the medieval Good Friday Deposition, or Sepulcher, rite).

In addition to the common theme of the role of the senses, a further unifying characteristic of the collection, according to the dust jacket (and more obliquely in Hall’s introduction), is a “reassessment of the Counter-Reformation in art and architectural history and theory in Italy and the North.” Though, to be sure, each essay makes a worthy contribution to scholarship, I would not characterize that contribution in all—or even most—cases as an outright “reassessment.” Instead, many of the essays serve as case studies that provide further detailed illustration, in a variety of contexts, of a view of Counter-Reformation art and related ecclesiastical praxis that has already been established for the past twenty years or more. For instance, Jeffrey Chipps Smith’s “Rebuilding Faith Through Art: Christoph Schwarz’s Mary Altarpiece for the Jesuit College in Munich” is a thorough reconstruction of a major commission that confirms what has been discussed in many other earlier case studies, including those of Chipps Smith himself. Likewise, Costanza Barbieri’s essay, “‘To Be in Heaven’: St. Philip Neri Between Aesthetic Emotion and Mystical Ecstasy,” overturns no earlier assumptions or conclusions, even though it is wonderfully informative on so many fronts. In fact, I commend it for emphasizing again that the Jesuits were not the only players in town as far as the exploitation of art for devotion’s sake. Neri and his Oratorians were extremely important, as were other religious communities. The current popularity of Jesuit studies in early modern research, though producing so many fruitful results, is at the same time having the unfortunate consequence of neglecting the fuller picture. (Let me here plea for greater attention to, especially, the industrious, omnipresent but less vaingloriously self-publicizing Capuchin and Discalced Carmelite orders.)

The main features of the “reassessment” of Counter-Reformation art and the church’s relationship to it, first undertaken, as mentioned, at least twenty years ago, should be by now known to all specialists of the period. In any event, they are ably summarized by Hall’s lengthy historiographical introduction and John W. O’Malley’s opening essay on the genesis of the Council of Trent’s decree on images and its immediate aftermath (“Trent, Sacred Images, and Catholics’ Senses of the Sensuous”). These essays by two of the most eminent scholars of the period are alone worth the price of the volume and should be obligatory reading for anyone working on any aspect of the Counter-Reformation that intersects with the visual arts in any way. Tracy E. Cooper’s shorter introductory essay, “On the Sensuous: Recent Counter-Reformation Research,” is also a bibliographical survey, focusing instead on the larger and more theoretical question of “sensuous anthropology”: “Interest in the senses as both a method and subject of study has been in the forefront of a number of disciplines since the mid-1980s,” she reminds readers (21).

In addition to the aforementioned works by Hall, O’Malley, and Barbieri, the essays that personally engaged me the most were those relating specifically to the crucial, and still-not-fully explored (let alone resolved), problem of early modern Catholic art, that is, the cohabitation of the unabashedly sensual (not merely sensuous) and the spiritual. Those who have spent any time reading the sermons and confessional manuals of both the medieval and early modern periods know their consistent and vociferously insistent teaching about lust: since the Fall of Adam and Eve, lust has resided in the human heart as an unquenchable spark that could, easily and in an instant, break out into a major conflagration consuming all saintly resistance and overwhelming the beneficial effects of years of devout self-discipline on the part of even the most chaste of Christians. Yet, after Trent, the church chose to play with this “fire” for, as O’Malley observes, it “issued no pronouncements and pursued no consistent or broadly enforced policy regarding music, painting, sculpture, or architecture” (29), thereby overruling, in effect, the loud voices of the Paleottis and Ottonellis who would have extinguished the fire completely through strict, universally applicable, formal prohibitions. How did the church decide what was acceptably “sensual” and what was not? (The difference in our eyes today is not always self evident.) How did it resolve the glaring contradiction between what it preached and what it practiced on the subject? Was it even aware of its own self-contradiction?

A thorough, well-informed, interdisciplinary monograph on the problem of the troubling side-by-side coexistence of the sensual and the spiritual in early modern religious art is still wanting, but four of the essays in this collection contribute greatly to understanding better the intimate but often hard-to-grasp forma mentis or “mentality” of the people involved in producing, policing, theorizing about, or simply viewing this art, by taking a close, fresh look at primary sources, whether printed, painted, or sculpted: Bette Talvacchia’s “The World Made Flesh: Spiritual Subjects and Carnal Depictions in Renaissance Art,” Maria H. Loh’s "‘La custodia degli occhi’: Discipline and Desire in Post-Tridentine Italian Art,” Opher Mansour’s “Censure and Censorship in Rome, ca. 1600: The Visitation of Clement VIII and the Visual Arts” (even though, to be sure, Clement’s concerns for decorum in art went beyond the specific issue of sensuality, as the detailed case studies in Mansour’s article demonstrate), and Stuart Lingo’s “Raffaelle Borghini and the Corpus of Florentine Art in an Age of Reform.” (By the way, on the subject of primary sources, I would like to add here an important study not included in the bibliography: Joseph Connors, “Chi era Ottonelli?” in Pietro da Cortona. Atti del convegno internazionale Roma-Firenze 12–15 novembre 1997, ed., Christoph Luitpold Frommel and Sebastian Schütze, Rome: Electa, 1998, 29–35, which will necessarily change the way one reads the much-discussed 1652 Trattato della pittura e scultura by Gian Domenico Ottonelli and Pietro da Cortona.) Even readers who are not personally engaged by the specific problem of sensuality will find much of interest and of profit in these four authors’ scrutiny of the texts and artworks in question. And all readers will find in each of the essays of this wide-reaching volume something of interest and profit, shedding much light and dispersing many a shadow on a wide variety of historical and theoretical questions.

Franco Mormando
Professor of Italian, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Boston College

Please send comments about this review to