Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 4, 2001
John W. O’Malley Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era Harvard University Press, 2000. 230 pp. Cloth (0674000870)
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In this fascinating book, John W. O’Malley, the eminent church historian, analyzes scholarship on Roman Catholicism from about 1517 until the French Revolution in order to problematize the “names,” or terms, we use for religious developments of that time. As he notes, although the term “Reformation” is generally accepted for Protestantism of the era, consensus is lacking on what to term coeval Catholicism (1). O’Malley examines the biases revealed by the competing names for Catholicism—such as “Counter-Reformation,” “Catholic Reformation,” and “Catholic Restoration”—and suggests that we use a new term instead: “early modern Catholicism.” In making this suggestion, O’Malley aims to “help us view ‘the Catholic side’ with new eyes, so that we become aware of a breadth, depth, and complexity that earlier historians frequently missed or, more often, forced into an inappropriate or inadequate interpretative framework—by inadequate naming” (9-10). O’Malley argues compellingly that a new term is needed to encompass both “official” religion, including ecclesiology, politics, and doctrine—that is, the topics of traditional “church history” and additional aspects of Catholic culture that are of considerable interest today, such issues as devotions, confraternities, the roles of women and the laity, and global Catholicism.

O’Malley’s book is not about art, but it has important implications for art historians investigating Catholic art from the early sixteenth century until the late eighteenth century in any part of the world. Above all, it has the potential to stimulate an awareness among art historians of past and present controversies about historical terminology, thus encouraging them to use it more critically. After summarizing the contents of O’Malley’s book, I will treat the importance for art historians of his concern with naming Catholicism.

The book consists of an Introduction, which lays out O’Malley’s aims as discussed above, followed by four chapters and a Conclusion. Chapter 1 starts with a discussion of the word “reform” in pre-Reformation Christianity, followed by a pithy examination of the uses of terms such as “reform churches,” “Reformation,” “Counter-Reformation,” and “Catholic Reformation” from their inception through the early twentieth century. O’Malley’s discussion of Werner Weisbach’s Der Barock als Kunst der Gegenreformation (The Baroque as Art of the Counter-Reformation, 1921) and Benedetto Croce’s Storia dell’età barocca in Italia (History of the Baroque Age in Italy, 1929), which had a great impact on attitudes toward “Baroque” art, will be of special interest to art historians.

In Chapter 2, O’Malley treats in detail Hubert Jedin (1900-80), the German church historian whose pioneering work, especially the Geschichte des Konzils von Trient (History of the Council of Trent, vols. I and II, 1947-57), inspired considerable interest in Catholicism as a scholarly topic. Jedin believed that two aspects of Catholicism coexisted during the early modern era. According to him, the “Catholic Reformation” began in the fifteenth century and constituted a reform of the Church from within, while the “Counter-Reformation” was a defense of the Church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Art historians will be struck by Jedin’s identification of the Jesuits, the papacy, and the Council of Trent as the three main agents of the Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation. This view, which privileges official religion over the daily lived experiences of a heterogeneous Catholic population, still pervades art history textbooks.

The topic of Chapter 3 is “England and Italy in Jedin’s Wake.” In it, O’Malley discusses the trailblazing work of Henry Outram Evennett, Jedin’s English contemporary, whose book The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation (published posthumously in 1968) centered on the history of piety rather than institutional history. As to Italy, where Jedin lived for many years, the Italian intelligentsia had harbored strong anti-Catholic feelings since the time of the antimodern Pope Pius IX (1846-78). O’Malley examines the impact of the resulting “lay” versus “Catholic” cultures on the selection of research topics and on the naming debate. He highlights, for example, the contributions of the Communist Delio Cantimori, the dean of “lay” scholarship in the 1940s, whose research focused on Italian heretics, and Gabriele de Rosa, the chief Italian exponent of the social history of Christianity beginning around 1970.

In Chapter 4, “France, Germany, and Beyond,” O’Malley considers the impact of the Annales school, which, starting in the 1920s, shifted attention away from “politics-centered, event-centered, great-men-centered history” (94) toward the study of collective mentalities as well as sermons, devotional books, and practices of piety. O’Malley also treats a range of contemporary scholars, including Jean Delumeau in France, John Bossy in England, and Wolfgang Reinhard and Heinz Schilling in Germany. Reinhard and Schilling are particularly important for having promoted use of the term “Confessional Age” to refer to the period following the Augsburg Confession of 1530, which, in their view, was fundamentally concerned with confessional identity.

In the Conclusion, O’Malley emphasizes our need to choose critically from the abundance of existing terms, all of which have merits and drawbacks. He argues that “early modern Catholicism” can be used as an umbrella term for the period as a whole because it embraces a broad range of perspectives, such as official religion, “history from below,” the roles of women and non-Westerners, and so forth. He suggests that other terms, such as “Counter-Reformation” and “Catholic Reformation,” can be employed to designate various currents within early modern Catholicism itself. Although O’Malley recognizes that the “early modern” part of his term could be regarded as Eurocentric, he employs the term for worldwide Catholicism.

O’Malley’s book originated as the D’Arcy Lectures at Campion Hall, Oxford University in 1993, and it retains the delightful freshness and colloquial style of the lectures themselves. The book’s specialized subject makes it appropriate reading for graduate students in art history and for professionals, who, in the classroom, can pass on O’Malley’s salient points to undergraduates. O’Malley’s problematizing of historical terms should strike a chord with art historians, for we have devoted considerable time in recent years to assessing the validity of our own stylistic period terms. For art historians working on sixteenth- through eighteenth-century Catholic imagery, O’Malley’s subject deserves to become familiar territory. The naming problems he addresses are important for the discipline of art history, as I will indicate with a brief discussion of the use of historical terminology in two well-known art history texts.

There is currently no up-to-date textbook devoted to Italian Baroque art, but Rudolf Wittkower’s 1958 book Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600 to 1750 has been such a perennial favorite that it was reissued in 1999. Wittkower regarded the art produced in the 1570s and 1580s as art of the “Catholic Restoration,” encouraged by “reformer popes.” But throughout his book, Wittkower used “Counter-Reformation” as a blanket term for the period 1600 to 1750, merely modifying the term with such words as “austere” and “militant” where he saw fit. In their introduction to the 1999 reprint edition, Joseph Connors and Jennifer Montagu characterized changes in the field of Italian Baroque art history since the publication of Wittkower’s book in 1958. Connors and Montagu did not mention debates on the historical terminology—they simply state that “Recent research, abundant and confident, treats the art of the Counter-Reformation popes with far more sympathy [than had Wittkower]….Propaganda has seemed a positive quality to a [new] generation that enjoys explicating complex ideologies” (xiii). Wittkower had used the term “Counter-Reformation” because he emphasized religious art commissioned by popes and cardinals, which he regarded as essentially propagandistic and anti-Protestant. Other aspects of Catholic art were of less interest to him and scholars of his generation. Connors and Montagu were asked merely to produce an introduction to a reprint; had they updated Wittkower’s historical and artistic terminology, they would have had to rework his entire text.

In her book After Raphael: Painting in Central Italy in the Sixteenth Century (1999), which is addressed to advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and specialists, Marcia Hall analyzes the myriad styles of Central Italian art from about 1520 to 1600. Hall, who is thoroughly grounded in religious history, states, “I have retained the term Counter-Reformation, not in order to insist upon its character as a reaction to Protestantism, but because it is the only widely used term that can characterize the sacred art of the whole period [1520-1600] with all its diversity” (xiv). Thus, Hall used “Counter-Reformation” in much the way that O’Malley wants us to use “early modern Catholicism.”

I personally prefer the term “early modern Catholicism” because it seems less prejudicial and more inclusive than “Counter-Reformation.” Nevertheless, “early modern Catholicism” has a great disadvantage when used in an art-historical context: “early modern” coincides with many different stylistic periods in art. Thus, for example, whereas early modern Catholicism could encompass the art of Fra Angelico, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Bernini, the Counter-Reformation clearly excludes the two earlier artists. Only time will tell whether or not O’Malley’s term “early modern Catholicism” will gain widespread use. In the meantime, his excellent book on naming is sure to stimulate discussion among both historians and art historians.

Pamela M. Jones
Field Editor for Early Modern Southern European Art, caa.reviews; Professor of Art, College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts Boston

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.