Religion : Overview

      In response to Protestant criticisms of the Catholic cult of saints, the last session of the Council of Trent led to a commission that asserted the veneration of saints in the Catholic Church. The seventeenth century in general was one that saw centralization in the regulation of sainthood. The Church emphasized the role of saints as intermediary figures while maintaining that Christ was the single “redeemer and savior” of mankind. During the Counter-Reformation, saints were used to communicate with the people through the translation of Catholic ideas into a way of life. Saints became more than virtuous examples, but intercessory figures that connected God and humanity, making them more valuable and powerful dead than alive. This importance of the non-living may have contributed to the popularity of the subject of martyrdom in the Baroque period.
      Art became an important tool for the Church to express this. For example, in the Church of Santo Stefano Rotundo, Rome, emotional and spiritual reactions were sought in the seventeenth century through the viewing of martyrdom paintings. The martyrdoms were meant to evoke devotion, internal reflection, and personal connection with the saints. These paintings were physically integrated into the Liturgical ceremony, where parishioners would walk past them during meditation. The martyrdom emerged as an especially important aspect of a Saint’s life during the Baroque period, an aspect that was used extensively by the Catholic Church in its commissions of artworks that were meant to evoke such emotional reactions. The discovery of Roman catacombs shortly before the seventeenth century further encouraged a revitalization of the cult of martyrs seen in the early Church.
      Saints that were venerated during this period include; Saint Lawrence, Saint Theresa of Avila, and Saint Mary Magdalene. All of these Saints can be recognized in visual representations by certain symbols or attributes. For instance, Saint Lawrence can be recognized by the presence of a flaming grill that he is either on or being taken to. That grill factors into the story of his martyrdom, and it is nearly always present in depictions of the Saint. Saint Theresa is often recognized by the presence of arrows, which represents when her heart was pierced by the golden spear of an angel. She can also be seen with the figure of a dove, which represents the Holy Ghost. Finally, Mary Magdalene can usually be seen wearing red. She is also commonly depicted with some sort of small box which represents the ointment with which she washed the feet of Christ. Saints held a great deal of importance in Baroque art, and these symbols allowed viewers to recognize the Saints and have a personal connection with them.