Reexamining the Renaissance

“For all the gods of the Gentiles are devils” Psalm 95

“But the things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God. And I would not that you should be made partakers with devils.” 1 Corinthians 10:20.


One of the most staggeringly beautiful works of art ever composed by a human being and the most definitive icon of the Renaissance is Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera. The painting is a stunning freeze of the garden of Venus. At the center of the masterpiece, poised with a cautious but confident look and robed in surprisingly modest attire is Venus, the mother goddess, of Venus genetrix who is heavy with her child Amor. To the left are the three dancing graces indifferent to the immediate presence of Mars who is pushing away some troublesome approaching clouds. Flanking the right of Venus is the west wind Zephyr, capturing the springtime nymph Chloris who herself is changing into an enwombed Flora.  While much of the deeper meaning of the painting is uncertain, it is clear that La Primavera indubitably is an allegory of Neo-Platonic love (blended with Stoic, Epicurean, and even Christian themes). But on a deeper level, Botticelli’s painting is about the birth of a new springtime, a new age, and a new world order. Catholics who live in the liberal democracies that emerged during the Enlightenment have gotten used to the idea that the word “Renaissance” denotes unqualified goodness. However, we must remember that the Renaissance gave birth to a new era that envisioned itself as a break with the immediate past of the Middle Ages. While Christians may grimace when secular thinkers refer to the Middle Ages as the “Christian era”, we should not. The Middle Ages was the Christian era in as much as it was definitely and proudly Christian. The Renaissance, however, was marked by a departure from subordination of the classical culture to the moral and aesthetic norms of the Church. Thus, Catholic parents and educators looking to draw from the classical tradition must take a cautious approach to appropriating classical culture and not make the same mistakes made in the courts, workshops, and studies that birthed the modern world.

With glowing pride, Catholics often uphold the Renaissance as a great flowering of Catholic culture. In fact, this is one of the key periods to which Catholic historian and economist Thomas Woods, with some justified reservation, points in his work How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization as being one of the great cultural triumphs of the Church. In apologetic debates with Protestants, Catholics often proudly point to the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Transfiguration, and St. Peter’s Basilica as irrefutable evidence that the Catholic Church is so much prettier than the dour Germanic Protestantism and Anglo-American Puritanism in which many of us live. And, for the most part, these Catholics are correct. There is no question that the Renaissance is one of the high points of artistic creation—especially in the visual arts, architecture, and poetry—in the West. There is further no question that many of themes of Renaissance art are Christian in general and Catholic in particular. The artists such as of the Renaissance overwhelming identified as being Christian and were often very devout—Michelangelo was tormented with worry for his own salvation, Bernini cultivated a deep Ignatian spirituality, and even Botticelli destroyed some of his paintings in a moment of religious enthusiasm. But there is a key difference between Christian artist and a Christian work of art, and many Christian artists in the Renaissance unwittingly (most of the time) open up a Pandora’s jar of evil when they midwifed the glorious return of classical culture and civilization.


While images of nude images of gods and goddesses are given free passes as “art” by Catholics hoping to avoid the dreaded appellations of “scrupulous”, “puritanical” or, o nefas, “traditionalist”, a closer examination of the historical record reveals that one of the principle driving forces for the creation of visual arts in the Renaissance was the appetite for pornography. Although the printing press is lauded in contemporary textbooks for providing the Gutenberg Bible to enlighten every late medieval peasant, printing, like the contemporary internet, was used for more nefarious purposes: making pornography cheap and private, and one of the favorite themes of early modern pornographers was classical mythology. Giulio Romano, along with Pietro Aretino and Marcantonio Raimondi, created I Modi, depicting gods and goddesses in the act of love—Raimondi was rewarded with prison for his cooperation. This did not stop the same publisher from releasing Loves of the Gods, with designs by Rosso and Perino. Even the great Catholic champion of the Counter Reformation (whose troops, yes, sacked Rome and kidnapped the Pope Clement VII) received Coreggio’s Loves of Jupiter in 1530 as a gift from Federico Gonzaga. In fact, the most scandalous images of Jove’s loves were condemned, vandalized, and/or destroyed by zealous Catholics—Anne of Austria had Michelangelo’s painting of Jove and Leda destroyed. The masterpiece of French Renaissance architecture, Fontainebleau, was a staging ground for the emergence of the presence of the female nude in France and Italy. And finally there are the seemingly innumerable reclining Venuses of painters such as Giorgione, Palma Vecchio, and Paris Bordone, which are little different than Playboy centerfolds—Mark Twain surely expressed a deist equivalent of a sensus catholicus when he suggested that Titian’s Venus d’Urbino “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” These paintings represent the essential problem of trying to replicate the Greek Roman illustration of a deity, one of whose primary purpose was to inspire eros and amor—even Plato had condemned the story of Mars and Venus being lewd and unnecessary—there is no question of the alluring beauty (often magnificent) of these paintings, but there is no doubt that they are pornographic.


On the other hand, Venus was not only used for lewd paintings and crude jokes. Among the pagans, Venus could also serve as the goddess of love marital procreation. The son of Venus, Amor, in Virgil’s Georgics is the procreative as opposed to merely sensual impulse, and Lucretius, the Epicurean poet, also has a hymn to Venus as impetus to procreation.  It is this Venus whom Christians in the Renaissance attempted to appropriate as an image of marriage and fertility, decorating bedrooms and baths and furniture with her image. Even the stories of Venus’s infidelity to Vulcan with Mars were appropriated by artists such as Van Mander to serve as warnings against adultery. The tenuousness of these attempts at allegorization and moralization of what are, quite frankly, ornate but crude jokes was made evident in humorous attempt of the poet Battista Fieri to present the adulterous Mars and Venus as an image of Isabella d’Este and her husband—Fieri was forced to apologize. Perhaps not aware of their sacrilege and drawing from the Roman Virgilian and Augustan tradition of Venus Genetrix, Renaissance artists also attempted to link the goddess of love with Our Lady.  While many of these attempts were sacrilegious and vulgar, they represent, more than anything, a clumsy but well intentioned attempt to create a beautiful and sophisticated culture that could coexist with Christianity.

Mythological imagery undertook a standardization during the rise of the notorious Leo X in 1513 and Rome, which was littered with the literal ruins of antiquity became a hotbed of renaissance, and in northern Italian cities like Genoa, Mantua, and, of course, Florence, appropriation of mythology took off after 1530. As the sixteenth century progressed, mythology became a language throughout Europe—although the use was largely nonacademic as universities tended to avoid study of mythology. In a certain sense, it seemed that an educated audience could discern the difference between the Jove of Virgil and the Jove of Ovid. Leaders of the Catholic Counter Reformation like Charles V and Philip II utilized images of Hercules and Jupiter to symbolize their might, justice, and burden of reconquering Christendom for Christ’s holy Church. Strong female leaders took Diana as their icon, emphasizing her poise and purity. Mythology thus became a sort of lingua franca in which the stories were stripped over their obvious cultic and pagan associations. However, by the seventeenth century the divide between serious and sober classicism had dissolved and more and more there was free reign given to a “pure paganism.” However, there were some heroes who had always been and continued to be amenable to Christian interpretation.


While there was some caution exercised with classical deities—especially in the patristic and medieval period, the demigod Hercules largely got a “free pass.” Hercules was heavily allegorized as a pre-Christian Christian. Even the early medieval Boethius, living at a time when Christianity and paganism were still in open warfare with one another, celebrated Hercules’ labors as a model for Christian imitation. In Florence, Hercules was compared to the heroes of the Old Testament, and Petrarch celebrated Hercules heroics. One of the most definitive Renaissance icons of Hercules is Annibale Carracci’s Choice of Hercules; the painting draws from Prodicus’ story retold by Cicero: when Hercules was a young man, two women, Virtue and Vice, appeared to him offering a choice of a way of life for him. As Robert Frost later will, Hercules chooses the better path and thus becomes of model for Greeks, Romans, and even Christians of a heroic and virtuous life in pursuit of excellence. Hercules, however, was largely the exception to the rule as many of the Church fathers noted themselves noted but Renaissance artists seemed to forget.

While Patristics like Tertullian, who famously asked what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, and St. Augustine of Hippo, who was thoroughly stewed in classical education, considered the pagan gods to be demons, there were innumerable attempts in the Renaissance to “baptize” even the most demonic of the gods and the most vulgar acts. According to the Dutch theologian Gerardus Vossius, the Thyrsus waved by the mad, blood thirsty Bacchantes in Euripides Bacchae resembled the staff with which Moses struck the rock in the desert. In the late medieval Benedictine Pierre Besuire’s Ovidius Moralizatus, one of many attempts to redeem Ovid’s violent and vulgar Metamorphoses, the Christian monk attempted to baptize crude stories like Diana’s transformation of Actaeon, a hunter who sees the goddess bathing, into a stag who is violently consumed by his own dogs.  Besurie suggests a variety of moral allegories, including making the violent goddess of the hunt into an image of Our Lady and the foolish hunter Actaeon an image of Our Lord devoured by the Jews. In the most famous desperate attempt to moralize the Augustan poet of violent change, Ovid moralisé, Pentheus as well is presented as an image of the Christian soul and the Bacchantes are, of course, the Jews out to kill Christ and his followers. The sixteenth century Prior General of the Augustinian Order Egidio da Viterbo tried to allegorize Jupiter monstrous affairs as being images of God’s love for humanity. According to Fulgentius, the Judgement of Paris, rather than being a beauty contest, was actually an allegory for the choices that the soul must choose: the contemplative, active, and sensual life.  The absurdity of such attempts reflect not so much malice on the part of Christians but rather confusion.


It is this sense of ambiguity, which is paradoxically both careless and deliberate, that marks that great works of the Renaissance and which makes them so alluring and dangerous. Even Titian’s Neo-Platonic masterpiece Sacred and Profane Love is ambiguous. Depicting a confident, majestic and chaste Venus pudica robbed into white (with a bit of flaring red adorning her arm) on the left and a dumb sprawling and undignified Venus vulgivaga on the right,  the work is a key icon of the superiority of chaste intellectual love over vulgar, sensual desire. However, at the same time, Titian clearly did not want his reader to ignore the disrobed Venus on the right, which in the view of some scholars, in fact, forms the center of the painting. Like the Puritan radical poet Milton’s attraction to Satan, Titian similarly seemed torn between creating a didactic allegory of chaste Christian love and simply displaying the female form for gratuitous enjoyment. Even the most talented and erudite Renaissance artists could not avoid being allured by the excesses of pre-Christian art.


There are thus two Renaissances and thus two ways of appropriating classical art and literature. No two works of art present this contrasting view of the Renaissance more than Michelangelo and Donatello’s opposing sculptures of the deeply flawed but nonetheless divinely favored King David. While Michelangelo’s depicts the male form in its entirety, his marble masterpiece is an emblem of Stoic, Herculean and Virgilian calm. Drawing from the best of the classical tradition, Michelangelo’s David is a Titanic image of the male soul in a state of grace and the male body prepared for combat against God’s enemies. However, drawing from the softer Ovidian and Epicurean classical tradition, Donatello’s David, like an early modern Justin Bieber, is irreverent, effeminate and debauched, displaying his pampered body in an arrogant and pouty poise. He is a satyr or a cupid, a child of profane love and example of the worst of the Renaissance.

Finally, and most weirdly and dangerously, we must also understand that the Renaissance is a period of the rebirth of the worship of the pagan gods—literally. Suspiciously, those in the Renaissance who were interested in the occult, like the Hapsburg Rudolf II, seemed the most interested in mythological themes—whether erotic or not. In fact, the sophisticated white or theurgic magic that influenced the Romantic period and then developed into popular occult organizations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century like the Theosophical Society and the Golden Dawn was drawn from the scribblings of renaissance magi. Oddly, many of these Renaissance occultists such as Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, Marsilio Ficino, and the Elizabethan magus John Dee considered themselves Christians in good standing. At the heart of Renaissance Neo-Platonism is the concept of exaltatio or the raising of human nature to the state of divinity and repairing the fall of human nature through science and magic (clearly scientists from Descartes to Bertrand Russell are also in this tradition). Like our own contemporary new agers, hippies, and members of the charismatic movement, these Renaissance wizards sought ecstatic states that they could ignite through the summoning of angels and the study of the esoteric wisdom. An example of this attempt to blend paganism is found in the preface to Dionysius the Areopagite’s Mystical Theology in which Marsilio Ficino blended together pagan Neo-Platonic prayers with references to Bacchus with Christian prayers to the Most Holy Trinity. Thus, so much of the poison of contemporary occultism and magic that is now seeping through the ruins of Christendom was literally conjured in the Renaissance by well-intentioned Christians.

The longest standing obelisk (among the thirteen total in the city) in Rome is located in the center of St. Peter’s Square. This obelisk, known as the “Vatican Obelisk,” in contrast to Botticelli’s La Primavera, is a symbol of sober and truly Catholic appropriation of pagan culture. Brought to Rome by Caligula, this Egyptian war prize was held by the Romans as sign of the triumph of Rome over Egypt: a gilt sphere was placed on top, which contained the ashes of Julius Caesar. Kept in the Vatican circus, this Romanized Egyptian artefact witnessed the gruesome martyrdoms of Christians, including St. Peter. The obelisk was later moved to its present location in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V. In place of the orb (from which, ironically, the ashes of Julius Caesar were missing), the Holy Father erected a cross top of the obelisk containing the a relic of the true cross; on the base of the obelisk is the triumphant inscription, Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat. The Vatican obelisk is the definitive symbol of how Catholics should view classical and Renaissance art.  Christ has triumphed over the pagan world, and whatever is good in the pagan world—whether it be Greek, Roman, Japanese, Egyptian, Chinese, or Polynesian—should be harvested and baptized and put into the service of God’s Holy Church and the advancement of the greater glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Catholic home should be, as Pope Pius XII of happy memory called it, “a domestic Church”; it should not be a bordello or a house of demons. What we read and hear and see shapes who we are, and the Catholic mind, for it to be truly Catholic, must be adorned with virtue and modesty. Much of the literature, art, and philosophy of the Renaissance (and the classical literature rebooted by the Renaissance) has been essential in shaping young Christian men and women for centuries. However, at the same time, the modern world in which we live and struggle under every ideology and anti-Christian ‘-ism’ imaginable was born from the same seeds sown in Botticelli’s garden. We are at a “world historical” period in both the Church and in the West. With a level of moral corruption in the Church that hasn’t been seen since the Renaissance, and a level of doctrinal corruption among the leaders of the Church that has not been seen—ever, there is a certain sense in which the best of the classical virtues are needed now more than ever. However, in this, the Second Catholic Counter Reformation, there is a need not to repeat the same mistakes of the Renaissance. There is no need for more display of the male and female nude form (even in the name of art and celebrating the beauty of nature and God’s creation). There is no need for Catholic children to read poems about adultery, incest, and horrific, sadistic violence even in the name of classical education. While Catholic parents and educators have a grave obligation to shape and mold their children into militant soldiers of Christ and defenders of the faith as well as the patria, we have an equally grave obligation to censor any material—however beautiful and smart it may be—that may be an occasion of sin.  We can be confident that Our Lord Himself was not merely using the enigmatic and allegorical method cherished by Renaissance Neo-Platonists when he sternly said, “he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs bet scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh.”


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