After his brief excursion across the Alpes in Part 6 of art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation, Clark returns to the grandeur of early 16th century Rome. The Reformation and subsequent Wars of Religion, whose devastating effect on Western Europe Clark describes in passing naturally had their impact on Rome. Part 7 is dedicated to the extraordinary resilience and ability shown by Catholicism to bounce back from a seemingly desperate position. And the situation was bad. As Clark describes it, Rome had been humiliated:

The city had been sacked and burnt, the people of Northern Europe were heretics, the Turks were threatening Vienna.

But instead of succumbing to the ‘inevitable’, Rome bounced back, regaining much of the territories lost and

became once more a great spiritual force. But was it a civilising force?

In a few sentences, Clark hints at the immense body of works of an anti-Catholic nature. Originally born from the conflict between Reformation and Catholic orthodoxy, it was at first vehemently anti-Spanish in nature. Through works such as Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the influence of this anti-Catholicism, though morphing into a more general anti-Christianity, reached through the centuries. Even in the 21st century variants – the so-called Medieval Gap, representing the Middle Ages as a thousand year lul in human development, sometimes filled in by Islam – still hold sway.

In answer to these charges, Clark defends the Counter-Reformation, although he remains critical on at least one point. Clark contradicts that Index, Inquisition and Jesuits were the driving force behind the Counter-Reformation. Naming the three men who were to make visible the “victory of the Catholic Church“, he explains that the works of Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona cannot have been the result purely of negative factors:

I don’t believe that a great outburst of creative energy such as took place in Rome between 1620 and 1660 can be the result of negative factors, but I admit that the civilisation of these years depended on certain assumptions that are out of favour in England and America today.

The first of these assumptions was “belief in authority, the absolute authority of the Catholic Church.” But according to Clark it was a willing conformity, not born out of fear, but based upon a consciousness of being in communication with, and a respect for the past. There is a feeling of community, but also of humanity. It is this ‘human measure’ that Clark sees as one of the great achievements of the Catholic Church:

harmonising, humanising, civilising the deepest impulses of ordinary, ignorant people.

For these, he names various examples, such as the need to confess, the way Saints allow easier communication with the divine, but above all, the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Using a remark by H.G. Wells about communities of obedience versus communities of will as a starting point, Clark explains how “the female principle of creation” was symbolised by the Virgin Mary, and how She had acted as “supreme protectress of civilisation” in the early twelfth century. Her role changes in the Renaissance, to become not only the Queen of Heaven, but also

that sweet, compassionate, approachable being who would intercede for him, as a mother might have interceded with a hard master.

The third and final element Clark points out, is that the Counter-Reformation, and the art it created, the Baroque, was not afraid of the body. These things together, made the Baroque into a popular movement. Where it goes wrong, eventually, is in a need to keep overbidding itself, by becoming more and more elaborate. It is in the last minutes of the episode, that Clark mentions, again, that which could be said to be a thread running through the episodes: calling it ‘exploitation’, he points out that the Baroque outgrew the human measure.

(…) their contribution to civilisation was limited to this kind of visual exuberance. The sense of grandeur is no doubt a human instinct, but, carried too far, it becomes inhuman. I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room (…).

This article is part of a series. Click this link for the next article. Or this link to the first in the series.