Catholic Perspective Of The Renaissance Part I

The Renaissance may be considered in a general or a particular sense, as

  1. the achievements of what is termed the modern spirit in opposition to the spirit which prevailed during the Middle Ages; or
  2. the revival of classic, especially of Greek, learning and the recovery of ancient art in the departments of sculpture, painting, and architecture, lost for a thousand years in Western Christendom.


Impossible though it be to separate these elements from the whole movement into which they enter, we may distinguish them from it for our present purpose, viz., to sum up the influences, whether good or evil, which are traceable to the antique, pre-Christian, or pagan world of letters and plastic remains, as it came to be known and studied from the end of the fourteenth century onwards, in relation to the Catholic Church.

the vaticanFor ecclesiastical history goes through periods analogous to the changes brought about by secular revolutions. Roughly speaking,

  1. The age of the Fathers corresponds to the Imperial Roman period, closing in A.D. 476;
  2. The Middle Ages occupy those tumultuous years when barbarians turned Christians were learning slowly to be civilized, from 476 to 1400;
  3. While the modern relations of Church and State begin with the definite emergence of nationalities in the West, at an era most critical, signalized by the destruction of the Greek Empire, the invention of printing from movable type, the discovery of America, and all this leading on to the Protestant Reformation. History, like life, is a continuous web; its various stages pass into one another by the finest degrees. But after the Great Schism was healed by the Council of Constance in 1417, the Church, turning her back once for all on a worn-out feudalism, and no longer engaged in strife with Teuton emperors, found herself in the presence of new difficulties, and the character of the times was manifestly altered.

We are dwelling now in this modern epoch. The Middle Ages have become an interlude, clearly bounded on both extremities by a more civilized or humane idea of life, which men are endeavouring to realize in politics, education, manners and literature, and religion. This blending of widely dissevered ages and peoples by virtue of a complex type into a consistent, though greatly enlarged historical system, has been due to the Renaissance, taken as a whole.

04543ccxA glance at the map will remind us of the striking fact that Christianity is bound up in space no less than in time with the Greek and Roman World. It has never yet flourished extensively outside these borders, except in so far as it subdued to ancient culture the tribes to which it offered the Gospel. There is a mysterious and providential link, recognized in the New Testament by St. Paul, St. John, and St. Peter, between Rome as the head of secular dominion and the visible Kingdom of Christ. Roman law protected as well as persecuted the disciples; Greek philosophy lent its terms to Catholic dogma.

The School of Alexandria, taught by Clement and Origen, did not scruple to quote Athenian literature in illustration of revealed truths. St. Gregory of Nazianzus wrote Greek poems in a style which was moulded on the classic tragedians. There was always in the West a Puritan spirit, of which from Tertullian and Novatian down to the Spanish Priscillian we may note examples; but the saints who established our tradition-Cyprian, Augustine, Jerome-held more tolerant views; and though St. Jerome felt compunctious visitings for the days and nights he had given to Plautus or Cicero, his own diction is severely classic. His Latin Vulgate, also, while it obeys the construction of the Hebrew, is written in cultivated, not in rustic, language. St. Gregory, the Great despised grammar as a subordinate accomplishment, but was himself a good scholar.

The loss of Greek authors and the decline of Church Latin into barbarism were misfortunes in a universal ruin; neither of these events was the consequences of a deliberate break with antiquity. Latin and Greek had become sacred languages; the Western and Eastern liturgies carried them with Holy Scripture wherever they went. Catholic Rome was Latin by tradition and by choice. No German dialect ever attained to the privileges of the sanctuary which St. Cyril won for the Old Slavic from Pope Nicholas I.

embertidezodiacUnder these circumstances, a revival of learning, so soon as the West was capable of it, might have been foreseen. And it was equally to be anticipated that the Vatican would not reject a movement of reconciliation, akin to that whereby so many of the ancient usages had been long ago adapted to Christian ends. Speaking of the second century, Walter Pater observes: “What has been on the whole the method of the Church, as a ‘power of sweetness and patience’, in dealing with matters like pagan art, pagan literature, was even then manifest.” There had been, at that day, an “earlier and unimpeachable Renaissance“. The Catholic principle, in accordance with its name, assimilates, purifies, consecrates, all that is not sin, provided that it will submit to the law of holiness. And the central classic authors, on whose study liberal education has been set up from the age of Aristotle among Greeks, from the Augustan era in Rome, were happily amenable to the cleansing baptism. As a literature, the chief schoolbooks were singularly free from moral deformities; their teaching fell short of the New Testament; but it was often heroic, and its perils admitted of correction. Newman happily describes Graeco-Roman civilization as “the soil in which Christianity grew up“. And Pater concludes that “it was by the bishops of Rome. . .that the path of what we must call humanism was thus defined”, as the ideal, namely, of a perfect training in wisdom and beauty. Quite in unison with such a temper of mind, Pope Leo X in 1515 wrote to Beroaldo, the editor of Tacitus: “Nothing more excellent or useful has been given to men by the Creator, it we except the true knowledge and worship of Himself, than these studies”.

576px-Tychonian_system.svgWhen, therefore, Nicholas V (1447-55) founded the Vatican Library, his act was inspired by the tradition of the Holy See, deservedly known as the nursing-mother of schools and universities, in which the seven “liberal arts” had always been taught. Paris, the greatest of them, had received formal recognition in 1211 from Innocent III. Between the years 1400 and 1506 we may reckon some twenty-eight charters granted by the popes to as many universities, from St. Andrews to Alcala and from Caen and Poiters to Wittenberg and Frankfort-on-the-Oder.

But Humanism was propagated chiefly from Italian centres and by Italian or Greek professors. We must bear in mind a fact which is often lost sight of, that the Scholastic philosophy had never taken deep root in the Peninsula, and that its masters chiefly flourished north of the Alps. Alexander of Hales, Scotus, Middleton, Occam, were Britons; St. Albert the Great was a German; St. Thomas Aquinas, his disciple, taught at Paris.

1069px-Wide_Field_Imager_view_of_a_Milky_Way_look-alike_NGC_6744On the other hand, that renaissance of Roman Law which enabled Frederick Barbarossa and his successors to withstand the papacy, began with Irnerius at Bologna. Again, it was Petrarch (1303-1374) who inaugurated the far-reaching movement which claimed for literature, i.e., for poetry, rhetoric, history, and all their branches, the rank hitherto maintained by logic and philosophy; Dante, who crystallizes the “Summa” of St. Thomas in miraculous verse, remains medieval; Petrarch is modern precisely by this difference, although we must not fancy him opposed to Church or Bible. Now when Greek manuscripts were eagerly sought after, and when Cicero dictated the canons of Latin style, the syllogism with its arena of disputation could not be give place to the orator’s chair and the secretary’s desk. Not science but life was the end of study. We remark no considerable achievement in metaphysics until the culminating period, both of Humanism and the Reformation, had passed away.

In 1455, the library of Pope Nicholas contained 824 Latin and 352 Greek manuscripts. In 1484, at the death of Sixtus IV, the Greek MSS, had increased to one thousand. From the catalogues we infer that much interest was taken in collecting the great Fathers, the canon law, and medieval theology. Nicholas owned the famous Vatican Codex (B) of Holy Scripture; Sixtus has in his possession fifty-eight bibles or parts of bibles. Cardinal Bessarion gave his magnificent stock of books to St. Mark’s Venice; and the Medicean Library, collected at Florence, where it still reposes (the Laurentian), was for a while transferred to Rome by Clement VII. At Basle the Dominican cardinal, John of Ragusa, left important Greek MSS, of parts of the New Testament, which were used by Reuchlin and Erasmus with advantage. These illustrations may suffice to indicate the movement, becoming universal throughout Catholic Europe, towards recovery from all sides of the treasures of the past.

Titian_Alexander VI Presenting Jacopo Pesare to St. Peter_1506-11_Antwerp_Koninklijk Museum voor Schone KunstenAnother and most important step was to print that which had been so recovered. Printing was a German invention. The local ordinaries and religious houses favoured it greatly. Cloisters became the home of the Press; among them we may quote Marienthal (1468), St. Ulrich, at Augsburg (1472), the Benedictines at Bamberg (1474). Typography was introduced at Brussels in 1474 by the Brothers of the Common Life. They called themselves “preachers in not in word but in type”. And the early printed books in Germany were of a popular devotional, educational, and Biblical character.

To the Renaissance in its opening stage the honour belongs of scattering broadcast the printed Latin Vulgate as well as translations of it in most European languages, of course with approval from the Church. Ninety-eight complete editions of the Vulgate were sent our before 1500; a dozen editions preceded the appearance in type of and Latin classic. The first book produced by Gutenberg was that exceedingly beautiful “42-line” Bible according to St. Jerome’s version afterwards known as the Mazarine Bible and still extant in several copies. The first dated Bible came out at Mainz in 1462; the first Venetian, in 1475, was followed by twenty-one editions. The Hebrew test was printed at Soncino and Naples between 1477 and 1486; the Rabbinic Bible was dedicated at Venice to Leo X in 1517. Cardinal Ximenes renewed the labours of Origen by his Polyglot of Aleala, 1514-22, which included the Greek New Testament. But Erasmus anticipated its publication by an indifferent text in 1516. Aldus printed the Septuagint in 1518.

KnightAs regards translations on the Catholic side, they went on before and after Luther, from the Spanish of Boniface Ferrer in 1405 to the English of Douai in 1609. All these were printed; but space will not all more than a reference to the details here, or to the changes in policy brought about, in consequence of heretical translations and the abuse of Scripture-reading, under Paul IV and the Council of Trent.

During the period commonly assigned to the Renaissance at its height (1453-1527), freedom was the rule. Nicholas V had it in mind to make Rome the intellectual centre of the world. His successors entered largely into the same idea. Pius II (Piccolomini) was a man of letters, not unlike the great Erasmus. Paul II, though severe upon neopagans, such as Pomponazzo, did not condemn the Classical movement. Alexander VI was a statesman, not a scholar and not an Italian. The fierce and splendid Julius II, himself without culture, gave commissions to Raphael and Michelangelo, but openly despised the pedants about his court. From Leo X his age receives its title-he was the “incarnation of the Renaissance in its most brilliant form”.

Pope-Pius-VIAn extraordinary enthusiasm for antiquity had set in, combined with boundless freedom of opinion, with a laxity of morals which has ever since given scandal to believers and unbelievers alike, and with a festal magnificence recalling the days and nights of Nero’s “golden house”.

The half-century which ends in the sack of Rome by Lutheran soldiers, however dazzling from a scenic point of view, cannot be dwelt on with satisfaction by any Catholic, even when we have discounted the enormous falsehoods long current in historians who accepted satires and party statements at their own value.

Churchmen in high places were constantly unmindful of truth, justice, purity, self-denial; many had lost all sense of Christian ideals; not a few were deeply stained by pagan vices. The temper of ecclesiastics like Bembo and Bibbiena, shown forth in the comedies of this latter cardinal as they were acted before the Roman Court and imitated far and wide, is to us not less incomprehensible than disedifying. The earlier years of Æneas Sylvius, the whole career of Rodrigo Borgia, the life of Farnese, himself as well as the Curia, these all exhibit the union of subtlety, vigour, and other worldly qualities, which leaves us in dumb and sorrowful amazement. Julius II fought and intrigued like a mere secular prince; Leo X, although certainly not an unbeliever, was frivolous in the extreme; Clement VII drew on himself the contempt as well as the hatred of all who had dealings with him, by his crooked ways and cowardly subterfuges which led to the taking and pillage of Rome.

300px-Cesare_Borgia,_Duke_of_ValentinoisNow, it is not unfair to trace in these popes, as to their advisers, a certain common type, the pattern of which was Cesare Borgia, sometime cardinal, but always in mind and action a condottiere, while its philosopher was Machiavelli. We may express it in the words of Villari as a “prodigious intellectual activity accompanied by moral decay”. The passion for ancient literature, quickened and illustrated when the buried classic marbles were brought to light, simply intoxicated that generation. Not only did they fall away from monastic severities, they lost all decent and manly self-control. The survivors of a less corrupt age, as Michelangelo in his sonnets, remind us that native Italian genius had done great things before this new spirit took possession of it. But there is no denying that in its triumphant days the Renaissance looked up to beauty, and looked away from duty, as the standard and the law of life. It had neither eyes nor sense for the beauty of holiness. When it is called “pagan” we mean this corrupting anarchic influence, represented more gracefully by genuine poets and men of letters like Politian, more grossly by such licentious singers as Lorenzo de’ Medici, by Poggio, Bandello, Aretino, and a thousand others who declared that the morals of Petronius Arbiter were good enough for them.

Girolamo.SavonarolaWhen Savonarola in 1475 fled to the Dominican cloister at Ferrara, and there composed his lament on “the ruin of the Church”, he cried out: “The temple is fallen, and the house of chastity”. But the earthquake had not yet come. Worse things were to happen than he had seen. And a catastrophe was inevitable, of which he would be the prophet in St. Mark’s, Florence, sent to a partly credulous and a still more exasperated world.

Savonarola (1453-98), Erasamus (1466-1536), and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) may be taken as figures in what has been sometimes called the Christian Renaissance. They represent beyond question the mind of the Church concerning those ancient authors, not sacrificing faith to scholarship, or Holy Writ to Homer and Horace, while they allow to culture its province and its privileges. Such was to be the lasting concordat between divinity and the humanities, but not until paganism had robbed Italy of its independence, after the popes had set their house in order, and the Society of Jesus had been entrusted with the education of youth.

On the strength of his protest against the unseemly and degrading literature which abounded in his time, Savonarola was condemned as a Puritan; his “burning of the vanities” in 1497 has been cited in proof; and he employed scathing language (see the Letter to Verino, 1497) that may be strained to this conclusion. But among his penitents were artists, poets, and learned men: Pico della Mirandola, Fra Bartolommeo, Botticelli, Michelangelo. The friar himself bought for St. Mark’s at a heavy charge the famous Medicean Library; and every candid reader will perceive in his denunciation of current books and paintings an honest Christian’s outcry against cancerous vices which were sapping the life of Italy.

When we come to Erasmus, no fanatic assuredly, we discover that he too made a difference between clean and unclean. Erasmus laughed to scorn the Ciceronian pedantries of Bembo and Sadoleto; he quoted with disgust the paganizing terms in which some Roman preachers travestied the persons and scenes of the Gospels. He had a zeal for the inspired Word, and his Greek and Latin New Testament was the chief literary event of the year that saw its publication. He edited St. Jerome with minute care (1516); he did something for the chief Latin Fathers, and not a little for the Greek. In his preface to St. Hilary his true scholar commends all learning, old or new, but he would have its proper value given to each department from the Scriptures even to the Schoolmen. His “Praise of Folly” and other satirical writings were an attack, not upon medieval genius, but upon the self-confident ignorance which declaimed against good literature without knowing what it meant. So rare and indefatigable an appraiser of literary works in every form could not be insensible to the merits of St. Augustine, however much he delighted in Virgil. The scholarship of Erasmus, given to the world in a lively Latin, was universal and often profound. It was also honestly Christian; to make Holy Scripture known and understood was the supreme purpose he ept in view. And thus the “prince of humanists” could remain Catholic, while looking for a moral restoration, during the whirlwind of Luther’s revolt. In him the Renaissance had cast away its paganism.

Thomas More_Frick_1527His friend, Sir Thomas More, a liberal scholar, a saint, and a martyr, proved by the enchanting courtesy of his daily converse and by the simple, almost ironical heroism which he displayed on the scaffold, how antique learning and Catholic virtue might combine in the loftiest of ideals. More’s “Utopia” won a place by itself, which it still keeps, far above the imitative and passing literature of those Latin versifiers, those vain rhetoricians, who at best were scholiasts, but too commonly wasted their small talents in feebly reproducing the classic themes and metres. The English chancellor took a firm grip of social and religious problems, not so much regarding theory as intent on reform according to Catholic principles. He wrote Latin with greater force than elegance; his works in the vernacular have salt and savour, wit and idiom to commend their orthodoxy. In the same category of Christian humanists we may associate with More a goodly number of Englishmen, from the Benedictines, Hadley and Selling, who were students at Padua in 1464, to Crocyn, Linacre, Colet, Fox, and the martyred Cardinal Fisher.”  1914 Catholic Encyclopedia