Painting Propaganda, Truth and Beauty

The dual role that art played as an expression of beauty and as propaganda is illustrated historically as the Renaissance ended and as the Protestant Reformation caused the reaction of the Counter-Reformation. Following the Middle Ages, art once again became an expression of the creative process of the individual. And at the same time it was used for political purposes as an expression of power on the part of those seeking to accumulate power on behalf of their survival strategy. In short, art became simultaneously an expression of both conscious present moment behavior and unconscious reactionary behavior.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was an arm of the Spanish Inquisition which was itself a reaction to the Protestant Reformation. The Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church was an attempt to assume a different identity and was therefore a reaction against the humanism of the Renaissance. Raphael’s School of Athens (1511) is an example of the humanist Renaissance painting, whereas El Greco’s Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (1600) would be an example of an anti-humanist painting.

  • Art became even more didactic than it had been previously
  • Art was still important (although Lutherans did not support art)
  • Art became anti-humanist
  • The content of art became supernatural (mystical) and anti-rational
  • Ignatius of Loyola taught the self-induced trance or meditation

Fear triggered by the Protestant Reformation caused a regression in consciousness on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. Painters began to focus not on beauty but on strengthening church doctrine. The market for painters shifted from the educated, sophisticated patron to the nouveau riche commercial classes.

The Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition sitting in Venice in 1573 criticized the Last Supper by Veronese. “Leonardo’s Last Supper [1498] was also considered ‘too worldly’ as compared with Tintoretto’s Last Supper (a century later) which depicted the ‘miraculous meaning of the Eucharist.’ Leonardo was ‘concerned with interior human motivation’ that is, depicting the moment when Christ revealed his betrayal but also proclaiming the sacrament of the Eucharist (consuming the body and blood of Christ).”[i]

We can also compare Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection (1460s) with El Greco’s The Resurrection of Christ (1595) where El Greco is more concerned with metaphysics than psychology. This was “Christ freed from the logic of matter.”[ii]

Botticelli’s paintings were commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV with a specific message in mind. “The key to the meaning of the picture lies in the inscription in the centre of the triumphal arch. From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews (5,4), it reads, ‘And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God,’ as was Aaron; it is thus a warning of the punishment that will be visited upon all who oppose God’s appointed leaders.”[iii]

The art of the Church instructed the faithful in the merits of dying for their beliefs while Protestants criticized the Church’s veneration of martyrs. Rubens (a loyal Catholic) emphasized the flesh (the damned) as opposed to the elect (the saved). He made his “Counter-Reformation” point in a way that the church approved.

The Protestants had their artists that could instruct the faithful in the folly of sin. The three energy centers of the false self are amply and sometimes humorously illustrated in the work of such paintings as Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Peasant Wedding Feast (1567). “He saw peasants as unreasoning creatures who passively submitted to forces greater than themselves—heredity, custom and tradition.”[iv]

In Wedding Feast, we have a post-harvest, grain-filled barn with crossed sheaves as fertility symbols. The dark-clad groom is leaning back just to the left of the “door-holder” with pies. The groom is drunk and we see a friar’s plea for money from the landlord on the far right of the painting. This is what an educated and prosperous artist saw in the behavior of the peasants in his world. We can also see the truth of the false-self motivated behaviors depicted.

Buddha warned of the distraction of the sensation center which provides “false” evidence of significant spiritual attainments, which are very pleasing to the ego. In Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1652), we see both pleasure and pain but not presence. The agitated drapery evokes the saint’s internal state.

Caravaggio is considered by some critics as the most powerful painter of the 17th century. In his Supper at Emmaus (1601) he communicates that “the common people may have a direct knowledge of God; the miraculous can occur without angels, halos or opening of the skies.”[v]

The Baroque secularization of painting increased the number of themes involving gratification of the senses and sexual appetites. Caravaggio’s Bacchus (1596) shows a male prostitute untying his robe and offering wine. The church could approve and offer commissions to Caravaggio because he showed “degenerate” pagans.

Humanity’s fears were not just of Hell (the power of evil) but of starvation (security) and boredom (sensation or lack of it).

Painting Propaganda, Truth and Beauty

[i]     Elsen, Albert E. Purposes of Art. New York: Holt. 1981, page 156.

[ii]     Ibid.

[iii]    Toman, Rolf [ed.]. The Art of the Italian Renaissance. China: H. F. Ullmann. 2007, page 279.

[iv]    Elsen, op. cit., page 174.

[v]     Ibid., page 172.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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