1300 – 1800

From the Early Medieval era to the Renaissance and Baroque eras, a large part of artistic production in Europe was in the service of the Roman Catholic Church. Religious institutions commissioned artists and architects to build and decorate places of worship, from cathedrals to monasteries and hospitals. Monarchs and wealthy nobility also employed artists to paint devotional works for domestic settings and design altarpieces for family chapels at parish churches. Devotional images could be intensely personal, like Federico Barocci’s Madonna or Pieter Claeissens’s Virgin of Sorrows with a Family of Donors.

The emergence of the Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent Counter Reformation of the Catholic Church, proved the most momentous turn of events for the development of religious art in Europe and the Americas. The Council of Trent put the Church’s unified strategy into writing in 1563 to stem the flow of worshippers (and entire nations) to Protestantism. The Council stated that the visual arts should educated through narrative clarity, engage the viewer emotionally, and delight the sense to inspire devotion.

Francisco de Zurbarán, St. Francis in Prayer in a Grotto, 1655. Oil on canvas. Gift of Conrad Prebys & Debbie Turner, 2014.132.