Catholics and Protestants in Europe and Barcelona between the 16th and 18th centuries

2 November, 2017 | Barcelona People, Unknown City

In February 1564, Barcelona was visited by King Felipe II. The monarch was received at the Sant Antoni gate with a representation during which Santa Eulàlia gave him the keys to the city. On the same visit, L’assalt al castell dels luterans, a show in Plaça del Rei re-enacting an assault on a Lutheran castle, with Catholic soldiers laying siege to the heretic stronghold. Before leaving, the King attended an act of faith on 5 March, when eight men accused of Lutheranism were burnt, along with two others in effigy. The series of acts had been prepared to show that the city was a bastion of Catholicism, far removed from the Lutheran heresy spreading through France and a large part of Europe.

The continent was experiencing religious conflicts and the opposing sides used everything in their means to gain control of the fabric of society. And they didn’t think twice about making use of an important technological breakthrough, which was printing. In the same way that the appearance of the internet and new technologies has revolutionised current communication and knowledge, 15th century Europe went through a similar process with the appearance of printing. Up until then, knowledge had been spread in the western world by copying manuscripts, a task generally carried out in Catholic monasteries. Printing facilitated the production and widespread diffusion of books and all sorts of engravings and printed pages. It was much easier to spread ideas and knowledge. Just a few years after the appearance of this innovative technology, Barcelona already had printing centres and by the early 18th century there were numerous printing works and booksellers.

In the mid-16th century, Barcelona was under the control of the Inquisition, which kept tabs on people arriving in Catalonia as they fled civil wars between Catholics and Protestants which affected Europe. The city was very close to the border and tight control was needed to ensure that ideas proliferating beyond the Pyrenees were not spread around the territory. Accusations of heresy were rife and the Inquisition censored work and often searched bookshops, and even private libraries, looking for censored or banned books.

These situations derived from the religious confrontations which came about through the protestant reform driven by the likes of Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Movements seeking reforms to the Catholica church had already started to appear in medieval times, such as the Cathars, the Hussites and the Waldensians, but they hadn’t found the conditions they needed to prosper. At the start of the 16th century, however, those conditions were in place: the discovery of America broadened horizons, there was an in increasing interest in the classic Greco-Roman world and there were even those who were beginning to talk about the separation between the state and the church. The so-called Protestant Reform prospered thanks to the socio-cultural changes and support from some German princes, who saw their chance to be free of the papal tutelage and its tax regime. The end result was a split with Rome and wars and conflicts around Europe.

The exhibition Imatges per creure [Images to believe], organised by the Museu d’Història de Barcelona (MUHBA) in the Saló del Tinell hall, explains those turbulent times and the religious reforms in Europe, looking at how the international situation affected the city. Using mainly period engravings and paintings, the display shows how the different sides employed the new tools available to them via new printing technology in order to help their position prevail, what these day may be described as imposing their narrative.

The information panels at the exhibition explain that: “The very term propaganda spreads when the Catholic church creates the Propaganda Fide congregation in 1622. There were many means of persuasion: oral preaching for the general public, the exegesis of printed biblical texts and all sorts of arts, such as exuberant baroque Catholic façades, or, in contrast, the austere insides of Protestant temples, sacred paintings on altarpieces, panels and votive offerings, and religious engravings, always easy to circulate”.

Similarly, the exhibition states: “In both Catholic and Protestant spheres, the main question was to discipline the masses, using intimidation to show them to believe, or better still, persuasion: in this sense, engravings constituted the first printed mass propaganda operation in history”.

Barcelona sided with Catholic reform, also known as the Counter-Reformation. It’s in this context that the reception of King Felipe II is inscribed, or the painting Mare de Déu de la Mercè dels Consellers, dated 1690, which is preserved at the MNAC. In the 18th century the Inquisition was still persecuting Jews, Lutherans and Protestants in general, and the city’s Sant Ofici tribune tightened up the control of books, extending the list of banned books further. Despite this, ideas flowed and little by little eroded the ancient regime, although the structures created by the Counter-Reform lasted for a long time.

The intellectual illustration movement led to the role of religion in the public sphere being questioned as from the end of the 18th century and the separation of the state and the church gained ground. The exhibition in the Saló del Tinell notes: “In the Barcelona of the early 19th century, the laborious suppression of the Inquisition (1813-1834) was a milestone in the incipient process of secularisation. A process which was not clear-cut anywhere and via which Barcelona highlighted both the solidity of the ecclesiastical plot woven in the previous centuries, and the remnants of popular unrest, one of its most visible manifestations being anticlericalism”.

The exhibition Imatges per creure is on at the MUHBA until 14 January 2018. As a complement to the exhibition, there is also a 21 metre long watercolour scroll with a colour representation of the Palm Sunday procession by the Mare de Déu dels Dolors archconfraternity from the Bonsuccés convent in Barcelona. The mock-up includes details of all the elements and characters who took part in the procession. It can be seen in the Santa Àgata royal chapel, which is accessed through the same door as the Saló del Tinell.

Photo captions: La ciutat de Barcelona protegida pels sants. Share certificate for the Real Compañía de Comercio in Barcelona. I. Valls, from M. Tramullas. Barcelona 1750. PA. | Palm Sunday procession by the Mare de Déu dels Dolors confraternity from the Bonsuccés convent de Barcelona. G. REIG, C.18th. MUHBA. | Aiguafort amb la representació de la Terra amb zones d’influència de les confessions religioses. Heinrich Scherer. 1702. CGV. | El concili de la Santa Seu. J.Amman. Originally from the book Catalous Gloriae Mundi by B. de Chasseneuz, 1579. CGV. | Cantoral del dia de celebració de la Immaculada Concepció. Anonymous. C.18th. Sant Pere de les Puel·les Monastery Archive. | Censored book with a portrait of Esrasmus of Rotterdam. | Cosmographia Universalis. S. Münster 1554. Crai-UB. | Mare de Déu de la Mercè dels Consellers, with highly realistic portraits of the six city councillors. Anonymous, Barcelona 1690. MNAC. Foto Fia. Black and white reproduction from the Fundació Institut Amatller d’Art Hispànic. | Destrucció de la Inquisició a Barcelona. H. Lecomte. 1820. AHCB. | El món al segle XVI. S. Münster, C. Ptolemeu and H. Petri; Geographia universalis, 1545. ICC.