The Artist and the Church -Trent

"While the Council of Nicaea affirmed the validity of the use of sacred images, the Council of Trent defined the role of art in service to the Church."

As we recounted previously, the Council of Nicaea refuted the ideas of the iconoclasts, and affirmed the validity of the use of images in worship.

By the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), religious imagery used in churches, i.e. liturgical art, had begun to drift away from a focus on the relationship between God and man and instead seemed to celebrate man exclusive of the context of salvation history. In general terms, the art of the Renaissance portrayed man almost Godlike in himself, without the need for a Savior. To the eyes of Pope Benedict XVI, the overall effect was to depict a world "without the fear of sin." (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy)

There were exceptions of course and figures such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian, have brought us some of our most beloved Christian art. Nevertheless, as art continued to evolve into Mannerism with its disproportionate, highly stylized figures and contrived poses and compositions, the fathers of the church grew more and more concerned that art was developing in a way that would no longer appeal to the faithful.

Madonna with the Long Neck   ,    Parmigianino

Madonna with the Long Neck Parmigianino


And so the final session of the Council of Trent, held on December 3-4, 1563, addressed the use of art in liturgical spaces.

It first reaffirmed the canons of the Council of Nicaea. This was important because if you recall, one of the aims of Nicaea was to refute the iconoclast council of Hieria. By supporting Nicaea, the council fathers recognized and validated the continuity of Church teachings.

"Moreover, that the images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints, are to be had and retained particularly in temples, and that due honour and veneration are to be given them; not that any divinity, or virtue, is believed to be in them, on account of which they are to be worshipped; or that anything is to be asked of them; or, that trust is to be reposed in images, as was of old done by the Gentiles who placed their hope in idols; but because the honour which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent; in such wise that by the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head, and prostrate ourselves, we adore Christ; and we venerate the saints, whose similitude they bear: as, by the decrees of Councils, and especially of the second Synod of Nicaea, has been defined against the opponents of images." (The Council of Trent, Twenty-fifth Session, On the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics, of Saints, and on Sacred mages.) 

The Council then went on to advise bishops to teach "that, by means of the histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in (the habit of) remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith; as also that great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety. But if any one shall teach, or entertain sentiments, contrary to these decrees; let him be anathema."

Th Council concluded its remarks on sacred art by cautioning against images that could lead the viewer away from the teachings of the Church.

"And if any abuses have crept in amongst these holy and salutary observances, the holy Synod ardently desires that they be utterly abolished; in such wise that no images, (suggestive) of false doctrine, and furnishing occasion of dangerous error to the uneducated, be set up. And if at times, when expedient for the unlettered people; it happen that the facts and narratives of sacred Scripture are portrayed and represented; the people shall be taught, that not thereby is the Divinity represented, as though it could be seen by the eyes of the body, or be portrayed by colors or figures.

Moreover, in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust; nor the celebration of the saints, and the visitation of relics be by any perverted into revelings and drunkenness; as if festivals are celebrated to the honor of the saints by luxury and wantonness.

In fine, let so great care and diligence be used herein by bishops, as that there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.

And that these things may be the more faithfully observed, the holy Synod ordains, that no one be allowed to place, or cause to be placed, any unusual image, in any place, or church, howsoever exempted, except that image have been approved of by the bishop:"

In the ensuing years various bishops, on their own authority, would issue even more explicit instructions in order to combat images that they considered to be misleading. For example at one time it was forbidden to depict Christ as a lamb, at another time, Mary must be shown "standing" at the foot of the cross rather than "swooning." But these pronouncements did not have the backing of the Universal Church and were confined to specific dioceses during the reign of specific bishops.

While the Council of Nicaea affirmed the validity of the use of sacred images, the Council of Trent defined the role of art in service to the Church. Still, some Protestant circles would not accept sacred art on any terms and a new wave of iconoclasm stripped many churches of their rich heritage of traditional iconography. But the Council of Trent paved the way for a new generation of artists to work with the Church on sacred imagery that would appeal to the people and be faithful to magisterial teaching. This came to be known as Baroque, or the art of the counter-reformation.

this article originally appeared at


Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at