Suykerbuyk: Catholic self-fashioning in style. Siding with Rome in the Low Countries (c. 1520-1585)

Catholic self-fashioning in style. Siding with Rome in the Low Countries (c. 1520-1585)


This project addresses the legacy of the classical tradition in the sixteenth-century Low Countries by assessing how religious change influenced patrons’ choices for an antique style and subject. It will focus on all’antica depictions of martyrdoms of saints executed under the Roman Empire for refusing to give in to pagan idolatry, as such images became of topical interest because of both subject and style. By investigating how style helped formulating theological arguments, the project seeks to contribute to the theoretical question of the interrelation of form and content in art.

The all’antica style gradually spread in the Netherlandish arts from the 1510s onwards and proposed a visual idiom that radically differed from the Gothic style that had prevailed during preceding centuries. Significantly, this stylistic change coincided with fundamental religious change in the Low Countries. The introduction of Protestant thought around 1520 challenged the traditional monopoly of Catholicism and led to a multiconfessional context. Accusations of idolatry were central to reproaches to the Church of Rome and comparisons of Catholic image veneration with worship in pagan antiquity often recurred in polemical writings. The use of antique, ‘heathen ornaments’ becoming widespread in Catholic churches only served as grist to the Protestant mill.

Scholars have shown how this context fostered a new Catholic engagement with classical antiquity on the rebound. The popes refashioned the city of Rome with its pagan heritage as the capital of Christianity, and in the Low Countries Emperor Charles V deployed the antique style to demonstrate his Roman imperial ideology and Catholic allegiance. Thus, the antique style with its obvious references to Rome was increasingly used to visually stage the triumph of central Catholic tenets, such as the Eucharist or relics, over paganism and heresy. Yet, the confessional implications of stylistic choice in religious patronage during this crucial period in the Low Countries remain to be assessed.

By studying all’antica depictions of idolatry-related martyrdoms this project will tackle that very issue. Style and subject therein meaningfully converged: as religious images executed in the problematized antique style, they conspicuously address the distinction between depicted pagan idolatry and the image’s intended function in Christian worship. Inherently Catholic by virtue of their saintly subject, I argue that they functioned as visual reflections on this crucial problem in the sixteenth-century Low Countries, and that style played a key role in the religious self-fashioning of patrons. Thus, this survey will assess the implications of appropriating the classical tradition in the shaping of a Catholic identity.

Projektmitarbeiter ZI