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(Was Michelangelo Really Catholic?)

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
March 26, 2018

At The Foot Of The Cross

Freed from a burden sore and grievous band,
Dear Lord, and from this wearying world untied,
Like a frail bark I turn me to Thy side,
As from a fierce storm to a tranquil land.
Thy thorns, Thy nails, and either bleeding hand,
With Thy mild gentle piteous face, provide
Promise of help and mercies multiplied,
And hope that yet my soul secure may stand.
Let not Thy holy eyes be just to see
My evil past, Thy chastened ears to hear
And stretch the the arm of judgment to my crime:
Let Thy blood only love and succor me,
Yielding more perfect pardon, better cheer,
As older still I grow with lengthening time.

---Michelangelo Buonarroti


It is hardly the Italian scene of the 16th century that we would immediately scan for evidence of Reformational thought and influence but for a season a vigorous Evangelicalism prevailed in Italy that originated through the power of Holy Scripture and echoed the theology of Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. Its endurance in the Italian peninsula was short-term and it did not develop into a clear form of Protestantism by any means, but through the testimony and scholarship of many emigres it exerted good effect in regions north of the Alps and certainly within the English nation that is hugely indebted to a profound and beautiful Italian influence.

Our Anglican Reformed Catholicism derived great benefit from Italian presence and theological impact. Genuine Anglicanism is the product of a clearly defined and mature Augustinianism, much of it apprehended by native sons (e.g. Bede, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, Barnes, Bilney), and much of it channeled into the land from various Continental sources rooted in sound Patristics and the doc-trines of grace articulated by the cream of pre-Reformational thinkers. The Anglicanism of Cran-mer and his colleagues is robust, balanced, irenic, and pastorally adept due to its orthodox ecu-menicity and a company of "foreign" godly and gifted contributors to its overall character.

It would be so enriching and encouraging for members of our Communion to be readily able to identify the great figures who shaped our tradition and bequeathed to us our most admirable her-itage. Pre-Reformational Catholicism is not to be viewed simplistically as theologically or spiritual-ly monotone. Our Reformers, taken individually, were each of them nurtured from particular faith-options across the entire spectrum of spiritual traditions available to them (Benedictine, Augustini-an, Dominican, and Cistercian - noting the overlap between various strains of thought, piety, and discipline).

Among the worthy forefathers of Reformed thought that renewed the Church of God were Augus-tine, obviously, together with his key supporters Prosper and Fulgentius; Ratramnus, admired by Ridley and Bradford; Gregory of Rimini, precious to Juan de Valdes, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Jerome Zanchius; John Wycliffe, via John Hus, (both an inspiration to Luther); Bernard of Clair-vaux, a favorite of Luther and Calvin; the poetic, misrepresented Gottschalk , so admired by James Ussher who studied the German monk keenly and translated his verse into English, and so on, and so on - all worthy of diligent tracing through various dictionaries of the Christian Church, resulting in exciting surprises. "Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord."

The Reformation was not primarily innovative but restorative of biblical orthodoxy clarified, ampli-fied, and rationally arranged by diligent and competent students of historical theology. Anglican-ism is heir to a multiplicity of noble perspectives and varieties of piety that are now largely ignored in the modern era. We are no longer nourished on adult fare, but fed with froth, sentiment, and slight social comment from senior clergy. Consequently, we are famished beyond belief (double entendre intended).


The rise of conspicuous Evangelicalism, or Evangelism, in 16th century Italy is usually ascribed to the ministry in Naples of the of the Spaniard Juan de Valdes who gained the support of the Capu-chin monk and popular preacher Bernard Ochino and worked his way to gospel clarity through the friendship of Peter Martyr Vermigli. Valdes, who privately shunned Catholicism but did not enlist in any protestant grouping, was one with Luther in his doctrine of justification by faith alone, and united with Luther, Calvin, and Vermigli in the edifying and essential doctrine of predestination to life.

From these men evolved the wide circle of reformation-minded folk known as the Spirituali, which included aristocrats and church and society leaders such as cardinals Contarini and Pole, Countesses Colonna and Gonzaga, and Renaissance genius Michelangelo. Groups of Spirituali sprang up throughout Italy and many notables comprised their membership, a cause of consternation to church authorities. Three factors contributed to the failure of the Spirituali to influence Italian Christianity long term. As an elite group of believers it failed to enlist the support of the general populace. The majority of adherents were reluctant to leave or openly oppose the tradition of their nurture. Official persecution from the church and the occur-rence of the Inquisition in Spain discouraged continuation of the movement. Many sympathetic to the emphasis on the Gospel moved north into other regions of Europe and Vermigli, Zanchius, and Orchino exercised great influence abroad. The Italian Inquisition silenced many other reform-ists voices.

Key Members of the Spirituali

Juan de Valdes 1498? - 1541.

The Valdes family actually emigrated from England to Spain in the late 15th century. Avoiding the Inquisition in the latter country Juan resettled in Italy in 1531, becoming chamberlain to Pope Clement VII in 1533, and founding, after 1534, a society for the study of Scripture and the discus-sion of Reformed doctrine. Eminent citizens of Naples responded enthusiastically to his ministry which exactly resembled the teaching embraced in Geneva by the disciples of Jean Calvin.

Giulia Gonzaga (1513 - 1566)

Friend, cousin, and sister-in-law of Countess Vittoria Colonna the Countess Giulia earnestly shared in the Reformational faith of the Spirituali society of believers through the teaching of Juan Valdes whose doctrine she fully endorsed and summarized in printed form. At his death the Spanish theologian entrusted the entirety of his religious writings to Gonzaga and she ensured their publication. Valdes dedicated his commentaries on the Psalms and Romans to this perse-cuted, brave and gentle woman of the transient Italian Reformation.

Bernard Ochino 1487 -- 1564

Born in Siena, Ochino became Vicar-General of the Capuchins eventually to turn Protestant in 1542. A much celebrated preacher of the Gospel emphasizing justification by faith Ochino sup-ported the ministry of Valdes in Naples and following condemnation by the authorities of the Catholic Church he fled to northern Europe and eventually went to England at the invitation of Thomas Cranmer. His later years were disappointingly suspect, appearing to deny the doctrine of the Trinity and advocating the practice of polygamy.

Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500 - 1558)

It is opined by historians that Reginald Pole had a more legitimate claim to the English throne than Henry Tudor. It is also noted that in 1549 the Cardinal lost election to the papal throne by one vote. Pole was an eminent and founding member of the spirituali befriended and com-mended by Countess Vittoria Colonna for his advocacy of justification by faith. It is a matter of in-triguing conjecture as to where the Church of Rome might have turned if this member of the Eng-lish nobility had gained the office of pope. As it happened Pole succeeded Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury for the duration of the reign of Queen Mary when Romanism temporari-ly flourished and supporters of reform suffered persecution and martyrdom while others found safety in exile. Sadly, it seems that Pole did nothing to alleviate the plight of Protestants and dis-courage the torment so sorely meted out to them. Conversely the Primate took no personal vi-cious action against them, obediently tolerating the campaign of Mary's avid ambition to annihilate Evangelicals with whom he might have harbored some secret sympathy. However, Pole's ultimate devotion was to the preservation of the Catholic Church, "the ancient institution" of his nurture, as he viewed and revered it, and this dominant sentiment failed to stanch the blood flow characteris-tic of Mary's fanatical rule. It is almost an eerie fact that Pole died twelve hours after the monarch he perhaps, deep down, unwillingly served to the extent that he did, a basically a good man in an age of great and sudden violence. It cannot be forgotten that the English born Cardinal pro-nounced justification by faith, "this holy, fruitful, and indispensable truth'.

Countess Vittoria Colonna (1492 - 1547)

Vittoria Colonna is truly one of the most sainted women in Italian, even Christian memory. Of no-ble birth, noble character, and noble piety, she was a rare example of what divine grace could achieve in a believing human life. She was at the very center of the fellowship of the spirituali sustaining its existence and attracting participants to the heartfelt allegiance to the Word of God and the promotion of the evangel of Christ. Her close friendship and pastoral en-couragement of Michelangelo led to his personal benefit that will last throughout eternity. Colonna was the instrument with which the hand of the Lord carved the features of the new creature that the genius of the Renaissance eventually became through divine election. Much correspondence was exchanged between the two and their friendship inspired charming devotional poetry dedi-cated to each other in their mutual adoration of the Savior. She soothed the uncertainty and inse-curity of soul that engendered anguish for salvation in the great artist/sculptor's being. As a result of the Italian Inquisition Colonna's writings religious and romantic were banned and perhaps due to the disapproval of the Roman Church her brilliant literary artistry has been concealed for gen-erations.

"I would desire that Jesus, with high and powerful call should ever resound in my heart, and that my deeds and my words should show as before, a lively faith and an ardent hope. The elect soul, which feels the seeds of a celestial faith, hears, sees, and comprehends Christ. His grace illumines, inflames, opens and purifies the mind, and often invoking him a firm and beautiful habit is acquired, so that it becomes natural always to ask the true food. And even in the last combat with the ancient foe, to us so hard, armed solely with faith, the heart still, from long habit, on Christ shall call".

"When I look on the bright, noble ray of Grace Divine, and the Power which illumes the intellect and inspires the heart with superhuman virtue, my soul gathers up her will, firm and intent to do it honor. But only so far has she power as she is favored by high election to hear and feel the cer-tain efficacy of the Author of all good. May his mercy be blessed! It is not by our own industry and talent that our way is assured, but those run most securely and best, who have great sustaining help of heaven."

[English renditions of the content of Sonnets CXCI & VIII]

Marco Flaminio (1498 - 1550)

The celebrated Italian poet Marco Antonio Flaminio was markedly Biblical and Reformed in his personal Christian and Gospel-based convictions:

"In these words (Psalm 32:1) the Psalmist pronounces blessed, not those who are perfect and free from the spot of sin (for no man is so in this life) but those whose sins God has pardoned in his mercy; and he pardons those who confess their sins, and sincerely believe that the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is an expiation for all transgressions and faults - God for the sake of Christ, his Son, adopted them as his sons from all eternity; those whom he adopted before they were born he calls to godliness; and having called them, he confers on them first righteousness, and then everlasting life".

Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483 -1542)

Contarini ranks among the choicest figures of 16th century Italian history. He was the senior and most effective pastoral counsellor of the spirituali. He experienced a similar spiritual crisis and conflict of conscience as Martin Luther - how do I find a gracious God? - and he arrived at the same Scriptural conclusion - justification by faith. Of Gasparo's propagation of the truth of a free justification Reginald Pole astutely observed, "Thou hast brought forth the jewel which the Church was keeping half concealed." Contarini agreed with the Reformers at the ill-fated Con-ference of Ratisbon (1451) designed to heal the breach between Catholic and Protestant. The failure to close the breach was the Cardinal's greatest and enduring heartache. He fought for greater tolerance of Evangelical belief at the long-lasting Council of Trent (1545-63) which set Catholic teaching in stone and staunchly opposed Reformation teaching in spite of Contarini's passionate appeals. This godly and emotional Christ-centered servant of the Lord met with two huge disappointments in his latter years of ministry. Another turning point in the history of Roman Catholicism had been missed. The conclusion of Countess Colonna would be agreed by many. "Contarini should have been pope to have made the age happy."

Peter Martyr Vermigli (1491 - 1562)

Italy's greatest gift to the Reformation was the man deemed equal to the greatness of Jean Calvin as scholar, instructor, and divine. Vermigli deserves the very closest attention of earnest Angli-cans. Along with the German Martin Bucer, mentor of Calvin, he exerted enormous influence on the shaping of the Reformational Church in England. Peter Martyr was an early friend of Juan Valdes and together, in mutual encouragement, they studied, prayed, and conversed their way into an understanding of the Word of God and grasp of the Gospel. Both men mingled together in the society of the spirituali in its early days and they collaborated in imparting sound theol-ogy to its eminent members. When strong and oppressive persecution commenced in Italy Vermi-gli and Ochino ultimately found useful refuge in England at the invitation of the then Archbishop of Canterbury and at times Vermigli enjoyed hospitality for extended periods in the home of Cranmer himself. Their warm fellowship and agreement in theology assisted in forming the character of original, constitutional, and confessional Anglicanism. At Cranmer's request Vermigli reviewed and revised the draft liturgy for the English Book of Common Prayer and cast his eye over the content of the then Forty-Two Articles of Religion which were subsequently compressed to Thirty-Nine Articles under the oversight of Vermigli's close friend, admirer, and theological ally John Jewel in 1552/3. As trusted confidant to Thomas Cranmer, professor of theology at Oxford Uni-versity, (where he presented many lectures, preached frequently, and produced, among other things, his commentary on Romans), the great Italian assuredly left his strong and distinct stamp upon the nature of Anglicanism. His godly guidance continued after his departure to the Continent in his exchange of correspondence with leaders of the Church of England, including the excellent Bishop Edmund Grindal, a beacon of Reformational thought and champion of consistent Scriptur-al preaching. As readers peruse the text of the Book of Common Prayer the shadow of Peter Mar-tyr Vermigli wafts across the pages.

Michlangelo Buonarriti (1475 - 1564)

The great Renaissance genius grappled with the urgent issues of his eternal salvation and the elite circle of the spirituali was exactly suited to his aesthetic bent and his need for the benefit of the Gospel. The camaraderie over topics of religion and culture mellowed his soul and suited the message of salvation through Christ alone to his anxious heart. Countess Colonna loved him dearly and gently led him along the pathway of sincere faith. Michelangelo was truly united in conviction with the Evangelicals of the spitituali. The great change became evi-dent through his immense talent and creativity especially where a pause in his projects might have occurred. He made the transition from humanist to humble servant of Christ shifting from the glory of man to the glory of God as his dominant theme. The excellent and to be sought after vol-ume authored by Ambra Moroncini, Michelangelo's Poetry and Iconography in the Heart of the Reformation (Routledge 2017,) contains excellent material on the faith and religious intent of this remarkable individual, and Moroncini's fascinating and gripping ideas are supplemented by Fore-word and Introduction. In his warm commendation of Moroncini's book, Residori Matteo of the University of Sorbonne (Nouvelle) sums up the spiritual pilgrimage and goal of Michelangelo:
"Michelangelo, however, did not cease to believe his 'true' faith, as testified in one of his very last poems, which tells us that 'to change a person's fate belongs to divine power alone'. Beside even if the encounter with Colonna and the evangelical movement had been a fundamental expe-rience for him, his spiritual quest had started much earlier, was far more personal and did not die away. This is one of the main findings of this beautiful book by Ambra Moroncini, so competent in reconstructing forgotten dialogues and intense collective experiences, following closely, with sen-sitivity and historic perspicuity, the intense spiritual, poetic and artistic journey of a great and soli-tary man" (pages 29/30).

Oh, make me see Thee, Lord, where're I go!
If mortal beauty sets my soul on fire,
That flame when near to Thine must needs expire,
And I with only love of Thee shall glow.
Dear Lord, Thy help I seek against this woe.
These torments that my spirit vex and tire;
Thou only with new strength canst re-inspire
My will, my sense, my courage faint and low.
Thou gavest me on earth this soul divine;
And Thou within this body weak and frail
Didst prison it - how sadly there to live!
How can I make its lot less vile than mine?
Without Thee, Lord, all goodies seems to fail.
To alter fate is God's prerogative. --- Michelangelo.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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