Heresy, Michelangelo, and the Vatican

Michelangelo and the English Martyrs by Anne Dillon (Ashgate)

- Reviewed by Lucy Wooding

In 1555, a large and elaborate broadsheet was published in Rome, showing in exquisite and terrible detail the executions of the English Carthusians who in the 1530s had refused to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church in England.

The illustrations gave a graphic portrayal of how the monks had been butchered, setting them in a Roman landscape which recalled the persecutions of Diocletian, while the text beneath the pictures declared them as martyrs.

This broadsheet is in itself a remarkable and stirring object, but Anne Dillon has taken it as the starting point for an even more extraordinary book. She has unravelled, decoded and contextualised its words and images to produce an outstanding example of historical investigation, and a rich and elegant piece of cultural history.

Dillon, celebrated for her work on the place of martyrdom within early modern English Catholicism, has reconstructed, layer by layer, the process by which this broadsheet came into existence. It is an extremely complex narrative, packed with striking characters and fascinating connections, but she unfolds it carefully, one piece at a time, with perfect clarity.

She identifies the likely artist and engraver, but more importantly demonstrates that the broadsheet images drew heavily upon the work of Michelangelo, in particular his controversial frescoes for the Pauline Chapel.

These frescoes, she argues, embodied the convictions shared by Michelangelo, and close associates such as Vittoria Colonna and Reginald Pole, concerning a Catholic understanding of salvation by faith alone, which in the febrile intellectual world of the 1540s exercised an important influence, soon to be eclipsed by the Council of Trent.

These images of the Carthusian martyrs therefore evoked devotional fervour and  questioning within sixteenth-century Catholicism as it strove to respond to challenges from the outside and corruption within.

From another angle, the broadsheet images also reveal the links between theology, papal politics and artistic genius, and the world of science and anatomical drawing. Michelangelo belonged to a confraternity whose role was to comfort dying criminals at their execution, and which was often allowed the corpse for dissection afterwards.

The Spanish physician who expounded theories of the circulation of the blood may have taken them from the heretical work of Servetus, burned to death by the Calvinists, acquiring the work from his patron, who happened to be in charge of the Spanish Inquisition, and who also ­happened to be the man who commissioned the broadsheet.

Science, religion and art are rarely studied side by side, but this book demonstrates the interweaving of all three to astonishing effect.

Indeed, this book contains so much intricate scholarship that it is really difficult to describe it in a way that does it justice. It moves from the place of the Carthusians in the English religious landscape of the 1530s to the Spanish community in Rome in the 1550s, dominated, we learn, by papal courtiers and courtesans.

It elucidates the techniques of paper production and print-making alongside the dramas of papal politics and the theological tensions underlying the Council of Trent. It seems appropriate that the watermark within the broadsheet was photographed by forensic scientists from the Metropolitan Police Service, for this is a piece of detective work.

More than that, it is detection which uncovers every aspect – ideological, emotional, political, technical or visceral – of its subject. Dillon unfolds the history of dissection alongside the torments of Pole’s grief for the judicial murder of his mother and the complexities of Michelangelo’s spiritual anxieties alongside the artistic marketplace of early modern Rome. This kind of historical range is a rare achievement…

- Lucy Wooding is senior lecturer in history at King’s College, London

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