Image credit: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1923. This digital record has been made available on NGV Collection Online through the generous support of the Joe White Bequest.
This engraving, attributed to the Dutch artist Robert Willemsz de Baudous (1574- 1659), depicts the interior of a Roman Catholic church, its nave wall removed to reveal a detailed scene of debauchery and corruption within. At the far left, the figure of a beautiful woman labelled ‘Evangelie’ — the Dutch word for ‘gospel’ — holds up draperies, and with her brightly burning torch reveals the corruption within. One priest guzzles the Communion wine, while other clergymen have set up stalls for a thriving trade in religious objects. Insect-like demons wander freely, and the worshippers and clergy are depicted with monstrous, mask-like faces. One seller of religious objects is shown with multiple arms, each either retrieving coins or grasping at the objects laid out for sale. Other grotesque figures form a crowd outside. At the entrance sit two figures, labelled ‘Ohola’ and ‘Oholiba’, who in Ezekiel 23 are described as having ‘played the whore.’ They are clearly to be linked to Roman Catholic clergy: one has a bishop’s mitre on her head. Throughout the image there are engraved numbers, confirming that there was originally a key (now lost) detailing the names of the characters.
This image is a reminder that Netherlandish print production, professionalised by 1550, was a major means of disseminating reformist themes and propaganda. The Dutch destruction of sacred objects and images in churches began with the iconoclast riots of 1566, and continued into the late sixteenth century. Roman Catholic interiors were refurbished for the purpose of Reformed Calvinist worship, and religious images were often replaced with inscriptions of biblical texts, or bare whitewashed walls. The rich altarpieces and seething religious marketplace depicted in this engraving would have been in stark contrast to these bare-walled, empty Protestant church interiors.
Print production in the Netherlands initially functioned as a source of simple devotional imagery. Yet because of prints’ relatively low price and potential for wide circulation, they soon played a significant role in the voicing of religious arguments. The distorted bodies in The Roman Church are not unique. A cycle of twelve engravings produced in the 1570s by Adriaan de Weert and Haarlem Dirck Volkertsz. Coornhert, known as The moral decline of the clergy, or the root of the Dutch revolt and the iconoclastic fury, depicts the progression of the Roman Church into corruption. In one image from the series, Martin Luther holds up the cloak of the Pope, revealing with his burning torch a deformed, animalistic body. De Baudous’ female figure ‘Evangelie’ mirrors this action of ‘lifting the veil’ and shedding light on the corruption of the Church, which in both prints is symbolised by the monstrous physical deformities of Catholic worshippers and clergy.
Catherine Mahoney, MA Curatorship, University of Melbourne