The Challenge of Protestantism

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The title page of Leo X's 1521 papal bull Exsurge Domine, which called on Martin Luther to recant his challenges to papal authority and Church teaching

Exsurge Domine

Almost three years after Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses set off a religious wildfire, Pope Leo X issued this papal bull, named after the first two words in the Latin text, “Arise, O Lord.” The document lists forty-one purported errors of Luther. Many of them concern the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences, but the bull also defends the Catholic doctrines of the divine institution of the papacy, the morality of burning heretics, and others (Wiesner-Hanks, 168-169). 

Pope Leo X ordered that all of Luther’s works be burned, and he forbade Catholics from reading or owning any of them. He also ordered Luther to come and recant his heretical beliefs within sixty days, or be excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Luther did not do so, and in response to the bull he issued several new writings denouncing the papacy as the Antichrist. Two months after he received a copy of Exsurge Domine Martin Luther publicly burned it and other church documents.

This papal bull shows the inherent spiritual role of the papacy as the center of authority in Catholicism. In relation to the Reformation period specifically it shows the doctrines that came under debate due to Luther’s challenge, and the fierce way in which the Catholic hierarchy responded to the German monk’s criticism. However, the bull ultimately did little if anything to slow down the speed of the Reformation that was sweeping across much of Germany.

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An image of the medals Pope Gregory XIII struck in commemoration of the 1572 Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre

St. Bartholomew's Day Medal of Gregory XIII

This medal was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in commemoration of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, one of the bloodiest events of the French Wars of Religion. Catholics targeted and killed many prominent Protestants who were in Paris for the wedding of the king’s sister and the Protestant King Henry of Navarre. Estimates of the death toll vary widely, from thousands to tens of thousands (Wiesner-Hanks, 193). It weakened the Huguenot cause by killing off many of its important leaders, radicalized those who remained Protestant, and provoked continued bloodshed and violence between France’s two religious groups.

In response to hearing of the massacre, Pope Gregory XIII ordered that the solemn canticle of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, be sung. Paintings of key events from Paris were commissioned by famed artist Giorgio Vasari. Gregory XIII also ordered this medal struck. It features on the obverse his bust, and on the reverse the Latin phrase “UGNOTTORUM STRAGES”, translated as “Overthrow of the Huguenots.” Catholic sources emphasize that the pope had no advance warning of the massacre and also suggest that the news reports which reached Rome implicated the Huguenots in a plot against the king’s life (Goyau, np). 

Nevertheless, this medal symbolizes the harsh response of the papacy to the Protestant Reformation sweeping Europe and the often violent measures the Bishops of Rome employed and endorsed in an effort to stamp out heresy. The medal also shows that national political events were inextricably linked to larger, European religious developments and that the papacy was a distinctly international institution.

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A print showing several scenes from the life and death of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556)

Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Spanish artist Juan de Mesa created this print in 1610, and it features three images from the life and death of Saint Ignatius of Loyola as part of a larger series on the life of Ignatius. Ignatius experienced a deeply spiritual conversion experience while convalescing from wounds sustained in war with the French.

He is most well-remembered for the foundation of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, whose members have come to be described as “God’s soldiers.” In addition to standard vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Jesuits required a special promise of obedience to the pope, thus establishing the order as one of the fiercest defenders of the Catholic Church and the most diligent in spreading the faith in places near and far (Wiesner-Hanks, 256).

In the upper right corner of this print is the scene of Ignatius receiving papal approval for the Society from Pope Paul III in 1540. As the Council of Trent and ensuing Catholic Reformation picked up steam in the coming years the Jesuits came to be heavily associated with the papacy as they sent priests covertly into Anglican England and evangelized in faraway nations like Japan. This image demonstrates the centrality of the papacy in the Catholic faith which emerged after the Reformation, as well as the zeal the various popes had for spreading Catholicism and their authority far and wide across the globe.