MODERN AGE: Europe 15th & 16th

At the end of the 15th century a new world of civilizations opened up to western explorers when, in 1492, the Spanish arrived on the American continent. This feat reunited the two parts of the world separated 66 million years ago by the tectonic shift of the planet which brought the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Eurasia and the American continent. The new discoveries, inspired by the Italian Renaissance and the Spanish Reconquista, opened up a period of cultural instability, characterized by eagerness for reform and an interest in the vernacular. However, many famous authors such as Erasmus, More and Loyola, though reformers, preferred to continue with the lingua franca of Europe, Latin. The Protestant Reformation with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and the invention of the printing press in the following century would encourage literacy and the distribution of works in native languages.

The Reformation

Nordic religious humanism was one reforming characteristic of the time and responded to social change and the inability of the established religion to respond to the needs of literate believers, who had become increasingly more confident in themselves. These reformers attacked scholastic theology as an unnecessary complication of a simple faith and criticised empty ecclesiastical rites and the selling of indulgences.

In 16th. century Spain expressed reform as an explosion of mystical and contemplative activity and as part of the task of counter-reformation against Protestantism. It was not an abstract mysticism, but aimed at self-support in order to undertake practical reforms. The protagonists were also prolific writers who knew how to communicate their experiences. Loyola was one example and others were Teresa of Ávila and her disciple Juan de la Cruz.

The main spokesperson for nordic humanism was Erasmus of Rotterdam. He used the philological methods of the Italian humanists for historical criticism, especially in studies of the New Testament in the original Greek and of references to the tradition of the church fathers. He helped replace the scholastic curriculum with studies based on the classics, similar to the Italians. His balanced criticisms were directed both against the abuses of power of the Popes and against the dogma of predestination of the Protestant reformers. In this way Erasmus earned the dispproval of both Catholicism and Protestantism.

Thomas More, Prime Minister of Henry VIII, was sentenced to death by the king for not denying his Catholic faith by refusing Henry's Anglican reform. He was a great friend of Erasmus. He wrote the best-known English work of renaissance inspiration: Utopia (1516). Written in Latin, it deals with an ideal state, inspired by Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. It is a satirical work imitating the Greek writer Lucius admired by Erasmus and More. Renaissance humanism is perceived in its application of classical ideas to social reform. Like Leonardo Bruni, More believed that ancient political ideas could create the ideal state. But More was also skeptical and used humanistic idealism to criticize contemporary society.

In the middle of the 15th century one of the most influential religious books appeared, The Imitation of Christ. It was written in Latin, probably by Thomas à Kempis, a Dutch monk. He gives advice on how to live spiritually, stresses the spiritual against the material and encourages strengthening the faith through the Eucharist. Holland and Spain were united within the Spanish empire under Philip II and upon arrival in Spain The Imitation of Christ had a vital impact on Ignatius of Loyola. His reading prompted him to found The Society of Jesus (1534). The Jesuits founded schools throughout Europe and the instruction reflected the training of their teachers in classical studies and theology. They also sent missionaries around the world in an effort to evangelize.

The first activities of Ignatius de Loyola in his diffusion of the method through his Exercitia spiritualia made him suspect of heterodoxy (assimilated to the followers of Erasmus). He was prosecuted, his preaching was prohibited (1524) and he had to interrupt his studies. However, during the Counter-Reformation the Jesuits agreed with Erasmus in his criticism of the Protestant idea of ​​predestination and supported the Church in its struggle.

The main ideas of the Protestant reformers are summarised in the five Reformation Solas, ideas present in their theologies but compiled into five beliefs only in the 20th. century:

- Sola Scriptura (By scripture alone) is the doctrine that the Bible is the only source of revelation. It contains all the necessary information about life and faith.

- Sola Gratia (By grace alone) is the idea that salvation is by the grace of God. Sinners can do nothing to merit their salvation.

Sola fide (By faith alone) is summarised in Article 11 of the Anglican Church:

"We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings."

Solus Christus (By Christ alone) means that Christ is the unique mediator between God and humans. Salvation can only come through Christ. 

Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone) opposes any veneration of saints, angels or the Vigin Mary, as is the tradition in the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian protested against ecclesiastical corruption that sold indulgences to finance the construction of Saint Peter in Rome and pinned his complaints written in 95 theses on a Wittenberg church door (1517).

He was excommunicated, but, protected by the elector of Saxony, so he spent his time, together with others, translating the Bible into the vernacular. This was a powerful event because it freed German readers from the ecclesiastical power that functioned as the sole interpreter of the Bible. Now everyone could comment on the book.

In Switzerland religious reform began in 1519 with the sermons of Ulrich Zwingli who had the same ideas as Luther. Jean Calvin fled France to Geneva in 1541 in order to continue teaching his doctrine of reform that emphasized the power of God and predestination. A theocratic regime of austere morality was installed. Protestant doctrines spread to reach Scotland (Presbyterianism), France (Huguenots), and Holland (Calvinism) where they were enduring religious and economic forces.

In England religious reforms began with Henry VIII's need for an heir. When the Pope denied a divorce with Catherine of Aragon, in 1534 Henry, an absolute king, declared himself the final authority in religious matters of the church in England. He dissolved the monasteries to confiscate their wealth and power and placed the translated Bible in the hands of the parishes. After a pro-Calvinist movement by his heir and a Catholic reaction under Mary, daughter of Catherine, Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1559 and introduced Anglicanism (a middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism) and a common prayer book in the vernacular.

The Council of Trent (held intermittently between 1545 and 1563) was the slow response of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The resulting Catholic Church was more spiritual and cultured. A new passion for renewal came by the hands of the Jesuits and the mysticism of Teresa de Avila. The Inquisition in Spain and Rome and The Edict of Nantes in France (1585) were organized to impose orthodoxy on Protestant heresy.

Teresa of Ávila was a Carmelite nun, but she found the rules lax and decided to found a new order that embraced the values ​​of poverty and simplicity. She was an energetic leader and traveled the country founding new monasteries. Her mystical experiences began when she was hospitalized with malaria. It was a period of intense pain, but she began to have spiritual visions and a sense of inner peace that helped her transcend physical pain. She used these experiences for the rest of her life as sources of energy for her reform task.

John of the Cross entered the Carmelites in 1568. He was very demanding and the other monks criticized him for his exhortations to follow him and abandon comfort, liberties and pleasures. In 1577 the ecclesiastical authorities kidnapped him and he was imprisoned under torture for nine months. It was during this captivity in the dark that he wrote his two most famous poems: Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul.

After escaping he wrote The Ascent of Mount Carmel where he comments on his poetry and explains his mystical path. This is summed up in an unstoppable desire to fully know and love God, abandoning everything that does not contribute to this communion. For him, the senses are illusions that distort the reality of union with God.


Apart from social and religious reforms science also sought to question inherited theories, strongly embedded in ecclesiastical philosophies and theologies. Scientific researchers continued the tradition of writing their works in Latin. Truths at that time were already established by the Catholic and Protestant religions. They were based on scholasticism, Aristotle, and the Bible, not on empirical observation. Scientists of the time had to accept the ecclesiastical matrix or die at the stake.

Scientific reform was led by Francis Bacon who was writing when the Spaniards reached the Americas. Humanity was freeing itself from the ancient vision that everything had been discovered or had been revealed by Aristotle or the Bible. Bacon's goal was to reform research. The proposed method was the methodical observation of facts in the study and interpretion of natural phenomena. He explains the new style of investigation in Instauratio Magna (1620) with a cover (see image) inspired by the motto of Carlos I where a caravel is seen going beyond (Plus Ultra) the mythical pillars of Hercules in the Straits of Gibraltar. 

The symbolism reminds us that Bacon also wants to overcome the confines of the old world in a new scientific endeavor. It was written in Latin and influenced by the Aristotelian inductive method. Bacon established the scientific method in an empirical and pragmatic philosophy, but not in the vernacular.

In his philosophical vision Bacon perceived how science and technology would be used in the future to subjugate other peoples and conquer nature itself. From then on, Bacon said, the supreme value would not be measured in moral or religious terms but in utility. The truth would be the utility, and vice versa. Humanity would make its own laws and would no longer depend on God. The utility prediction came true two centuries later when Bentham introduced utilitarianism as a moral reference in the UK during the Industrial Revolution.

In the 2nd century B.C. Ptolemy invented a planetary model with eccentric motion, a significant departure from the Aristotelian concept of circular planetary motion around the earth. Copernicus proposed a heliocentric solar system as a reconciliation of the two models. In 1514 Copernicus, canon of the Frauenburg Cathedral in Germany, developed his own model of a heliocentric planetary system in his Commentariolus. His second book on the subject, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543) was later banned by the Catholic Church (and criticized by Martin Luther, quoting Joshua 10:13 where it is written that the sun stood still).

Giordano Bruno was a priest of the Dominican order in Naples. He expounded theories of an infinite universe and multiple worlds rejecting the traditional geocentrism of the earth. He went further than Copernicus who maintained a finite universe and fixed stars. At a time when the Catholic Church and Protestantism affirmed Aristotelian and Scholastic principles, Bruno was considered a heretic and condemned to the stake.

Johannes Kepler was a German astronomer in the 16th century when the concept of scientific community did not exist. Everything was under the control of ecclesiastical, Catholic or Protestant, institutions. His first intention was to become a theologian.

He was introduced to the study of the stars and to the ideas of Copernicus by his professor of mathematics at the University of Tübingen. Kepler understood that they revealed a universe that bore the mark of a divine plan - a revelation. He decided to demonstrate rigorously what Copernicus had guessed at and he did so using philosophical and religious vocabulary. He believed that divine archetypes were visible as geometric shapes in the world and so to reveal the structure of the universe was to read the mind of God. Inspired by Platonic ideas Kepler also believed that the human mind was created to understand the configuration of the universe.

If Kepler had retained the architecture model he probably would not have left behind the vision established by the Greeks. However, he adopted William Gilbert's theory that the earth is a magnet and generalized it to the conception that the universe is a system of magnetic bodies. He was able to continue with empirical demonstrations of the theories with information from Tycho, the royal astronomer, and Galileo, who had built a telescope in 1609. (Eventually Newton built his theories based on Kepler's laws but discarding all reference to his original theological and philosophical framework.)

Galileo Galilei improved the original Dutch design telescope allowing him to observe and describe Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings, Venus phases, sunspots, and the wrinkled lunar surface. His observations contradicted the Aristotelian vision of the universe that was established in science and theology. The wrinkled lunar surface contradicted celestial perfection and the orbits violated the dogma that the earth was the center of the universe. His support for the new conception of the universe brought him before the religious authorities in 1616 and again in 1633 when he had to recant.

Vesalius represented the culmination of the recovery of ancient knowledge, the introduction of human dissection, and the rise of anatomical literature in Europe. During his life he corrected points of Galen's anatomy and after his death anatomy became a scientific discipline.

He studied at the Catholic University of Leuven/Louvain where the influence of Arab medicine predominated. He then moved to Padua as a professor of surgery, performing himself the practical demonstrations for students. On his visit to Bologna, his practical interventions taught him that Galen was wrong in some of his anatomical conclusions. Indeed, he had based his studies on the dissection of dogs, monkeys and pigs because research on human corpses was prohibited by religion. Versalius published his work on anatomy Fabrica in 1543. The illustrations were made in the studio of the painter Titian.


The Artists of the time depended on sponsors to survive through their art. These included the church, the crown, and the wealthy, and he who pays the piper calls the tune.

Titian earned his living painting for his sponsors: the Catholic Church, the Spanish kings, and the wealthy landowners. The ecclesiastical commissions were to paint religious scenes in churches. The kings and popes commissioned portraits and Titian lived in the Vatican for 6 months in the year 1545 to paint a portrait of Pope Paul III. In 1548 he traveled to the court of Carlos V to paint portraits of the king and his heir Philip II.

Rafael worked from 1504 to 1508 in Florence where he received the artistic influence of Leonardo Vinci and Michaelangelo. Later Pope Julius II called him to decorate the Vatican Residence rooms. (Miguel Ángel painted the Sistine chapel at the same time.) Between 1509 and 1511 he decorated the Rooms with five great frescoes: The Triumph of the Eucharist, The School of Athens, El Parnaso, Gregorio IX promulgating the Decretales and Triboniano.

The School of Athens was painted on the wall of the Pope's private library following the contemporary tradition of decorating private libraries with portraits of great thinkers. The fresco groups the Greek philosophers around Plato and Aristotle, traditionally the main representatives of ancient philosophy. Raphael makes an elegant pictorial philosophical comment placing everyone by their epistemology and dividing them between deductive idealists on the left, Plato's side, and inductive realists on the right of Aristotle:

El Greco moved to Toledo in 1570, after a seven-year stay in Rome, following the invitation of Canon Diego de Castilla, who commissioned the altarpiece The Assumption of the Virgin for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Castilla also facilitated the commission of El Expolio in 1579. (El Greco asked for a price that was too high and he had no further orders from de Castilla.) He had been in Toledo for ten years when Philip II commissioned a work for the monastery of El Escorial; but the Spanish sovereign did not like The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and did not commission the artist again.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-88) is his masterpiece. His son appears in the painting in addition to some prominent people in Toledo society, probably the sponsors. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune as in the pictorial works of the Italian Renaissance.

As the Middle Ages came to an end the most active centres were in Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, sponsored by prosperous citizens.

Jan van Eyck developed painting techniques by replacing oil with tempera. Bruegel the Elder depicted the political troubles and religious unrest using the fantasies invented by Hieronymus Bosch.

German art tended to be regional. It was a heroic age of German art. Albrecht Dürer travelled to Italy where he learned of the theories of proportion and perspective and brought them to Northern Europe. Cranach the Elder was a friend of Luther's. His Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion refers to a salvation by grace, a Protestant subject.


In literature the authors Philippe de Commynes and the poet François Villon wrote in French. In Germany Das Narrenschiff written by Sebastian Brant was the only masterpiece.

Many authors were critical of tradition and strove to propose changes. Doubt appears as the main theme of their creations whether doubt about reality (Cervantes, Calderón), about the contributions of philosophy and science (Montaigne), about social rules (Lope de Vega) or as the basis to rebuild philosophy from scratch (Descartes).

Michel de Montaigne published his Essays (1580) in the vernacular, Middle French (moyen français). He was very critical of the speculative method of scholastic philosophy and said that there was only a general belief in science, not an empirical method. He argued that this kind of science only served to rationally justify beliefs that were already held, as in apologetics. Montaigne was looking for a thought process without ties to dogmatic principles:

"There is more work in interpreting interpretations than in interpreting things ..." 

As a humanist, he conceived philosophy as moral. He practiced it scrutinizing his own judgments to know his weaknesses and also his strengths. He promoted a humanistic revolution in philosophy: a move from a conception of philosophy as a theoretical science to a new approach: the practice of free judgment. His motto showed doubt and skepticism: "Que sais-je?" (What do I know?), Which later became one of the foundations of Descartes' philosophy.

Montaigne's writings are a testimony to the blossoming of a subjectivity. Because philosophy had failed to show a safe path to happiness, it was an invitation to each individual to find their own way.

Renaissance humanists had had reservations about metaphysical thinking. Humanism believed in a natural metaphysics which considered the supernatural as a myth and Nature as the only being. They rejected belief without a reasoned base and the divine revelation of truth. It was championed in Europe by Petrarch, Erasmus, More, Rabelais and Pico della Mirandola.

Contrary to these anti-metaphysical movements, the Jesuit Francisco Suárez wrote his Metaphysical Disputations (1597) in an effort to revive the metaphysical basis for theology. It is based on Aristotle and Aquinas and includes concepts from Duns Scotus and Luis de Molina. This revitalisation of the medieval theologians earned the name Suárezianism. There are fifty-four disputations which systemise all aristotelian metaphysics. It was used for more than a century as a textbook at most European universities, both Catholic and Protestant

In 1605 the first part of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes was published. It is a fiction about a gentleman who lives in a personal dream. It can be interpreted as a satire on chivalrous books or a social criticism of the time. On another level the book introduces a doubt about the difference between History and story-telling, sometimes indistinguishable because both depend on the reader's perception. It is expressed in Cervantes' works using dualities to contrast reality and illusion: Quixote and Panza; talking dogs; Don Quixote's 'reason for unreason'. (It has a parallel in the contemporary Shakespearean idea of ​​'life as theatre' and evident in Calderón de la Barca's notion of 'life as a dream'.)

Lope de Vega explains in his theatre manual, The new art of making comedies at this time, his rejection of classical and neoclassical theatrical rules. He opted for a mix of comedy and tragedy, in addition to a metric variety and installed the public as the final judges of good theatre.

Comedy was a social drama, including criticism of the foundations of contemporary societ, the church and the pudonor (social reputation). The men were brave and proud; women chaste before marriage and faithful after.

They were essentially plots of two kinds: the heroic story and the cloak-and-dagger story.

The concept of the king as an arbiter of justice for the poor against oppression was the argument of heroic works as well as the vindication of the individual's rights.

The cloak-and-dagger plays have common ingredients: love, pride, parody on the part of servants and the gracioso (court jester) who comments on the nonsense of his superiors.

The modern English language was less than 100 years old at the end of the 16th century when Shakespeare wrote. There were no dictionaries, and most documents were still written in Latin. He contributed around 1,700 new words to the language and his works strengthened the use of the vernacular in literature.

Near the end of The Tempest William Shakespeare makes the character Prospero say that humans are made of dreams. This feeling that our lives are illusions and that fiction and reality are connected might constitute Shakespeare's central philosophy, as it did Calderón de la Barca's and Cervantes' in Don Quixote. McGinn writes in his book on philosophy in Shakespeare that the playwright presents life as theatre, a fiction, and that the individual must live according to this belief.

More information...

Thomas à Kempis (1380 - 1471)

Jan van Eyck (1390 - 1441) 

Johannes Ockeghem (1410 - 1497) 

François Villon (1431-1463)

Philippe de Commynes (1447-1511)

Sebastian Brant (1457-1521)

Hans Holbein (1460 - 1524) 

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 - 1536)

Nicholas Copernicus (1473 - 1543)

Titian (1477 - 1576)

Thomas More (1478 - 1535)

Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528)

Nicholas Copernicus (1473 - 1543)

Michaelangelo (1475 - 1564)

Rafael Sanzio (1483 - 1520)

Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)

Ignatius of Loyola (1491 - 1556)

Nostradamus (1503 - 1566)

John Calvin (1509 - 1564)

Andreas Vesalio (1514 - 1564)

Teresa of Ávila (1515 - 1582)

Luís de Camões (1524 - 1580)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 - 1594)

Michel de Montaigne (1533 - 1592)

"El Greco" (1541-1614)

John of the Cross (1542 - 1591)

Miguel de Cervantes (1547 - 1616)

Giordano Bruno (1548 - 1600)

Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)

Lope de Vega (1562 - 1635)

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)

Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642)

Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630)

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