Extremism. Just by reading such a word various thoughts may come to mind. One might think of an ideology, maybe, linked to a violent form of conflict, but do you know how extremism expresses itself? Can we become extremists? What can be considered extremism?

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer (1863-1883) by Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904)The Walters Art Museum

However, the persecutions wouldn’t stop with Jesus. His people would soon begin to experience it themselves. As followers of the new Christian faith raised in number and became bolder in their devotion, the authorities began to fear their strength and discriminative measures were taken against Christians. As it usually happens to any religious minority on the rise.

The first Christian martyrs, those who endured suffering or died for advocating and refusing to renounce their faith, date back exactly to this moment in Ancient Rome. Uncountable stories were generated around their martyrdoms, setting up their status as epitomes of religious devotion. Art ensured the world would remind it.

Initial I: A Martyr Saint, Lippo Vanni, third quarter of 14th century, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Martyrs are, usually, portrayed in their glory.

Saint Stephen, German 15th Century, 1450/1470, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
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Proudly hosting the symbols of their martyrdom.

Saint Bartholomew, Matteo di Giovanni, ca. 1480–1485, From the collection of: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
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Reminders of how they were massacred.

Saint Bartholomew, Francisco Zurbarán, 17th century, From the collection of: National Palace of Ajuda
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The intention is for us to feel the martyrs' boundless dedication to their faith.

Saint Catherine, Vasco Fernandes, 1511/1515, From the collection of: National Museum Soares dos Reis
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To admire them for their willingness to die for the love of their God.

Manuscript Leaf with the Martyrdom of Saint Peter Martyr in an Initial P, from a Gradual Manuscript Leaf with the Martyrdom of Saint Peter Martyr in an Initial P, from a Gradual (ca. 1270–80)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Depictions of the martyrdom itself were more rare in public art.

Illuminated manuscripts provide us with some examples from medieval times.

Initial Q: A Priest Stabbed by a Soldier (text and illumination about 1285) by Bute MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Where episodes of christian persecution can be found decorating capital letters.

These scenes tell us how harassment and violence against people of Christian faith was still felt, or at least reminded.

Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples (1455/60) by Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, about 1399–1482)The Art Institute of Chicago

The renaissance would make the suffering such pious figures endured the focal point of artworks of this theme.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1455/60) by Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, about 1399–1482)The Art Institute of Chicago

Thus, artistic depictions became more realist to what executions would have truly been like.

Alerts to the real consequences of the extreme measures applied in religious persecutions.

Human beings, ordinary people, flesh and bone ...

The Head of Saint John the Baptist Brought before Herod (1455/60) by Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, about 1399–1482)The Art Institute of Chicago

butchered in the most horrendous ways.

butchered in the most horrendous ways.

The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, Giovanni Bellini, about 1505-7, From the collection of: The National Gallery, London
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The Stoning of Saint Stephen, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, 1625, From the collection of: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
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The Martyrs of Japan, Jacques Callot, 1628, From the collection of: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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Beheading of Anabaptist Martyrs, School of Rembrandt van Rijn, ca. 1640, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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St. Lawrence's martyrdom, Workshop Oliveira Bernardes, 1710/1730, From the collection of: National Azulejo Museum
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Saint Martyres of Marrocos, Unknown, 1730, From the collection of: Mafra National Palace
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A Martyr (1883) by Albert BesnardNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Perhaps forgetting the persecution suffered by its savior and his followers, the Catholic Church would itself ensure religious purity by persecuting and executing religious minorities. It outdid the Roman Empire in fervor and cruelty.

War 1096-1270 Crusades Preaching And Peter The Hermit 4LIFE Photo Collection

The Crusades, of course, show not only the power the Christian Church, now Roman Catholic, had slowly acquired through almost a millennia.

Rel. Chri. Sects. Various. Flagellants, Shakers, Etc.LIFE Photo Collection

The Crusades also portray how extremely controllable the crowds become in the midst of religious fanatism.

Crusaders before Jerusalem (1825/1874) by Wilhelm von KaulbachThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

If the first had the main purpose of regaining control of the Holy Land, implicitly to show the supremacy of the Christian faith over Islamism.

Heilige Jakobus de Meerdere (Jacobus Major) in de slag bij Clavijo (1450 - 1491) by Schongauer, MartinRijksmuseum

For the following four centuries, various crusading campaigns were launch against pagan or heretic faiths, in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Europe.

Children's Crusade, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Such was the extremist context, that even a children’s crusade to regain the Holy Land was launched.

Children's Crusade, From the collection of: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Traditional accounts say more than 30 000 children marched south towards the Mediterranean Sea.

Children's Crusade Children's Crusade (ca. 1550–80) by Monogrammist LIWThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The affair ended tragically, with the children being kidnapped and sold into slavery by merchants.

Nothing gained from such endeavour, only a tremendous loss of life, for nothing more than a promise of eternal salvation.

Rel. Chri. Persecutions. Inquisition.LIFE Photo Collection

Such crusading fervor would lead to other extremist movements focused on the fight against heresy. The Catholic Inquisition developed in France, targeting the religious minorities in their own territory. The Counter-Reformation would make other nations adopt the Inquisition with a new extreme dedication. The Spanish and the Portuguese Inquisitions were particularly cruel. Furthermore, they operated globally, due to both countries’ ultramarine empires.  

Rel. Chri. Persecutions. Inquisition.LIFE Photo Collection

These institutions highlight the power over the masses most extremist movements acquire. Specially when based on common beliefs or long running ideals.

Rel. Chri. Persecutions. Inquisition.LIFE Photo Collection

How seemly easy it is to drastically change public perception...

To instigate such hatred towards something...

Rel. Chri. Persecutions. Inquisition.LIFE Photo Collection

... that the people even enjoy or, worse, rejoice its destruction.

Valenza Gradenigo before the Inquisition (1835/1835) by Francesco HayezFondazione Cariplo

The social involvement was so great, that ordinary people felt compelled to denounce those they suspected heretics.

The martyr of fanaticism (c. 1895) by José de BritoNational Museum of Contemporary Art - Museu do Chiado

And a single voice could fuel a torturous trial that would, most likely, result in death.

Ecce Homo (1543) by Tiziano Vecellio, called TitianKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

All to, allegedly, pleasure God and cleanse the world of unfaithfuls.

This would be the motto of various instances of religious fervor exceeding to extremism during the Middle Ages, all over Europe. None might the more illustrative of the power a single individual, a charismatic and highly convicted individual, can acquire over the masses than that of Girolamo Savonarola.

Girolamo Savonarola, 1452-1498, Dominican Preacher [obverse] (c. 1497) by Style of Niccolò FiorentinoNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

A Dominican friar responsible for influencing the people of 15th century Florence to live according to his own ideal of a God-fearing society.

Predica del arte del bene morire (sermon on the art of dying well)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Preaching of approaching doom and the need to save their souls...

Savonarola managed to incite the florentine people, already discontent with the excesses demonstrated by the government, to live humbly and to make him their leader.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) (late 15th century) by Niccolò Fiorentino (Niccolò di Forzore Spinelli)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

To ensure his power, Savonarola took advantage of the easily influenced youth, using them as a means to harass the population into compliance with the new way of life.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bands of followers are always a necessary support to any kind of tyrannical figure, either to incite or control the people, and usually remaining loyal to the ideology long after its passing.

The death of Savonarola and two other friars after being condemned as heretics (1650) by AnonymousFaculty of Arts and Humanities of University of Porto

Florence would spend four years emerged in this religious extremism, specially destructive to anything cultural and artistic.

Bonfires of vanities, where Boticelli, Dante, di Credi’s and so many more artworks went up in flames, were a common social practice.

Obviously such ambitious actions would provoke an extreme response from the religious authorities. Savonarola would meet his end at the hands of the Papal sentenced, excommunicated and fallen from grace.

Once more, the crowd that veneered him is said to have cheered.

Savonarola Girolamo 1452-1498LIFE Photo Collection

Today he might be remembered as a fanatical tyrant but his ideals remained, his preaching about the moral corruption of the Church of Rome would be read by the early Protestant reformers. Martin Luther himself, responsible for a tremendous religious and cultural revolution, read them before publish his Ninety-Five Thesis (1517). A new form of Christianism would subsequently emerge, Protestantism, rejecting the doctrine of papal supremacy, once and for all, and advocating a less material faith. As in any revolution, the clash of the old with the new beliefs amounted, once more, to numerous occasions of religious fanatism and persecution throughout Europe.

Justice, Vengeance, and Truth (1865) by François-Nicolas ChifflartNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Credits: Story


CURATORSHIP: Laura Fabíola Esteves Pereira (CITCEM), Lúcia Rosas (FLUP/CITCEM) & Maria Leonor Botelho (FLUP/CITCEM)

TEXTS: Laura Fabíola Esteves Pereira (CITCEM)


SPONSORS: Embaixada dos Estados Unidos da América em Portugal / US Embassy Portugal ACP - American Corners Portugal

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