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Religion in Europe—Impact Through the Ages

Religion is omnipotent in life. It distinguishes people according to their customs and cultures and often acts as a moral compass, defining right from wrong. As the world has progressed with newer and more befitting ideas, we can still find many beliefs that root from religious ideologies. Its impact remains strong in our daily life, ranging from politics to TV shows, or even our lifestyles and habits. Religion has shaped history, and even in today’s day and age, it is continually creating a change.

The Crusades and Its Impact On Renaissance

Humankind has been at war since the dawn of ages, and religious conflicts have often been at the centre of it. A significant example is The Crusades—a series of spiritual battles between 1096 and 1271, waged over the Holy Land of Jerusalem, overlooked by the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Urban II initiated this war, initially disguising it as a pilgrimage. 

Pope Urban desired to unite Christian Europe and reinforce the papacy’s power by giving them a common enemy—The Seljuk Turks. By using religious ideologies, devout Christians were manipulated into partaking in The Crusades. The crusaders were no knights either; instead, they were mere civilians. Only a few were skilled warriors. After a while, their quest was no longer about the Holy Land but a brutal conquest of piety. This religious zeal led to many wars and drove rulers to sanctify Christian dominance.

Around the 13th century, Italy began to prosper, primarily due to trade. The Fourth Crusade (1199 to 1204) played a significant role in helping Italy flourish. The Crusaders had almost destroyed the commercial rivals of the Byzantine Roman Empire, the Venetians and the Genoese and helped build trade links to the Levant. It encouraged credit and banking usage and brought credit letters to expand the money supply, accelerating trade. These practices introduced new accounting and bookkeeping methods that spread all over. The cities expanded greatly, grew in power, and gained sovereignty from the Holy Roman Empire. These developments bolstered the Italians’ wealth and played a vital role in the advent of the Renaissance—an era of rebirth.

The Renaissance focused on the importance of humanism, thereby heavily boosting arts and literature. The period also drove to revive ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The Pope was a central figure during this reformation and aimed to make Rome the centre of Christendom. The city observed massive economic growth because of pilgrims and religious contributions made from all across Europe. They invested chunks of wealth into art and gave complete dominion to the artists over their works, encouraging them to focus more on human emotions than God’s divinity. People of the finest talents travelled from all over Italy to showcase their expertise in Rome.

Arts During Renaissance

Michelangelo was accredited with painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was a dominant sculptor of that time, creating pieces such as the Pietà in St. Peter’s Cathedral. Leonardo da Vinci was considered one of the greatest artists due to his unique comprehension of humanism seen through his works. Some of his most notable works were The Virgin of the Rocks, and The Last Supper, which portrayed his ability to manifest the relationship between living creatures and their environment.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. (Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org)

The Pontiffs were also keen to collect all the antiquities and rediscover the forgotten arts. They focused on embellishing cities with the intricate architecture inspired by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Theatres originated from the ancient Greeks and were built using the land’s natural contours, giving the spectators a better view of the stage without requiring substructures. The Romans modified these through the addition of arches and vaults. Such theatres were revived during the Renaissance. One such patron, Andrea Palladio, came to be regarded as the greatest architect of 16th century northern Italy.

Teatro Olimpico designed by Andrea Palladio, 1585. (Image Credits: britannica.com)

The Decline of the Renaissance

Soon after successive Popes gained full power, they were eager to establish themselves as Italy’s political leaders. The churches came to be involved in multiple fraudulent activities, such as the sale of indulgences. One such instance is Leo X, who sold indulgences to raise funds for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. This severely bruised his reputation among the Holy Roman Empire’s German-speaking lands and came to be debated by Martin Luther, a German priest and professor of theology. Luther’s disputation on indulgences, the ‘Ninety-five Theses‘, eventually led to the birth of Protestantism, a reformation of the Christianity practised by the Catholic Church.

St. Peter’s Basilica stands as the largest church in the world and was built in Renaissance style. (Image Credits: commons.wikimedia.org)

Nepotism was rampant in the Papacy, who actively supported their nephews into their succession. Pope Calixtus’s nephew was promoted to the high office in the Curia and soon became the Pope himself. They also spent ludicrous amounts of wealth on luxuries, and people soon became disenchanted as the Popes didn’t stand up to their spiritual vows. This rebirth movement slowly came to a halt after the sack of Rome by the German Emperor Charles V in 1527. Ultimately, the prestige of the Church in Rome declined, and Protestantism was born.

The Holocaust

The Holocaust, a wretched tragedy that still haunts people, had over 1,000 camps that imprisoned Jews and other minority groups. The prisoners of these concentration camps were treated inhumanely and were subjected to excruciating amounts of physical labour in mining and factory work.  The Holocaust, though barbaric in its nature, saw many of its survivors make a profound impact on art and literature. 

The survivors produced powerful pieces of art in the form of literature, music, and even paintings. Some of the most notable literary pieces are Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Primo Levi’s works. Samuel Bak’s A Mother and Son, Alice Lok Cahana, and David Olère’s works were the most memorable art pieces. Many artists, regardless of experiencing the Holocaust, tried to manifest the survivors’ emotions into art.

Women With Boulders by George Mayor-Marton after receiving news that his parents were killed after being deported from the Ghetto in Gyor, Hungary. (Image Credits: iwm.org.uk)

Paganism Before Christianity

Before Christianity, the Europeans had many indigenous religions which varied from one region to another. These ancient religions are now collectively referred to as paganism. Paganism had vastly different ideologies from the beliefs we recognise today. While most modern faiths have codified dogmas and vary little from place to place, these indigenous religions were usually dynamic and related to local customs and rituals. Although some of them had common deities, their rites of worship varied across lands and were influenced by their local environment.

In Paganism, especially that of the Greco-Romans, there was seldom any distinction between right and wrong. Many of their rituals involved activities considered blasphemous in today’s religions, such as polyamory and homosexuality. Even today, such actions are becoming increasingly commonplace, and their recent emergence is a testament that these ancient cultures still exist and were merely diminished in number.  

As of lately, these pagan cultures are witnessing a revival. Iceland has constructed its first temple in over a thousand years to commemorate the old Nordic gods, Thor and Odin. The summer solstice invites thousands of people around Stonehenge in England to greet the rising sun—just like the pagans once did. Edinburg still entertains the crowd with their Celtic Fire Festivals of Beltane and Samhain. Burning of wicker man is observed in ancient UK sites even now, and in America, thousands travel to Burning Man festivals.

A Beltane bonfire in Edinburgh. (Image Credits: wikipedia.org)

Pagan cultures inspired a significant part of Christianity. The clergy thought adopting some pagan ideas would make it easier to convert Romans to Christianity. So they absorbed a few ideologies, most notably the Roman festival, Saturnalia, which is quite similar to Christmas. On this day, all citizens, including slaves, were given a holiday. People decorated their houses with greenery, and they spent the festival gambling, singing, merry-making, and gifting one another presents. During the spring equinox, pagan fertility festivals were celebrated with eggs, rabbits, and lavish sex rituals to honour the goddess of spring, Eostre. The increasingly apostate leaders adopted these practices, and Easter was birthed under Christ’s birth semblance.

Even if the traces of ancient religions cannot be found throughout the continent, their impact has altered the history and order of Europe at large. For some people, religion may have just been a part of their life, but it was a way of life for others. Regardless, serving as a monument of inspiration, the effect of religion can be observed in the architecture, music, food, and language. These influences transcend human expression and can also be observed in the world order we have today. Modern-day globalisation had its roots in European colonialism, which began after European Christendom sought to find alternative trade routes with Asia to bypass the restrictions imposed by the Islamic Ottoman Empire that ruled over the Middle East and South-Eastern Europe.  Though religion may have caused conflicts time and again, it molded the history of the world and its impact can be seen in our day-to-day lives to this day. 

Featured Image Credits: Wikipedia