Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
September 10, 2001
Confusing times in early 16th century
I don't know if it is possible to paint a portrait of our ancestors in the first decades after the earth was circumnavigated and globalization began in earnest. In this limited space it is bound to be a caricature.
In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella had driven the Muslims out of Granada and they ordered 150,000 Jews to leave the country "for the glory of God." Once rid of the "infidels" they used the appropriated assets to hire Christopher Columbus who set out to find a route to China, but wound up in Cuba.
A frenzy of exploration followed, what Bartolome las Casas called "the beginning of a bloody trail of conquest," to claim as much unknown territory as possible in the hope of finding gold and pagan souls.
When gold was scarce, Caribs were brought back by the boatload to be sold as slaves in Spain. Hands were chopped off the aboriginals for failing to meet the gold dust quota. Within two years, 125,000 people, or half the population of Arawaks committed suicide or were killed.
Twenty-five years later the entire nation had vanished and not a single soul was converted.
Lorenzo de Medici, or Innocent III, who had blatantly purchased the pontificate with his family's fortune, died in April 1492. The Medici family was driven out of Florence in 1494 and a fanatical Dominican friar named Savonarola set out to clean house with a band of youthful inquisitors.
Books and art treasures were burnt in the plaza to make Florence "the most Christian city in Europe." In 1498, Pope Alexander VI declared him a heretic and Savonarola and two of his disciples were put to the rack, hanged and burnt.
Alexander was a Borgia. With the help of his son and daughter Cesare and Lucrezia, he turned the vicarage into a carnival of self-interest in the hope of creating a papal dynasty.
Alexander died in 1503 and was followed by Julius II, a tough old warrior pope who intimidated Europe with his martial fury. In 1513 Giovanni de Medici, Leo X, succeeded him.
Leo gained a reputation for arranging gastronomic orgies for his guests, although he himself was said to eat sparingly and was known to fast three times a week. His pet project was to rebuild St. Peter's as "the greatest building that man has ever known."
But his biggest concern was to influence the election of a successor to Maximilian as the Holy Roman Emperor. His diplomatic interventions failed, and Charles V of Spain claimed the crown.
Least of Leo's concerns were the complaints of the Augustinian friar, named Martin Luther, who in 1517 had nailed his 95 theses on a Wittenberg church door. The question in dispute revolved in part around how many florins the faithful could be persuaded to give for the renovation of St. Peter's while keeping in balance other vested interests that could influence the election of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Contemporary commentators suggested that mankind had lost its moorings. Erasmus wrote in Praise of Folly, the deity who seems to rule mankind. Hieronymus Bosch painted his Ship of Fools, based on a book by Sebastian Brant.
Bosch also painted the mysterious triptych Garden of Earthly Delights which shows God the Father contemplating creation on the outside panels, God the Son with Adam and Eve in paradise on the left panel. The central panel depicts a surrealistic scene of humanity engaged in nihilistic hedonism, nothing quite as evil a portrayal as reality warranted, but nonetheless, the right panel seems to suggest that humanity is doomed to hell.
Perhaps satire was the only way to make sense of these confusing times.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.