Medieval Catholicism was not as gloomy as the BBC portrays it

catholicism BBCBBC iPlayer is the most wonderful invention. When you flop onto the sofa late at night you can catch up with all the programmes you should have seen earlier. Just recently I have caught up with The Renaissance Unchained, which is presented by the hugely engaging Waldemar Januszczak. The first episode concentrated on the northern Renaissance, but the second turned south to Italy. Also on the subject of Italian art, among other things, was Italy Unpacked with Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon, which made a trip to one of Piedmont’s many Sacri Monti, those hillsides studded with small chapels dedicated to the Stations of the Cross.

While I enjoyed both programmes and loved the way the camera showed us so many great works of art, I did not agree with one of the underlying assumptions of both presenters, namely that medieval Catholicism was a joyless affair, and medieval Catholics were terrified of death and haunted by the prospect of spending years in Purgatory, thanks to their sins.

Death is certain. No amount of wishful thinking can brush it away, so each of us needs to face our own mortality. Death is the conclusion of life, and it is also part of life – we live it every day. It seems to me that Catholicism is realistic about death, and that is healthy. Those of us who pray to the Madonna saying “Pray for us now and in the hour of our death” have got it right.

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