Renaissance, Reformation and Protestant


Renaissance means a rebirth for the 15th century and 16th-century Europe and Italy especially. The rebirth of interest in the classical philosophy, art, and science of ancient Greece and Rome. Some of the greatest works of arts, like Da Vinci’s Last Supper, Raphael’s The School of Athens and Michelangelo’s paintings are the masterpieces of this period and embody the elements of the High Renaissance. One of history’s greatest ironies is that Muslim Spain significantly affected the formation of the European Renaissance.

"The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino
“The School of Athens” by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

Muslim Spain influenced the European Renaissance

Up to the first millennium, western Europe remained a primitive outpost while it was surrounded by two far superior cultures, Islam and Byzantium. But in Spain, and Spain alone, this ancient knowledge consisting largely of traditional Greek writings had been processed by the Moors, Spanish Muslim scholars: arithmetic, astronomy, phytology, history, conception, jurisprudence, and etcetera. This great storehouse of ancient knowledge was rediscovered by European monks and Christians who journeyed to Spain, the heart of Muslim. One of the ancient Greek, who had survived through the Muslim scholar was Aristotle. Aristotelian logic provided the basis for Europeans to shift their focus from inward contemplation to outward observation of the world around them. It resulted in a sudden burst of natural science.

Granada's sunset
The sunset in Granada while looking to the Alhambra

The Medical Renaissance

Scientists such as da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius made a systematic dissection of human bodies into a legitimate science, having long been forbidden, particularly in religious quarters. Paracelsus was the first to bring chemistry and biology together, which was a crucial leap forward in the development of modern medicine.

Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour (cropped)
Da Vinci research about human body.

Renaissance science and technology

Before Galileo Galilei and Newton, everyone was sure that our world was the center of the universe and people were equally certain that the sun revolved around a stationary earth. Prior to Anton Van Leeuwenhoek invented his microbe, no one knew a world of bacteria. Prior to William Harvey, no one knew how blood circulated around the body. However, in the name of preserving Christian values, both Catholic church and state often worked together to suppress scientific advances; famous scientist like Galileo Galilei was forced to renounce their scientific views on the threat of torture and death.


In the middle of the 15th century, in a small town in Germany, an innovative technology occurred. Johannes Gutenberg created the modern printing press with his invention of movable metal alphabetic characters; among the first books printed was the Bible.

Featherbed Alley Printshop Bermuda
a replica Gutenberg press


Two events – revolution in technology and Christian – became interwoven into history.

A British man named William Tyndale translated the New Testament into readable English, and it was printed in 1526. People were able to read the Bible for themselves. This was not a welcome development in all churches; until then, the Bible had only existed in Latin, the domain of educated clergy, but now people easily read and it would become as a direct threat to the church. For this, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in the name of heresy. Meanwhile, a new threat to the Church of Rome was about to arise; a group of people who called themselves reformers appeared in Christian history.

Tyndale Bible - Gospel of John
Tyndale Bible – First English translation

Before the Reformation

Church corruption was pervasive and obsessed with finances. The highest positions in the church were held by nobles and wealthy families. The one held many positions(pluralism), which resulted in absenteeism and responsibilities were ignored. So you might have somebody who was a bishop and he was also a banker. The Archbishop of Mainz had just sponsored a sale of church indulgences to help pay for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome. It was salvation at a price.


Martin Luther reformation(1483 ~ 1546)

Back in Germany, another man was also translating the Bible. His name was Martin Luther. On Oct 31st, 1517, Luther’s frustration with the Catholic church was made public when he nailed his protest, a list of 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church. This small act gave rise to a radical new sect, called Protestants.

Der Anschlag von Luthers 95 Thesen
Luther publishes the 95 Theses
The more Luther scrutinized the church’s practice, the more he found fault. Beginning in 1517, Luther published a series of works that were increasingly sharp attacks upon the church. He finally came to call the pope ‘antichrist‘.

Luther was declared outlaw. But the Reformation had inevitably begun and by the year 1530, his movement was sweeping across western Europe: almost overnight, hundreds of thousands broke with the church of Rome to follow Luther. Many adopted Luther’s ideas like Calvinus.

Why did reformation become so popular?

Maybe it was the right idea at the right time; the church was seen by many as an often corrupt power appearing insensitive to the needs of the average Christian. It was beginning in the 16th century where a modern society as a kind of civilization would be absolutely unprecedented in world history. Guttenburg’s innovative printing press was central to the spread of reformation, and the burgeoning spirit of learning as part of the Renaissance period made people question traditional thought. Plus, when common people were largely powerless, salvation through faith and scripture alone marked the rise of one of the most powerful ideology in the west, the individualism.


As the protestant reformation began to erode the Catholic church’s power, rulers of emerging nations allied themselves with the new protestant reformers against the power of Pope. This particular struggle between church and state came from King Henry the 8th of England.


The birth of Anglicanism

King Henry vs Pope

Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, but she was unable to bear him a male heir, though she did give birth to a daughter. He secretly married Anne Boleyn, who was pregnant by him. But for the coming baby to be truly legitimate, he had to get a divorce from his first wife, which was against the laws of the Catholic church. So Henry appealed to the Pope. Pope refused his request and denied his secret marriage as well.

In response, Henry deposed the Pope’s Archbishop of Canterbury and appointed his own. The new Archbishop promptly declared his first marriage nullified and Henry’s secret marriage was recognized. Pope Clement the 7th excommunicated Henry. In response, Henry broke completely with Rome and placed all the churches in his kingdom under his own rule. This marked the beginning of the Anglicans and the church of England. However, Anne Boleyn failed to give him a son and she herself was beheaded eleven months later. Henry married several women hoping for a son, although he was unable to have a son until the end of his life. Ironically, Elizabeth 1st who succeeded the throne was the daughter of Anne Boleyn.

King Henry VIII of England and Pope Clement VII
King Henry VIII sitting with his feet upon Pope Clement VI
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