Heretics and Heroes: A book review by Bob Morris

HereticsHeretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World
Thomas Cahill
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (2013)

A brilliant examination of who and what accelerated the development of western civilization

This is Volume VI in Thomas Cahill’s “Hinges of History” series and as he explains, the European rediscovery of classical literature and culture precipitated “two very different movements that characterize the sixteenth century: the Renaissance, first in Italy and then throughout Europe. New knowledge of Greek enables scholars to read the New Testament in its original language, generating new interpretations and theological challenges that issue in the Reformation. Though the Renaissance and the Reformation are very different from each other, both exalt the individual ego in wholly new ways.”

The timeframe extends from 1282 and the Sicilian Vespers until 1615-1669 when there are extraordinary examples of believers “who have internalized their faith so personally and deeply that it has lost all comradeship with the combative religious assertions of the partisans who waged the Thirty Years’ War.” There are hundreds of examples of those Renaissance artists and Reformation priests who established the foundation for subsequent ancestors throughout what is generally referred to as the “civilized” world.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book because Cahill is as eloquent as he is erudite, eager to share what he has learned almost four centuries during which he examines exemplify the best and worst of the human race. His vivid, at times unsettling descriptions of various forms and techniques of torture and execution are juxtaposed with almost rhapsodic celebrations of great works of art and those who created them. There is also a wealth of information and insights about economics, exploration, politics, warfare, religious intrigue, secular corruption, cowardice, heroism, martyrdom…as indicated earlier, the best and the worst of the human race.

I also want to praise everyone involved with this volume’s production values, especially Emily Mahon for jacket design. Bruegel’s “Landscaper with the Fall of Icarus” (c. 1555) is an outstanding selection to serve as the jacket painting. There are 62 other superb illustrations that range from Donatello’s “David” (1440s) to Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1669) that are accompanied illustrations within the text that range from Leonardo’s “Two Heads” (no date) to Peter Bruegel’s “Beekeepers” (c. 1568). Brief but insightful annotations are provided by Cahill or oner of his primary sources, duly noted, of course. Please see Pages 313-320.

No brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the scope and depth of Thomas Cahill’s brilliant material. I now shift my attention to earlier volumes in The Hinges of History series and am eager to read, also, the next volume on which his now presumably hard at work. Its purpose will be to continue and conclude his “investigation of the making of the modern world and the impact of its cultural innovations on the sensibility of the West.”

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