St. Peter’s Basilica

The sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church was one of the main catalysts behind Martin Luther’s writing of his 95 theses. The Church told its parishioners that indulgences were tickets from purgatory to heaven, and the more that someone bought the more of his or her sins would be forgiven. The Church needed to sell indulgences because it had run out of money after spending too much money on projects like the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Pope Julius II began the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 15th Century. He was restrained in his spending compared to the next pope, Leo X, according Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, by Miles Unger. On average, Julius II spent 16,500 ducats per year, while in just one year of his reign Leo X spent 60,000 ducats (ducats were the gold coins used as currency in much of Europe at the time). Leo X was a spendthrift, and he emptied the Catholic Church’s treasury. A horrific example of his extravagant spending is that in the celebration of his becoming Pope he had a naked boy painted in gold walking around the party. The boy died just a few days later because of the toxins in the gold. Leo X was a member of the powerful Medici family from Florence and had been a childhood friend of Michelangelo.

Inside St. Peter’s, which is the second largest church in the world and an easy place to get lost, is a trove of baroque masterpieces by Bernini. The Baroque style reached its height in the 17th Century and is characterized by the appearance of movement. It is meant to make the viewer feel emotionally connected to the work and was used by the Catholic Church to gain the support of the people after the Reformation. Two of the best known Baroque artists are the painter Caravaggio and the sculptor Bernini.

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