Cozy cardinals with a tinge of disrespect

When you hear the term “anti-clerical artwork,” what springs to mind?

Large-nosed popes with wrinkled faces and crooked grins? Sunken-eyed zombies marching into
a church to empty their wallets into the collections basket?

A cardinal laughing merrily to himself after catching a butterfly in the Vatican gardens with his
comically large net?

In 19th century Western Europe, paintings of cardinals in their brilliant red vestments were all the
rage. However, these weren’t commissioned portraits of themselves wearing their papal medals,
nor were they reverent depictions of clergymen in the middle of their duties at mass or elsewhere
in the church.

No, at the time, the most popular clergy paintings were of nameless cardinals playing with
kittens, sitting down for a few rounds of board games, and putting on bibs before chowing down
on some seafood.

The “anti-clerical” label here describes what is really, at best, a lack of due respect in
presentation – the cardinals are not rendered stoic and pious in their demeanor, but are instead
portrayed as slow and happy-go-lucky.

The undisputed king of this style would be Georges Croegaert, a Belgian painter in the late 19 th
and early 20 th century who found a successful and lucrative niche in painting portraiture of
nameless and fictionalized clergy in these mundane and humanizing scenes.

Cardinals of these paintings smoke tobacco in high-ceilinged foyers covered in silks and satins.
They play poker near the fireplace in a pair, one of them clearly a sore loser. Other cardinals and
bishops can be seen practicing the violin or amateur painting in their study. There are many
scenes of them simply drinking wine together, deep in conversation and having what appears to
be a spectacular time.

Perhaps the most common motif is the simple “chess game” played between two clergymen,
usually two cardinals or a cardinal and a bishop. This scene has been produced a million
different ways in a thousand different styles over the years.

Food is a recurring theme in these pieces as well – though scenes of gluttony and over-
consumption are conspicuously rare. Artists instead usually focus on small and delicate treats
such as tea and biscuits. Cooked lobster is occasionally seen, as well as fruits.

Another piece, humorously titled “The Diet,” depicts a cardinal munching on cookies and milk in

Cats and dogs abound, running around the halls of the Vatican and sleeping on their masters’
laps in many different scenes. The dogs are collies, Yorkshire terriers at times as well. The
clergymen are often depicted ignoring or unaware of the animals’ presence, though occasionally their owners are seen smiling approvingly at their pets. One piece even features an elderly
cardinal playing with his exotic pet bird, a colorful parrot with its wings outstretched.

One paintings, titled “Reminiscing,” shows an old, wrinkled cardinal in thick, round spectacles
reclined on a lavish couch. The hair poking out the sides of his zucchetto is frizzled and the top
of his head is barren. He is rendered smiling and looking upward in recollection as he digs
through a box of photographs and documents, clearly deep in nostalgia.

This is clearly not a scene made with contempt of any sort of strong ill-will towards the subject
matter. Who could look upon a scene of a kind old man joyfully reminiscing about his life and
feel any sort of scorn or disapproval?

However, there are definitely moments when the “anti” in “anti-clerical” is a bit more warranted.
Jehan Georges Vibert is the artist behind perhaps the most openly hostile paintings in this genre.
Vibert’s occasional light-hearted pieces fell in line with the rest of the ‘ah shucks’ style of
painting seen with Croegaert such as “The Marvelous Sauce,” a simple scene of a cardinal and
cook exchanging impassioned enthusiasm for the new sauce they’ve created in the rectory

However, Vibert often digs deeper and bites harder on what he saw as prevailing social issues
among the clergy at the time.

One scene by Vibert shows a young, handsome monk reciting prayers or practicing rhetoric
seated on the edge of a public fountain. A nearby cardinal stares at him with clearly lustful eyes
as a phallic statue near the young monk’s right drills to subtext into the viewers head.
Another work by a different artist, titled “The Model,” shows a cardinal inspecting the body of a
naked, bashful woman before approving her as a nude model for painting. His face is cocked in a
sort of amused enthusiasm as he sits half-posed in his chair observing the woman’s breasts.
Others, while not necessarily profane in and of themselves, carry a message of distrust or
resentment towards the attitudes and aspirations of church leaders at the time. One cardinal is
shown standing in front of a mirror and combing his hair to match a bust of Napoleon nearby – a
portrait of the dictator also sits on the far wall. The nameless cardinal’s face is very solemn, and
the implication of his lust for power is clear.

“The Peacock” by Vibert shows a rotund and smugly grinning cardinal dressed in what looks
like a dozen layers of fabric. His chest is decorated completely with medals of various chivalric
orders and papal awards, and in his hands he grasps the cardinal galero and a luxurious walking
stick. Behind him, his pet peacock struts about the garden with his feathers out.

In America, the idea of “anti-clerical art” does not bring to mind rosy-cheeked old men playing
chess and drinking wine with one another in cozy, luxurious living quarters. Our history of anti-
Catholic art runs much deeper into the spiteful and fearful vein.

American anti-Catholic art frequently featured grotesque caricatures of foreign hoards,
portrayed as uncover spies intent on forwarding the information and secrets of American society
back to Rome.

Bishops were often depicted wearing their miters and crawling on the ground, the gap in their
hats transformed into crocodile mouths as they first emerge from the ocean onto the shores of

Other common tropes are fat and ham-fisted popes with aggressive dispositions and a tendency
to stare of hold globes menacingly, as well as effeminate and weak priests reporting what they
hear in the confession box to their superiors.

Whatever you think of these tropes and the time they were popular – the beginning of major
Catholic immigration into America – it’s clear that they are far more brutal and intentionally
disrespectful in their messaging than what we have here.

So these paintings leave us with the same dilemma that comes around time and time again – the
role of due respect for a cardinal’s high office versus the humanity of that office’s occupant.

These light-hearted though sometimes biting critiques ask us to balance the expected obedience
and reverence to be paid to these men of the cloth with the serious criticism that can be made of
some of their immoral or foolish behavior.

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