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Rome, Italy, Dec 18, 2017 / 03:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Baroque Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi is hailed as a ‘feminist icon’ based on her portrayal of the female ‘hero,’ who through violence enacts symbolic revenge against men, and her supposed defiance of Counter-Reformation taboos.

But the artist should actually be remembered for the significant role she played in supporting the Catholic revival of art in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, as well as for her depiction of the core Christian struggle between virtue and vice, Vatican art historian Elizabeth Lev argues.

Considered one of the most accomplished artists in the generation following Caravaggio, her work was earlier this year showcased in an exhibit at Rome’s Palazzo Braschi, which brought 30 of her paintings together in a single space for the first time.

Born at the end of the 16th century, Artemisia Gentileschi’s life has become predominantly known for the unfortunate circumstance of her rape at the young age of 17 or 18, and the difficult trial which followed, Lev said.

It is this story which art historians have “hijacked” as the basis for claiming her as a feminist hero. But should they?


Many art historians “build a sort of feminist box around her,” Lev said.

“And the feminist box has no time for anything Christian, overlooking the fact that this is a young woman who is working in the heart of Counter-Reformation art. Art patrons in that period are all on board with the Counter-Reformation.”

The Counter-Reformation, also called the Catholic Reformation, was the Catholic Church’s effort to revive and truly reform Catholicism in Europe following the Protestant Reformation.

One of the Church’s many reforms during this period was a renewed effort toward funding the creation of sacred art, especially in the face of Protestants' iconoclasm, the destruction of religious images.

Artemisia’s career first took off in the Medici court in Florence, “where you have a circle of people who are deeply involved in the Church’s Catholic response to the Reformation,” Lev said.

Reforming the Church through art and beauty “is a very, very important thing to the Church” at this time. Patrons continue to commission art “in the face of the Protestant iconoclasm,” but the art they commission “can’t be part of the problem, it has to be part of the solution,” she explained.

“You need to find artists who make works of art that are inspiring, that are exciting, that are stimulating, that are new, but that are also directing the correct message in an extremely difficult time” for the Church.

One of the reasons Artemisia was so successful is because this is, in fact, what she did, Lev explained: “She’s not going to be successful in Italy if she’s producing art about how much she hates the Catholic Church.”

“And I think it’s very foolish, arrogant, and generally, not very critical, to assume that Artemisia Gentileschi is succeeding in producing all these works that are anti-Church and selling them to Church patrons.”

Caravaggio's influence

Despite her success, Artemisia was only “in the second generation of women breaking into art,” Lev noted, “so it's a struggle no matter how you look at it.”

This is why Caravaggio’s “innovative view, his light/dark contrast, his sense of struggle, his intense graphic passion, would appeal to her, and be kind of attractive as an art form.”

Artemisia’s paintings are also compared to Caravaggio’s in their treatment of the human form, chiefly the female: Artemisia’s women are portrayed less idealistically than many of Caravaggio’s. (Though Caravaggio himself was innovative in this respect.)

“But when you put one of her works next to Caravaggio’s works, you’ll see, that particularly in draftsmanship of hands and of anatomy, she’s superior,” Lev said, noting Artemisia’s considerable skill.

Because Artemisia was a follower of Caravaggio, it is interesting to note both their similarities and their differences. For example, it is common to compare the artists’ depictions of the Old Testament story of Judith beheading Holofernes.

In Caravaggio’s, Judith is “beautiful, she’s drop-dead gorgeous,” Lev said. The Judith by Artemisia, on the other hand, “is far puffier,” which is a more realistic representation of how women looked in the 16th century, since their diets were mainly composed of starch and sugar.

Additionally, the posture of the two Judiths differs. In Artemisia’s, the nurse is helping to hold down Holofernes, and Judith has her knee up on the bed, one arm visibly restraining him, the other struggling to cut his neck with the sword. Artemisia’s is also far messier, with blood spraying everywhere.

This isn’t to say that Artemisia’s ‘Beheadings’ (she made more than 20) are objectively better than Caravaggio’s. He had his own things to say in his paintings, Lev said.

But Artemisia’s “is really hands-on messy; blood is splattering on her robes, on her face. It's messy, messy, messy – all of her ‘Beheadings’ are messy.”

A Catholic perspective

In the context of religious art, the image of Judith and Holofernes has always been about virtue conquering vice, Lev said.

“That's the whole point of the story, the whole point of the painting,” and why so many were made during the Counter-Reformation.

What Lev sees as the point of these paintings is that “to conquer vice, to conquer sin … is a messy, dirty job.”

“There is nothing easy about conquering our desire towards lust, dishonesty, power, whatever it is that we have to fight now,” Lev said. Just like Judith in the painting, “it involves rolling up your sleeves, getting splattered in the mud and fighting it down.”

“I think that's what makes Artemisia so exciting,” she continued. “This is a woman who understands, the same way Caravaggio does, that battling sin, we don't all get to look like St. Michael, with the perfect skin and the perfect curls.”

The repentant sinner

Another favorite subject of Artemisia’s is Mary Magdalene, Lev said. For every heroine “sawing off the head” that she painted, she also painted an image of Mary Magdalene; the number of paintings only differing by one or two.

Artemisia's "Conversion of the Magdalene" (c. 1620)

As the image of repentance, Lev continued, St. Mary Magdalene “rises to the highest echelons of art in the Counter-Reformation, together with St. Jerome.”

While St. Jerome was preferred in Rome because he's a model for priests, bishops, and cardinals, Mary Magdalene “becomes the model for every other person in the world.”

Lev said that she finds Artemisia’s interest in representing this model of the repentant sinner to be “savagely ignored by feminist art historians.”

“I think that that is one of the very important parts that is overlooked, but that fits in perfectly with the Catholic restoration mentality,” she stated.

Lev said that people don’t even seem to bother looking at her from that perspective today, and instead simply conclude that the content of her paintings must be connected to the tragic events in her life.

But the “real struggle is not coming to terms with an injustice that happened to her, because injustices happen to us every single day – that's not her real struggle. The real struggle that everyone has in that period – and they make that plain to you every minute of every day – is who are you before God and who are you going to be at the last day?”

“Her paintings accompany that struggle. And particularly for women. And so she is a magnificent role model for feminists,” Lev noted, “but for feminists who want to learn to work with God's plan, instead of railing at some Church that won't let them be priests.”


This article was originally published on CNA Jan. 20, 2017.


Denver, Colo., Dec 18, 2017 / 02:51 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A network of wealthy donors is funding a series of well-organized lobbying campaigns to restrict legal protections for religious freedom, in order to advance access to abortion and LGBT causes.

Since 2013, a network of funders has earmarked at least $8.5 million in grants for projects intended to limit religious freedom provisions in federal, state, and local law, according to a CNA investigation of grant listings and tax forms.

Many of these funders are part of the Rights, Faith & Democracy Collaborative, a grantmaking fund launched by the Proteus Fund in March 2017. The collaborative opposes “the inappropriate use of religious exemptions to curtail reproductive health, rights and justice, discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community, and otherwise undermine fundamental rights and liberties essential to a healthy democracy,” the fund’s website says.

The new anti-religious freedom collaborative was created to oppose “ongoing and growing efforts in too many states to ‘legalize’ discrimination and restrict fundamental human and civil rights under the guise of protecting ‘religious liberty’,” according to the fund’s website.

The Rights, Faith & Democracy Collaborative has given grants to pro-abortion groups and LGBT advocacy groups at the state, federal and international levels; religious groups including Catholics for Choice; legal advocacy groups like the ACLU and Lambda Legal; and aligned academics, including those at Columbia Law School’s “Public Rights, Private Conscience Project.”

One donor, the Arcus Foundation, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to John Podesta’s Center for American Progress initiatives. These grants seek to redefine religious liberty as “a core progressive American value that includes LGBT equality and women’s reproductive health and rights,” according to its latest grant listed at the Arcus Foundation website.

The collaborative’s network also spends millions on leadership development, donor development, anti-violence and anti-discrimination projects, and LGBT and pro-abortion rights advocacy.

The Rights, Faith & Democracy Collaborative says it will serve as “a vehicle for broader donor education and mobilization in order to achieve deeper funding alignment as well as enhanced donor collaboration.”

The collaborative aims to nurture strategies and organizations that foster collaboration between “the reproductive equity and LGBTQ movements, especially at the state and local level.” It aims to boost the influence of faith leaders and religious communities that it says will support “equal rights and opportunities for everyone while also protecting legitimate constitutionally protected religious liberty rights.” Its website also claims that “discriminatory practices fostered by overly broad religious exemptions” have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

The collaborative’s funding partners, listed on the Proteus Fund’s website, are the Alki Fund of the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Gill Foundation, the Groundswell Fund, the Irving Harris Foundation, the Moriah Fund, the Overbrook Foundation, and anonymous donors.

The Proteus Fund appears to have had previous success. Its Civil Marriage Collaborative, closed in 2015, was a leader in the push for legal recognition of gay marriage. The fund’s “Hearts & Minds” report says that the consortium of foundations invested $153 million over 11 years in many states and at the national level in marriage-related advocacy.

CNA contacted the Proteus Fund for comment, but received no response by deadline.

Religious freedom laws: ‘not a blank check’

Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, disagreed with the fund’s claims that religious freedom legal accommodations and exemptions are illegitimate. He said this claim is “inconsistent with our history and with our longstanding commitment to religious liberty as our ‘first freedom.’

“Reasonable exemptions do not ‘undermine fundamental rights and liberties,’ they protect and promote them,” he told CNA.

“Unfortunately, there are powerful and well-funded interests who, with broad support in the academy and in media, have been working hard to associate our ‘first freedom’ with discrimination and prejudice,” Garnett said.

He reflected on the state of religious freedom advocacy.

“Proponents of religious freedom, broadly and generously understood, will need to work hard to remind our fellow citizens that religious liberty – which has to mean religious liberty for all, and not just for ‘people like us’ – is itself a fundamental human right, and a protection for democracy,” he said. “And, of course, to make religious freedom more appealing, it is important that religious-freedom proponents conduct their efforts in a civil, charitable, and inviting way.”

For Garnett, the fund’s rhetoric about discrimination concerns did not accurately represent the current state of the law.

“In fact, only a tiny number of religious-exemptions claims involve antidiscrimination laws and these claims almost always fail,” he said. “The claim that religious-liberty laws undermine important anti-discrimination protections in the marketplace, the workplace, or in public accommodations is false.  

“Instead, what these laws do is call for sensible accommodations for religious conscience, in cases where the accommodations will not undermine compelling public interests. These laws call for a balance, not a blank check.”

Religious freedom protections have become more controversial in recent decades. In 2012, the Obama administration attempted to mandate that all employers, including religious employers, cover sterilization and contraceptive drugs, including drugs that can cause abortions. The mandate burdened many Catholic dioceses and organizations, including EWTN Global Catholic Network, and was only changed by a Trump administration action earlier this year.

There is also an ongoing push in some states to require insurance coverage of abortions, and some medical professionals and hospitals have faced pressure to cooperate in providing abortions.

Garnett thought abortion would be a prime focus of the Proteus funding network.

“My sense is that what efforts like the Proteus Fund are really aimed at is undermining the longstanding protections in American law for religious health care workers and institutions who cannot in conscience participate in abortions,” he said. “These protections are falsely labeled as ‘discriminatory’ when, in fact, they reflect the commonsense notion that it would be deeply unjust to require, as a condition of working as a healer, a pro-life medical professional to participate in a procedure she believes to be gravely wrong.”

Some Christian adoption agencies have been forced to close because placing children with same-sex couples violates their religious convictions. There is an ongoing debate over whether small businesses in the marriage industry must cater to same-sex ceremonies if they have religious objections to them.

Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author of “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination,” reflected on the current situation.

“Anti-gay and anti-transgender bigotry exists and should be condemned,” he told CNA. “But support for marriage as the union of husband and wife isn’t anti-gay. Nor is the conviction that sex is a biological reality anti-transgender.

“Just as we’ve combatted sexism without treating pro-life medicine as sexist, any public policy necessary to help people who identify as LGBT meet their needs should be crafted so as to respect the consciences of reasonable people, acting on good-faith beliefs about marriage and gender identity,” said Anderson. “Not every disagreement is discrimination. And our law shouldn’t suppose otherwise.”

‘We’re going to punish the wicked’

The Proteus Fund’s collaborative brings together several organizations with experience in effective political advocacy.

One of its funding partners, the Colorado-based Gill Foundation, was launched by the politically savvy former businessman Tim Gill. He has pursued strategic LGBT advocacy through funding both non-profits and political campaigns.

“We’re going into the hardest states in the country… we’re going to punish the wicked,” Gill said in a June interview with Rolling Stone magazine about his LGBT activism.

In March 2015, Tim Sweeney, a former president and CEO of the Gill Foundation,  told leading business executives and others attending the Out & Equal Workplace Advocates executive forum in San Francisco about the need to ensure their fight against religious exemptions is finished quickly.

“We are at a crossroads where the choices we make will mean we will fight religious exemptions for two to three years or have a protracted twenty year struggle on our hands,” he said.

The New York-based Arcus Foundation, founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker, has dedicated millions of dollars to opposing religious freedom protections and to funding LGBT advocacy within world religions, including dissenting Catholic groups like Catholics for Choice, New Ways Ministry and Dignity USA.

One board member of this foundation is Darren Walker, past vice-president of the Rockefeller Foundation and current president of the deeply influential Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation has funded some projects against religious liberty protections, but is not listed as a direct member of the collaborative based at the Proteus Fund.

However, the Oakland, Calif.-based Groundswell Fund board of directors is chaired by Rocio L. Cordoba, a past program officer for the Ford Foundation’s Gender, Sexuality and Reproductive Justice Program. The Groundswell Fund claims to fund more reproductive justice organizations than any other foundation.

Another partner, the Rockefeller Family Fund, was launched in 1967 by members of the prominent American family, including then-New York governor and future vice-president Nelson Rockefeller. Its mission statement says it “initiates, cultivates, and funds strategic efforts to promote a sustainable, just, free, and participatory society.” The fund did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The San Francisco-based Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund is a private family foundation with half a billion dollars in assets. Since 2014 it has earmarked at least $1.4 million in grants for projects related to religious exemptions, according to a CNA review of its grant listings.

The New York-based Overbrook Foundation, founded in 1948 by financier Frank Altschul and his wife Helen, has a gender rights program to fund those who oppose “overly broad religious exemptions.” Its website listed $220,000 in grants related to religious freedom: a $100,000 grant to the Proteus Fund’s collaborative, and two $60,000 grants to Lambda Legal.

The Chicago-based Irving Harris Foundation, created by the businessman and philanthropist, awards $10 to $15 million in grants annually, InsidePhilanthropy reports. The Washington, D.C.-based Moriah Fund dedicated over $10.6 million to program spending in fiscal year 2016. Neither grant maker's website listed grants related to religious freedom.


This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 18, 2017.

Correction Oct. 18, 2017, 12:40 pm ET: This article incorrectly identified the Alki Fund as being part of the Rockefeller Foundation. It is part of the Rockefeller Family Fund.