Volume III - Church History

Fifteenth Century

Other Developments in the West

Besides the Conciliar Movement, other movements grew among various elements of the population in Western Europe, many of which contributed in one way or another to the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation early in the following century. One particularly noteworthy “proto-Reformer” was the Bohemian (Czech) churchman and patriot, Jan Hus (c. 1372–1415). Greatly influenced by the writings of the Englishman John Wycliffe (d. 1384), he preached in the Czech language, including making vitriolic denunciations of the widespread immorality of the clergy. He urged that the liturgy be celebrated in the vernacular languages and that the cup no longer be withheld from the laity in the Eucharist. He also advocated a conciliar view of Church government. For these reasons (all of which Orthodox ­Christians would affirm), and because he was perceived as a political threat, he was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance on July 6, 1415.

The Brethren of the Common Life continued to flourish, especially in providing free education in many parts of the Netherlands and Germany. Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380–1471), author of The Imitation of Christ, a devotional book immensely popular to this day, was one of its more famous members.

In the 15th century the Renaissance was in full swing in Western Europe, with its center at Florence, where the arts were greatly encouraged through the lavish patronage of the famous Medici family. The paintings of Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455) of Florence, a devout Dominican monk, reveal the growing extent to which Western religious art was abandoning traditional iconographic styles for much more humanistic portrayals. The seminal work of the celebrated sculptor Donatello (c. 1385–1466) greatly promoted sculpture (which by its three-dimensional nature is more humanistic than iconography) as a vehicle for religious art.

The Florentine Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) was a particularly fiery preacher in the Dominican monastic order. Claiming to have received special revelations from God, he prophesied an impending divine chastisement of the morally corrupt church and society. For his reforming efforts he was executed on charges of schism and heresy in 1498.

The illustrious Italian artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) flourished in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.