Explain the political and religious environment in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. How were these events represented in art, literature, and political thinking?

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The sixteenth century saw Europe in the throes of the Reformation, while the seventeenth century saw Europe make great strides in the realm of science, politics, philosophy, and technology.

First, we will discuss the Reformation, which began with the publication of Martin Luther's 95 theses in Germany. His ideas about the religious purification of the Catholic Church were met with resistance from the leaders of the church. Luther was eventually excommunicated, but his daring ideas about God and religion spread throughout Europe. 

Inspired by Luther's boldness, the Frenchman John Calvin founded Calvinism, a branch of the Christian faith which championed the theology of predestination. In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli spearheaded the Swiss Reformation while King Henry VIII began his own church in England (albeit for self-serving reasons). At the time, King Henry VIII wanted to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, but the Catholic Church refused to allow him to annul his marriage to the Catholic Queen Catherine.

King Henry's response was to sever all ties with the Catholic Church; it was he who founded the Church of England. After his death, the Catholic Queen Mary (daughter of Queen Catherine) reigned during a short period known as the Counter-Reformation in Europe. Although Jesuit theologians pushed back against the efforts of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, they could not stem the tide of Protestantism. Northern Europe became largely Protestant in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  

In England, the Protestant tradition continued with King Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth; her reign began around 1559. Elizabeth presided over the golden age of the English Renaissance, which saw tremendous works of literature produced by acclaimed authors as William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, and Edmund Spencer. At this time, it must be noted that Reformation artists largely rejected the iconographic nature of Catholic art. 

During Elizabeth's reign, famous English explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake sailed the seas, traded with foreign powers, and founded colonies. In the sixteenth century, the works of Italian masters Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael exemplified the clarity and meticulous precision of the classical tradition.

The High Renaissance period saw the revival of humanism and a renewed reverence for the Greek and Roman classical traditions in architecture, sculpture, and painting. Quite simply, late Renaissance art in the sixteenth century was inspired by the humanist ideals of naturalism and authenticity. Naturalists did not try to hide the blemishes of the human body; instead, these were accepted and celebrated.

In the seventeenth century, men like Newton, Descartes, Galileo, and Kepler spearheaded the Scientific Revolution. Galileo introduced his famous laws of motion, Kepler introduced his laws of planetary motion, and Newton introduced his law of universal gravitation. The seventeenth century also came to be known as the Age of Reason. During this time, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke developed modern political thought. Hobbes wrote Leviathan, and Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government; the works of both men greatly influenced the French and American revolutions.

Locke's works are classified as Restoration-era literature. Other Restoration works you may recognize are John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel. The religious and political developments of the seventeenth century greatly influenced the art and literature of the time. Increased focus on themes such as democracy versus monarchy were common, and new ideas like empiricism increased in importance: Restoration literature.

Also, read about the characteristics of Restoration-style art.