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2013 Henry Allen Moe Prize

Spring General Meeting
John W. O'Malley

Professor O’Malley’s paper discusses the depiction of the Last Judgment that forms the centerpiece of Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. The fresco has undergone various alterations in the direction of supposed decency, and it has often been claimed that these were mandated specifically by the Council of Trent, convened by three successive Popes between 1545 and 1563 to provide a Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. O’Malley has just published a ground-breaking history of the Council in which he shows that the question of the “lasciviousness” of sacred images came up for discussion at Trent only at the last minute, and at the instance of the French delegation, which faced the furies of domestic iconoclasm. In this concise and elegant paper O’Malley concentrates our attention on the fact that Michelangelo’s fresco was not mentioned at the Council of Trent at all. Only after its closing session, in January 1564, did Pope Pius IV, acting as Bishop of Rome, propose that any indecencies or falsities in the Sistine Chapel and other churches in Rome should be covered up. This is an important and original contribution, based on a careful and informed reading of the documents. It challenges what O’Malley calls “established verities” that have become part of both scholarly and popular discourse.

John O’Malley is University Professor at Georgetown University and is a specialist in the religious culture of early modern Europe, especially Italy. He received his doctorate from Harvard University. Among his publications are Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome (1979), which received the Marraro Prize from the American Historical Association, and Trent and All That (2000), which received the Roland Bainton Prize from the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference. His best-known book is The First Jesuits (1993), which received both the Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society and the Philip Schaff Prize from the American Society for Church History. It has been translated into ten languages. A recent monograph, What Happened at Vatican II (2008), has been translated into Italian, French, and Polish. He has edited or co-edited a number of volumes, including three in the Collected Works of Erasmus series. His latest works on the Jesuits are The Jesuits and the Arts (2005), co-edited with Gauvin Alexander Bailey, and Constructing a Saint through Images (2008), an annotated facsimile of the 1609 illustrated life of Ignatius of Loyola attributed in part to Rubens. His most recent monograph, Trent: What Happened at the Council, was published in 2012.

John O’Malley has lectured widely in North America and Europe to both professional and popular audiences. He is the past President of the American Catholic Historical Association and the Renaissance Society of America. He has been elected to the Accademia di san Carlo, Ambrosian Library, Milan, and was awarded the Johannes Quasten Medal by the Catholic University of America for distinguished scholarship in religious studies. He received the lifetime achievement award from the Society for Italian Historical Studies in 2002 and the corresponding awards from both the Renaissance Society of America in 2005 and the American Catholic Historical Association in 2012. He is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Society of Jesus. Elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1997, O’Malley has served as its Vice President since 2010.

The prize was established in 1982 by a gift from the widow of Henry Allen Moe, to honor the longtime head of the Guggenheim Foundation and president of the American Philosophical Society from 1959 to 1970. It pays particular tribute to his firm commitment to the humanities and those who pursue them. The prize is awarded annually to the author of a paper in the humanities or jurisprudence read at a meeting of the Society.