When Did Europe Become Identified With Christianity?

The Revolutionary Origins of an All Too Common Slogan

In: Beyond Binaries
Johannes Süßmann
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Süßmann hinterfragt in seinem historisch ausgerichteten Beitrag die gegenwärtig vor allem in rechtspopulistischen Kreisen kämpferisch gegen den Islam vorgebrachte Rede von einem christlichen Europa. Er zeigt auf, dass die Idee einer christlich-jüdischen Bevölkerung des Kontinents nicht erst eine Kategorie des 21. Jahrhunderts ist, die zur Abgrenzung gegenüber muslimisch geprägten Menschen genutzt wird. Genauso wenig begleitet sie bereits die Diskurse über Europa im Mittelalter. Vielmehr lässt sie sich auf die Anfänge des 19. Jahrhunderts zurückverfolgen, in dem dieses Motiv zur Einigung verschiedenster sprachlicher, religiöser und nationaler Gesellschaften genutzt wurde. Leitend ist entsprechend die Einsicht, dass die Rede vom jüdisch-christlichen Erbe der europäischen Gesellschaft in ihren Anfängen nicht exklusiv, sondern inklusiv verstanden werden sollte.

1. Preliminary Remarks

At present “Christian Europe” is one of the most powerful political slogans. In Germany it has been usurped by right-wing populism like Pegida and Alternative für Deutschland in order to resist migration, which is perceived mainly as an Islamic movement and a threat to the so-called native German population. A similar use of the slogan can be found in France by the Front National, in the United Kingdom by the UK Independence Party, in Italy by the Lega Nord, in Austria by the Freedom Party, in Belgium by the Flaams Belang, in the Netherlands by the Party for Freedom, in Hungary by Fidesz and Jobbik,1 in Poland by Law and Justice – thus the slogan has become a mark of a new quite pan-European movement.2

Its implications are clear: “Christian Europe” identifies Europe exclusively with Christianity and a Judeo-Christian heritage in order to challenge the capacity of Muslims to live and integrate into European societies.3 The slogan serves as an instrument for othering Islamic men and women notwithstanding who they are, where they come from, and how long they have lived in Europe. It conceives Islam as a foreign religion in Europe, Islamic people on the whole as inherently foreigners: They must all have come from without; their religion and their culture would never fit into Europe. This xenophobic anti-islamic propaganda is combined with a bold historical assertion. Used as a political slogan, “Christian Europe” nowadays postulates that European culture can be identified with Christianity, because Europe always has been almost entirely Christian. It constructs a tradition that is imagined as Christian from the beginning, homogenous and all the time opposed to Islam. Popular memory spaces are the Habsburg-Turkish Wars,4 the Battle of Vienna in 1683,5 Lepanto,6 the Reconquista,7 the Crusades8 and the Battle of Tours-Poitiers in 7329. These events are presented as landmarks of Christian Europe’s history and as proofs of the incompatibility of Christian Europe and Islamic people. They have become lieux de mémoire of anti-Islamic right-wing populism.

Exploiting history politically like this calls for rebuttal by historians. Of course populists will not listen, when they nurse their historical fantasies. These fantasies obey their own intrinsic logic; they are determined by wishful thinking and mighty social and political interests. Populism will always turn a deaf ear to professional critique. Nevertheless we cannot ignore the misuse of terms, concepts and facts, because it tends to infect more common historical thinking and discourse. There has to be critique, and here is my contribution to it. My paper aims at proving that both historical assertions of the present “Christian Europe”-movement are wrong: Neither was the term “Christian Europe” originally directed against Islam, nor was Europe during the Middle-Ages and the early modern times defined by Christianity. The present use of the term “Christian Europe” as a means of othering Islam is a misuse – that is to say: Populism does not know the historical meaning even of its own political slogans. And the identification of Europe with Christianity should not refer to medieval and early modern history.

I do not ask in this paper, how homogenous or pluralistic religious conditions in Europe at a certain time really were. Of course, these are important questions, too, but here I am going to investigate a history of concepts, of discourses, or if you want to put it in a more traditional way: a history of ideas. For this intellectual history I am confronting the present use of terms and concepts with former usages – like an archaeologist laying bare different layers of meaning.

The term “Christian Europe” has a complex history of its own.10 It has become a political slogan long before current populism usurped it. In its variations like the “Christian West” or in German “Abendland”11 it made a great career during the Cold War. At the end of the 19th century it was used to justify colonial regimes in the time of Western Imperialism. In the first half of the 19th century it served as a cornerstone of the Holy Alliance between Austria, Russia and Prussia.12 But where are its origins? And what was its original meaning? This is the first question I want to deal with. My thesis is that Romantic poets and artists coined the term “Christian Europe” around the year 1800.13 It was a coinage of the revolutionary era and the Napoleonic wars – a distinctly modern term. As a concept it had some scattered precursors especially in the 17th century, but as a common reference it was not established before 1800.14 If this can be made evident, how did one conceive Europe before? Which terms or symbols existed instead? And how did they relate Europe and Christianity? These are my second, although more preliminary and broad explorations. Due to the restricted space I shall confine myself to one example from the second half of the 15th century.

2. The Invention of “Christian Europe” as a Reaction Against Napoleon

In the years 1834 to 1836 Philipp Veit, director of Städelsches Kunstinstitut, the Frankfurt museum of art, painted a fresco to decorate the new building of the museum.15 Already its design as a triptych and its monumental size of nearly three meters height and more than ten meters length demonstrated its eminence. It occupied a whole wall in the room dedicated to northern sculpture, whose origins it narrated. Beyond that it was a programmatic statement about the origins of the arts and their function for culture as a whole.

Between two seating figures within a southern and a northern landscape representing Italy and Germany, the painting in the middle tells a story by presenting a group of animated figures. On the right side we see a bishop: Saint Boniface, “Apostle of the Germans”, because he organized Christianisation and established the Christian church in Germany. He has already felled the Donar oak, a sanctuary of the pagans, thereby demonstrating the impotence of their gods. Sitting before him is the surmounted bard; a heathen woman priest is fleeing towards the right. While the adults in the background look aghast, the young ones seem fascinated – especially the children. They already orientate themselves towards the female in the centre, at which Saint Boniface is pointing. She wears a white gown under a red and green coat and has a halo around her head. In Christian iconography this used to be attributes of Saint Mary. But the Tau Cross on her breast, exactly in the centre of the whole painting, shows that she is not Mary. It is the mark of the saved ones according to Ezechiel 9:4 and indicates that she leads the way to salvation.16 Her right hand rests on an open book, which an angel is carrying at her side, in her left she holds a palm branch, representing the victory of the humble ones and atoners, also promising peace. It is an allegory of religion.

Grouped around her we discover the fruits of religion: education, alphabetisation, learning, good manners, the arts. While the knight on the left represents chivalry, the man before him with a book in his hands and a crown of olive branches on his head resembles the popular image of Dante. He evidently is an allegory of poetry, whereas the woman relying on an organ represents music. There is a second group of three women standing in front of the church building, embodying architecture, sculpture and painting. To the left the picture opens up to a beautiful landscape. We see the view of a town besides a river with an old bridge and a prominent church tower. This town can easily be identified as Frankfurt am Main, where the Städel Museum is located. In the context of the fresco it represents to what the arts lead: traffic and trade, wealth and civilisation.

Thus we can conclude that the picture tells a story of transformation. Not only a pagan cult is transformed, but a whole society. From a simple and barbarian condition it is led to a cultivated and civilised one. This transformation was effected by learning and the arts – the same arts, which could be studied in the museum – , but it was caused by religion. The picture’s title is The Introduction of the Arts to Germany by Religion.17

Fig. 2.1.1
Fig. 2.1.2
Fig. 2.2
Fig. 2.2

Philipp Veit, The Introduction of the Arts to Germany by Religion

Perhaps I should underline already at this point that the painter avoids precise specifications of which religion or denomination, gesturing instead to a more general concept. In his first draft the whole setting was more Christian and Catholic, because the figure of religion was accompanied by monks, who erect a chapel for the holy virgin, and the allegory of Italy wore attributes of papacy.18 But the curators of the Städel Museum did not like this. They were Protestants; Frankfurt was a Lutheran city. Reworking his concept Veit went even farther, than his critics may have intended. Not only he extinguished all confessional indications, he even placed Christianity within a broader context. By placing the Tau Cross on religion’s breast he chose a symbol, which marks the saved ones not only among Christians, but also among Jews. Christians call it St. Antony’s Cross and use it as a sign for penitence. For Jews tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. They identify it with the mark on the forehead, which saves men from God’s punishment. As a young person Philipp Veit had converted to Catholicism, but he was of Jewish origin. His mother Dorothea was the eldest daughter of Moses Mendelssohn, protagonist of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, and friend of Lessing. Thus, we find in the picture not only an education program and a philosophy of history, but also a theory of religion, which is not restricted to a specific denomination.

Veit refers to Germany: by the title of his painting as well as by St. Boniface, by the view of Frankfurt, and the allegory of Germany. But the transformations, which his picture narrates, are meant to be pan-European. This becomes clear, when we look at his sources. They are the charters of a new concept of Europe, developed during the revolutionary wars by the Romantics.

In 1799, when Veit had been six years old, his parents divorced. His mother married the philosopher and writer Friedrich Schlegel, with whom she and her children lived with in Jena, Paris and Cologne. Thus, Philipp Veit grew up within the core of German Romanticism.19 He was imbued by the ideas that his stepfather and his step-uncle August Wilhelm Schlegel fostered in these years together with their friends Fichte, Novalis, Clemens Brentano, Sulpiz and Melchior Boisserée. A few years later, when Veit interrupted his studies to participate in the wars against Napoleon, he made friends with the romantic poets Joseph von Eichendorff20 and Friedrich de la Motte-Fouque. In Frankfurt, Veit often was visited by his cousin Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

So Veit was long familiar with the ideas of Friedrich von Hardenberg, called Novalis, when in 1826 Friedrich Schlegel and Wilhelm Tieck published an augmented edition of Novalis’ collected works. There for the first time a text was printed in full length, whom the editors gave the title Die Christenheit oder Europa21, in English: Christianity or Europe.22 This text, written already in 1799, can be identified as the direct inspiration of Veit’s fresco.

Hardenberg died young, before he could establish himself as an author. He remained a hidden gem, known only by insiders of the Romantic Movement like Philipp Veit. But there were other writers, who around the year 1800 had developed similar ideas about Europe. One may mention in passing the British artist William Blake among them with his poem Europe: A Prophecy from 1794.23 Although he develops a spiritual concept of Europe, it is deistic, not explicitly Christian. But three years after Novalis, in 1802, the French author François-René de Chateaubriand published his book Génie du christianisme ou beautés de la religion Chrétienne.24 And he had immediate success. His book was discussed all over Europe. It was a major inspiration for the Romantic Movement in France as well as in other countries. I am convinced, that it was the second inspiration for Veit’s picture.

These texts are only the most famous. There were others in Spain, in Italy, in Poland, and elsewhere. Obviously all over Europe around the year 1800 writers, artists and historians felt the need to develop a new concept of Europe. How can this wave be explained?

It is uncontroversial to state that it has been a result from the Napoleonic wars. For these wars not only brought the principles of the French Revolution to nearly all the European countries, they also transformed Europe as a whole. Revolutionary France seemed to have become militarily irresistible. Its triumphant success lead to the collapse of the old European state system. By and by it forced all European states besides the United Kingdom to join a pyramid scheme of adopting the revolutionary principles and exporting them further on. Europe seemed to be rebuilt by Napoleon as a homogenous confederation of revolutionary states.25 When he crowned himself Emperor in 1804, he founded a pan-European Empire allegedly relying on the will of the people. By its symbols this Napoleonic Empire referred to the Roman Empire of antiquity and to the Empire of Charlemagne. It also appealed to a religious legitimation. This French imperial perspective inspired Chateaubriand.

But in many other countries Napoleon’s Europe was perceived as poisoned. It betrayed the principles of liberty and self-determination it appointed to, since it relied on military force, on conscriptions, compulsory levies and the coerced participation in ruinous wars like the French invasion of Russia. Since this was a common experience, it is not astonishing that nearly at the same time all over Europe those who did not want to identify with Napoleon’s vision of Europe had to rethink, what should be their own principles of political order, appropriate to their own states. And they had to develop an alternative idea of Europe. Thus Napoleon prompted both: the birth of nationalism and the re-shaping of Europe. Both went hand in hand often developed by the same thinkers.

I cannot present the new concepts in this paper at length, therefore I confine myself to lay bare their main idea: It was to identify Europe with Christianity. Christianity or Europe, the editors called Novalis’ text, thus underlining the thesis. “Or” does not mean an alternative here, it indicates that both nouns are to be understood as synonyms. Chateaubriand writes an apology of Christianity in general, but throughout his book he takes for granted that Christianity is European. In fact for him Christianity is the same as the Latin Church. Neither the Greek nor the Oriental or African Churches appear in his book. This may appear strange. But it can be explained easily, when we ask, what these authors did see in Christianity.

As regards Chateaubriand we find the answer already in his title: The Genius of Christianity or the Beauty of Christian Religion. Novalis expresses the same idea in the first sentence of his text:

Once there were fine, resplendent times when Europe was a Christian land, when one Christendom occupied this humanly constituted continent.26

Christianity effected resplendence. It has to be defended because of its “beauty”. It has a “Genius”. It nourishes the arts: poetry, the visual arts, and literature. It stimulates the senses, forms passions, and educates the manners. In one word: it inspires culture. Novalis and Chateaubriand rediscovered Christianity as a cultural force. Their approach to Christianity was aesthetic. And that is the reason, why it could now be identified with Europe. First one had to change the point of view, regarding Christianity no longer as an obliging doctrine, or as an inescapable social order, but as a certain spirit instead, which coins culture, before one could argue, that it made Europe and the European countries.

Of course this was provocative. Novalis and Chateaubriand roused attention, because they defended Christianity in a situation, when it had lost much of its reputation. For more than one hundred years the philosophers of Enlightenment had deconstructed Christianity as a revealed religion. They had proven, that many assertions of the Scripture do not accord with newly gained knowledge, e.g. about the age of the world or the genealogy of humankind or geography – the Bible’s claims could be falsified on historical and scientific grounds. It could not be understood as God’s word any longer, because the text of the Bible had been proven as the variable result of a historical tradition. The sciences emancipated themselves from the control of theology. They developed secular concepts of their objects – scientific progress became identical with a critique of religious dimensions. At the end of the 18th century many philosophers thought that religion was needed for practical purposes only, as a means of moral education and social coherence. Then the French Revolution came, whose principles spread all over Europe during the Revolutionary Wars. They destroyed the institutional power of the Christian churches. It was not obligatory any longer to belong to a church. In the new civil society established by the revolutionary regimes, it became possible to lead a life without church and Christianity. The institutional heads of the churches were also deprived of power. In 1798 the Papal States were secularized. Pope Pius VI was taken prisoner. After his death in 1799 Napoleon prevented the election of a successor. The Catholic Church, as it had been for centuries, seemed to have come to an end. This was the situation, to which Novalis and Chateaubriand reacted, when they wrote their apologies of Christianity.

The crucial point is that they did not defend what was lost: neither the institutional power of the church, nor the belief in revelation. Novalis and Chateaubriand were no reactionaries, on the contrary. They argued within the revolutionary civil society – this enabled them to discover Christianity as a cultural force. Here we reach our first result: To identity Christianity with Europe is a modern idea. It originated in the revolutionary era. It presupposes the disempowerment of the Christian religion. It was opposed to the enlightened despisers of religion, not to Islam. It aimed at appreciating religion as an inspiration of culture. Therefore it could also refer to the Jewish religion, as Philipp Veit indicates in the subtext of his fresco, to Islam, as for Goethe in the West-östlicher Divan, or even to deism like for William Blake.

3. Europe Personified Among the Three Magi

Let us crosscheck our result by a glimpse at the beginning of early modern times. How did one conceive the relation between Europe and Christianity at the end of the 15th century? Since the conference which was at the origin of this book took place in Cologne three day after Epiphany, it may be permitted to refer to the Three Magi. Their adoration of the newborn Jesus belongs to the most popular themes of Christian art. In the second half of the 15th century its iconography changed significantly. Since the rise of individual portrait painting ambitious would-be princes discovered the possibility to place their faces on altarpieces, having portrayed themselves among the Kings. Famous examples are Benozzo Gozzoli’s Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi of Florence, painted in 1459–1461 for the Medici family,27 and Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Columba Altarpiece of 1455 with the portraits of the Dukes of Burgundy.28 The princely commissions had the consequence that the iconography became more and more detailed and splendid. A good example from the end of the century is the Adoration of the Magi by an unknown master from Vienna, nowadays preserved at Stift Klosterneuburg.29 It not only depicts the adoration in the foreground, we are also shown the first meeting of the Magi in the back of the picture and their voyage to Bethlehem. Now look at the vestments of the three kings and of their entourage! We find Asian turbans, the dark skin of Africans and the armours of European knights. The three Magi here obviously represent the three continents, which were known at this time: Asia, Africa and Europe.30 This is proved by the banners carried side by side on the way to Bethlehem – the crescent for Asia, the dark-skinned people for Africa and the stars for Europe. All three continents unite themselves in adoration of the Christian saviour.

Fig. 2.3
Fig. 2.3

The Adoration of the three Magi

In the Middle Ages it was a well established exegetic tradition that the Three Magi also represent the three known continents. It can already be found in the commentary on the gospel of Matthew, written by the Venerable Bede, an anglo-saxon Benedictine monk, at the beginning of the 8th century.31 But this tradition had seldom been depicted until the second half of the 15th century. My assumption is, that the change was caused by the fall of Constantinople. The Christian world of Western Europe reacted to the Islamic expansion by depicting a Christian expansion, promised in the gospels. And princes like the dukes of Burgundy and their heirs the Habsburg legitimised their usurped power by claiming to plan a new crusade against the Turks.

The crucial point for our question is that Christianity in this context is not specific for Europe. On the contrary! Hundreds and hundreds of representations of the Three Magi taught people that on from the beginning Christianity was an universal religion, capturing the whole world. It would have been blasphemous to confine Christianity to Europe. It would have meant to betray the Christian brethren in Asia and in Africa and to forget the apostolic mission to baptize people all over the world. After 1492 this programme of Christian expansion was nourished again by the idea of establishing a Christian Empire in the New World, too.32 Thus we get a confirmation of our thesis that the identification of Christianity and Europe can be an idea only of the 19th century.

List of Figures

Fig. 2.1.1 and Fig. 2.1.2: Philipp Veit, The Introduction of the Arts to Germany by Religion, sided by Italia and Germania. 1835–36. Fresco, transferred on canvas, 284,5 × 191, 284 × 611,5, 285 × 192 cm. Städelsches Kunstinstitut Frankfurt, Inv. 1114–1116.

Fig. 2.2: Philipp Veit, The Introduction of the Arts to Germany by Religion. 1835–36. Fresco, transferred on canvas, 284 × 611,5 cm. Städelsches Kunstinstitut Frankfurt, Inv. 1114.

Fig. 2.3: [Unknown master] The Adoration of the three Magi. Vienna, about 1490. Mixed technique on wood, 146 × 113,5 cm. Klosterneuburg, Stiftsmuseum, Inv. GM 58.


Furedi 2018.


As to its precursors cp. Gosewinkel 2015.


Conermann, 2012, 123–134; Renton & Gidley 2017; Asad 2002, 209–227; Daniel 1960; Jonker 2009, 71–83.


Hadler 2014; Köstlbauer 2004, 45–72; Holeschofsky 2016, 383–390.


Petritsch 2012, 413–420.


Hanß 2017; Rudolph 2012, 102–127; Fechner 2006; Stouraiti 2003, 65–88.


García-Sanjuán 2016, 127–145; Hertel 2012; Doubleday & Coleman 2008; García 2010.


Berger 2011; Riley-Smith 2008; Siberry 2000; Horswell 2018; Amalvi 2011, 26 f. (about St. Bernard) and 228–233 (about St. Louis).


Blanc & Naudin 2015; Watson 1993, 51–68; Nonn 1990, 37–56.


Literature tends to become shoreless. To quote only some of the important titles: Hüttenhoff 2014; Schmale 2013; Helmrath 2010, 47–70; Adam 2006, 23–32; Borgolte 2005, 117–163; Borgolte 2000, 1061–1077; Perkins 2004; Bottici & Challand 2013; Drechsel et al. 2010; Elvert & Nielsen-Sikora 2009; Plessen 2003.


Pohl 2020, 113–118; Bailey 2013; Conze 2005; Pöpping 2002; Schulin 2002, 49–64; Schildt 1999; Hübinger 1990, 1–20.


Schmale 2013/2014, 169–186.


Cp. Schmidt 2016, 47–60; Schulz 2016, 61–70.


Cp. Detering/Marsico/Walser-Bürgler 2020; Burke 1980/81, 21–29; Hay 1968; Foerster 1967; Dupront 1958; Gollwitzer 1951. It is true, that after the fall of Constantinople, confronted with the Ottoman expansion, there have been attempts to conjure an anti-Ottoman alliance by appealing to Christian faith and European unity – Enea Silvio Piccolomini is the most prominent example, cp. Detering 2017, 63–76, Schindling 2009; Schreiner 2008; Fuchs 2005; Guthmüller/Kühlmann 2000; Meuthen 1983. Promoted by strong interests, this humanist discourse gained certain popularity, but considering political reality with its endless wars between the great Christian powers it always proved to be propaganda or mere wishful thinking. Christian powers like Venice or France and later on England were the first ones to refute it; it never was generally accepted.


Gallwitz 1977, 262–264, 270 f., 282–285; Spahn & Veit 1901, 73–77; Balke 1986, 95–161; Suhr 1991, 88–103 and 114–118.


In Catholic understanding of 19th century this is the task of Mary. It is interesting, how in Veit’s composition the role of Mary has been taken over by religion.


Sometimes the title is cited as The Introduction of the Arts to Germany by Christianity (e.g. by Balke, Freskenwerk). But this variant erases an important ambiguity within the symbolic structure of the picture, as will be shown at once.


A reproduction can be found in Spahn & Veit 1901, 58. The draft is explicated by Passavant 1836.


Ziolkowski 1990.


Feilchenfeldt 1984, 79–99.


Novalis 1826, 187–208. Critical edition in: Ders. 1960, 507–524. Cp. Seifert 2015, 267–290; Rose 2015, 241–266; Schneider 2009, 169–186; Moser 2006, 217–234; Kasperowski 1994, 41–132; Mähl 1992/93, 1–16; Behrmann, 9–31; Schanze 1979, 760–771.


There are several English translations, e.g. Novalis 1844; ibid. 1937; ibid. 1960; ibid. 1993; ibid. 1996.


Critical edition: Blake. Cp. Viebrock 1994.


Chateaubriand 1802. Critical edition ibid. 1978. English translation ibid. 1856. Deutsch ibid. 1844. Cp. Sändig 1999, 336–354; Stribakos 1996; Steinwachs 1986, 124–147.


Lentz 2002–2010; Lentz 2013, 30–33; Boudon 2013, 62–65; Petiteau et al. 2012.


Novalis 1960, 45.


Cardini 2001.


Dixon 1987, 181–190.


Roller 2016, Abb. 76, 150, Kat. 50. Details on 14/15 and 145. In his Essay “Die Heiligen drei Könige und die Folgen” (144–171) Roller presents further examples. Cp. Roller & Weilandt 2004, 39 f.


For this and other personifications of Europe cp. Detering/Marsico/Walser-Bürgler 2020; Renger/Ißler 2009.


Cp. Beda Venerabilis, In Matthaei evangelium expositio, PL 92, Sp. 13 A = Z. 12–15: “Mystice autem tres Magi tres partes mundi significant, Asiam, Africam, Europam, sive humanum genus, quod a tribus filiis Noe seminarium sumpsit.” (“Im mystischen Schriftsinn bezeichnen die drei Magier die drei Teile der Welt – Asien, Afrika und Europa – oder aber auch das Menschengeschlecht, das bei den drei Söhnen Noahs seinen Anfang genommen hat.”). Cp. Kehrer 1908–09, Bd. 1, 63.


Pagden 1995 and ibid. 1990. As to the theological premises cp. Jennings 2010.

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