William Hogarth's commission for St. Mary's Redcliffe in Bristol in the mid-eighteenth century was indeed unusual. As Clare Haynes wrote in her 2006 study, Pictures and Popery: Art and Religion in England, 1660-1760, English artists faced a dilemma. Their ideal and example of great art came from Catholic artists, sponsored by the Catholic Church: Raphael and Michelangelo were their heroes, but Raphael and Michelangelo had created such great works of art for the Vatican! It was all Papist and smacked of Popery--yet many English artists yearned to create magnificent public art, religious and/or historical. As Haynes notes, there's a mixture of straightforward aesthetic appreciation mixed with distaste of the subject matter and its source.
She offers the example of "The Last Communion of St. Jerome" by Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri), the Italian Baroque painter. It was considered to be one of the greatest works of art in the world, but it presented the "exaltation of that vile shriveling passion of beggarly modern devotion" and superstition, according to Lord Shaftesbury. He admired it and hated it at the same time.
Charles I (as Prince of Wales) had obtained Raphael's Cartoons for the series of tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X--who had declared Henry VIII the "Defender of the Faith" in 1521--for the Sistine Chapel. The seven cartoons of the full set of ten were among those artworks NOT offered for sale after Charles I was beheaded. The purpose of the tapestries was to tell the life stories of St. Peter and St. Paul and to emphasize St. Peter as the Pope and head of the Catholic Church. They were popular and on public display until King George III moved them to Buckingham Palace in 1763; Queen Victoria lent to them to the Victoria and Albert Museum where they are today.
But English artists wanted to show that they were capable of this scale of work and the compositional technique. They wanted English patrons to support them rather than importing copies of works they'd seen when on the Grand Tour of Catholic Europe. An English Gentleman needed to visit the St. Peter's and other Catholic churches in Rome on the Grand Tour to see the great art of the Renaissance and the Baroque. Like John Henry Newman in the 19th century, they were often perplexed about how to respond to what they were seeing--the relics of the Roman Republic and Empire AND the greatness of the Roman Papacy in the order of the city's public works, the grandeur of the architecture, mosaics, sculptures and paintings--especially when they were witnessing the Catholic Mass, Catholic devotions, and seeing priests, bishops, cardinals, friars, etc., all around them!
Imagine what they were hearing in those churches: Palestrina, Scarlatti, etc! More about that tomorrow . . .