The Baroque

The Four Continents Baroque art


The heavy, grandiose largess of the gilded Baroque architectural and interior design is evident in its artwork as well, as it is known to readily express drama and tension in all of the applied arts. The need of the aristocracy to impress with opulence and grandeur kept artisans busy for nearly a century building elaborately ornate and heavy grand staircases in excessively decorated Baroque palaces.

This flamboyancy was encouraged by the Catholic Church in their quest to build the church back up after the Protestant Reformation. The many wealthy bishops and important clergy of the Church wanted to be sure to that the people were aware of the supremacy of the Church and God’s blessings upon it, so they commissioned a number of artists and architects to make sure that the most opulent, grand, and imposing edifices and decors possible would send their message to the people.

“My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size… has ever surpassed my courage”. – Peter Paul Rubens

Protestant Holland and other protestant regions did not see such religious interest in the Baroque style, but it was present amongst the various classes, including those of the middle class.

The Baroque Origins and Historical Importance:

Around the year 1600, after the Council of Trent, it was the purview of the Catholic Church to convey religion to the masses in an emotionally evoking manner that would give religious understanding to the illiterate in addition to the educated.

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus Baroque art

The etymology of the word ‘baroque’ is that its Latin roots imply the meaning “rough or imperfect pearl”. In informal language, it simply refers to something that is detailed and elaborate. It was not used at the time, but was later ascribed to the movement by later art critics to criticize the excess of the period in its application, details, and frivolity in architecture, but was later applied to the other arts of the period.

“All works, no matter what or by whom painted, are nothing but bagatelles and childish trifles… unless they are made and painted from life, and there can be nothing… better than to follow nature.” ― Caravaggio

Baroque followed the intellectual and elitist styles of the Renaissance and Mannerism and turned instead toward a sensory approach to appeal to wider audience that might not understand ambiguous meanings that were previously only known to the educated.

Baroque painting avoided the mysterious, yet favored the intensity of emotion displayed through sensationalism and exaggerated light. It bore little to no resemblance of the lifestyles of the people of the Baroque period, but its melodramatic expression was thought to glorify the monarchy and validate the emotional depths of the Catholic Church. Subject matter included the life of Christ, the life of Mary, and important emotional or moving scenes from the New Testament, such Paul’s vision of Jesus on the Road to Damascus.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa Baroque art
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa Baroque art

The protestant regions, namely Holland, did focus on everyday life, still life, and landscape, but only some of the artists adapted the grandeur of Baroque. Vermeer, for one, did not participate. Painters of the period, particularly in the Netherlands, focused on the play of light above all else and preferred dark backgrounds in order to showcase the main subject in the light. For this reason, they often shied from human figures and preferred still lifes, particularly of fruit.

Baroque sculpture focused on the human movement and expressing energy through the use of an axis in a spiral, sometimes reaching out, giving the viewer interest from every angle. Embellishments such as hidden fountains, or disguised lighting were added to give the piece a living quality.

“There are two devices which can help the sculptor to judge his work: one is not to see it for a while. The other… is to look at his work through spectacles which will change its color and magnify or diminish it, so as to disguise it somehow to his eye, and make it look as though it were the work of another…”  – Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Baroque architecture centered on the bold and grand and including colonnades, chiaroscuro, domes, and large ornate staircases. The idea behind a better dwelling for the most important person in a building, the state apartment, is an invention Baroque architecture.

With the decline of Italian power and wealth, Baroque went into decline as well. France was becoming a bigger player on the world stage and its principal decorative interest, Rococo, was becoming more fashionable.

The Baroque Key Highlights:

  • Bernini was one of the finest artists of the Baroque period, working in nearly every medium, including sculpture, performance art, writing plays, painting, and designing architecture.
  • Bernini’s creation of the Saint Theresa in Ecstasy is a triumph of architecture, drama, sculpture, and story in one piece.
  • Baroque architecture is known for its grandeur, so it is interesting note that its most influential painter was Peter Paul Rubens, the painter known for his “Rubenesque” women – women of stately proportions show in poses and light that render them beautiful.
  • Renaissance art shows a scene in the moments before an action takes place. Baroque hones in on the very climax of the moment when the tension is most high.
  • Shapes in architecture that were exclusive to Baroque at the time are more circular features in central Europe, and pear shapes in Eastern Europe.

The Baroque Top Works:

  • The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa – Bernini
  • The Conversion on the Way to Damascus – Caravaggio
  • The Crucifixion of St. Peter – Caravaggio
  • The Four Continents – Peter Paul Rubens
  • Philosopher in Meditation – Rembrandt
  • The Crowning with Thorns – Caravaggio
  • Trevi Fountain – Rome
  • Cornaro Chapel – Rome
  • The Mill – Rembrandt
  • The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and William van Ruytenburch – Rembrandt
  • The Rape of Proserpine – Bernini

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