The Art and Artists of the Baroque Era as Influenced by Religion
The word Baroque from its origins in the 16th century is a technical term for irregularly shaped pearls. Its popularized English language jargon meant variously strange, distorted and extravagant. The Baroque era seem to actually reflect the strange and distortion because of the divergence in religion and various styles. The extravagance is indeed manifested in the rich architectural and painting samples of this period.
In the early 16th century, the Protestant reformation came to fruition that rooted from the growing dissatisfaction with Church leadership. A damaging perception was that Roman popes concerned themselves with temporal power and material wealth than with the salvation of the members of the church. In late 16th century, the Counter Reformation was at its peak and all religious art was being scrutinized in strict accordance with the decrees of the Council of Trent to eliminate any form of imagery that might be regarded as profane, pagan or heretical (Kleiner 508).
Besides the doctrinal differences between the Catholic Church and the Protestants, another was the role of visual imagery in religion. The concern of Protestants was about the role of religious imagery that sometimes progressed to iconoclasm, which is defined as the objection to and destruction of religious imagery. Protestant leaders encouraged a more personal relationship with God by speaking out against the religious art being produced because this could lead to idolatry and distraction from communicating with God. However, Catholics embraced church decoration as an aid in communicating to God; this was seen in Italian ceiling frescoes and German and Polish altarpieces. On the other hand, Protestant churches were austere and unadorned. The use for art as visual images were teaching tool that facilitated the private devotional exercises of Protestantism (Kleiner 510).
For over 50 years, historians were able to understand that rhetoric has become prominent in the historiography of Baroque art and this also served as the framework for Baroque as a whole. The figurative arts of this period exercised one of the rhetoric’s fundamental goals, that is to communicate distinct emotional states to the spectator. Argan emphasized the foundation of Baroque as rhetoric and characteristically described the period as an art of persuasion (Levy 50). Meanwhile, Wolfflin believes that Baroque is characteristically distinct because reason is eclipsed and the individuality overwhelmed but manifested itself in grand scale because its full expression is in the church, like Baroque architecture, particularly the huge church interiors (Levy 37).
Peter Paul Rubens painted The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier in 1616-17, which is one of the many glorifications of Jesuit missionaries. In 1691, a lay brother in the Society of Jesus – Andrea Pozzo, covered the ceiling of the church with vast allegorical fresco, which is dedicated to St. Ignatius for propagating the Catholic faith throughout the world. This work celebrated the contribution of the Jesuits to the triumph of Catholicism. In this work, a ray of light passes from Christ to St. Ignatius that refracted by way of St. Francis Xavier and other missionaries to personifications of the four continents that were seated above the figures of the enemies of the Catholic Church. All the figures in this work are depicted as seen from below, which is the geometrical precision of the perspective in celestial-terrestrial vision (Honour and Fleming). He also painted the Elevation of the Cross for the church of Saint Walburga in Antwerp, which is one of the many altarpieces that he was commissioned to work on. With his sacred art, churches sought to affirm their allegiance o Catholicism and Spanish Hadsburg rule (Kleiner 665).
Gianlorenzo Bernini primarily considered himself as a sculptor but he was also a gifted architect, painter and poet. His portrait of Francesco I d ’Este, Duke of Modena is a triumph of art that succeeded in evoking the presence of a whole figure through head and armless shoulders only. Bernini was also indebted to the patronage of the enlightened popes. When he was 26 years old, he received his papal commission by the newly elected Pope Urban VII, who tasked him in the creation of baldacchino or canopy for the main altar of St. Peter. This 95-foot high gigantic bronze structure was embellished with gilding that reaffirmed the centrality of the crossing not only for the church but for the entire Christendom. The elements of the design were traditional but combined in a new way, such that twisted columns are greatly enlarged versions of those that came from Solomon’s temples in Jerusalem and the tasseled valance simulates the fabric of a canopy carried on staves that were usually for a priest bearing the sacrament in procession. Also, the superstructure is as recollection of a type of ciborium, which is often suspended over an altar (Honour and Fleming). This baldacchino served both functional and symbolic purposes because it provides dramatic and compelling presence when worshippers enter the nave of the huge church. The columns create visual frame of the elaborate sculpture that represents the throne of St. Peter (Kleiner 530).
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, also called El Greco, captured the fervor of Spanish Catholicism through the intense emotionalism of his paintings. This vivid expression of his fervor is his masterpiece, Burial of Count Orgaz, which was painted in 1586 for the church of Santo Tome in Toledo. He based the painting on the legend that Orgaz died three centuries ago and was buried in the church by Saints Stephen and Augustine who descended from Heaven to lower Orgaz’ body into its sepulcher. El Greco represented the terrestrial realm with a firm realism, while the celestial realm was depicted in his quite personal manner with undulating figures, fluttering draperies and visionary cloud (Kleiner 524).
Il Gesu is hailed as the most influential building in the second half of the 16th century Baroque. This is the mother church of the Jesuit order, which was an important component of the Counter-Reformation. The Jesuits were the papacy’s invaluable allies in its mission to reassert the supremacy of the Catholic Church. The Gesu plan was widely accepted in the Catholic world until modern times, which reflects its ritual efficacy. The opening of the church into a single hall provided a theatrical setting for huge promenades and processions. The space is enough to accommodate the great crowds that gathered to hear the Jesuit preaching (Kleiner 500).
The artists with Lutheran sympathies were less rigorous. Albrecht Altdorfer helped in bringing a Protestant preacher to the city of Regensburg. His drawings, etchings and oil paintings were sensuous mythological and traditional pictures like the rolling hills, rocks, streams and pine trees of the Danube valley, which may have implied new religious notions. These works were the earliest pure landscapes in European art that reflected ideas among Protestant mystics. Moreover, in Meinders Hobbema’s work, The Avenue, Middelharnis of 1968, the combination of contemporary and timeless symbolism is more pronounced. The lanky trees draws the eye along the muddy road up to the calmly luminous sky, which may essentially and inevitably recall the straight and narrow path of virtue that leads to heaven . Although Albert Cuyp had different style of painting, he adopted a light tonality, colorful palette and smooth technique that bathed the canvas with the warm air of the Mediterranean, which is similar to that of Dutch artists (Honour and Fleming).
Rembrandt Van Rijn was a great versatile artist, a master of light and shadow and a unique interpreter of the Protestant conception of scripture. He painted Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp that deviated from the traditional staid group portrait. Rembrandt chose to portray the members of the surgeon’s guild clustered on the left side of the painting and in the foreground is the corpse that Dr. Tulp was dissecting. His innovative approach to portraiture
In Italy and Spain, this was the period that every Catholic country of Europe has huge Jesuit churches and monasteries that bear the stamp of the same style, as though they had been ordered and delivered by the same contractors. In Syracuse, one of the best places to look upon Baroque art is the Piazza del Duomo. There is a superb façade to the cathedral, the Municipio, the Palazzo Bosco, the Archivescovado and the Church of St. Lucia. All these complete the points of interest in this square with orange and gold stones in each building (Sitwell, 313).
Baroque was initially associated to music in France in 1734. Jean Jacques Rousseau defined baroque music as a confused harmony, charged with modulations and dissonances, in which the melody is harsh and little natural, intonation is difficult and the movement is constrained. For other French writers, Baroque music primarily explored extreme emotions that had a dramatic expressivity. To other critics this seemed bizarre and distorted. The Baroque music is associated with composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Arcangelo Corelli, Claudio Monteverdi, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Henry Purcell (Buelow 2).
The Baroque era may have been predominantly about the struggles in the religion but its art is a unique manifestation of style in persuading the spectators. And such conflicts among the religions and politics brought about majestic works of artists that showed greatness in structure and paintings as well. The Churches and the extravagant and detailed works reflected the era’s grand works of art. But the simplicity of other works on the other hand, has provided refreshing views for the religion. The era may have been associated with words like irregular and distortion but the Baroque art shows immense and overwhelming creations that were appreciated through time.
Buelow, George. A history of baroque music. Indiana University Press, 2004.
Honour, Hugh and John. Fleming. A world history of art. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005.
Kleiner, Fred. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2009.
Levy, Evonne Anita. Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004.
Sitwell, Sacheverell. Southern Baroque Art: A Study of Painting Architecture and Music in Italy and Spain of the 17th and 18th centuries. Kessinger Publishing, 2005.