Baroque art, especially in Italy and Spain, has its roots in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Several decades after the start of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church convened in Council of Trent to evaluate its practices. One of the major issues the church faced was its relationship with art. Many of the stricter Protestant sects argued that all religious art violated the Commandment that banned the worship of idols. In several countries, including the Netherlands, Protestants often whitewashed the old churches to remove the religious artwork. Click Here to see a painting at the Walters of a whitewashed Protestant Church.
At the Council of Trent, however, the church re-affirmed its use of religious art as an educational and devotional tool. Artwork, the church argued, was still a critical part of making Christianity relatable to its members, many of whom were illiterate or undereducated.
As a result of the decisions of the Council of Trent, many artists began to move away from the unsettling Mannerist style and moved towards a thematically clearer, but still very elaborate Baroque style. Art historians in later centuries named it after the barocco, a mishappen pearl, in critisism of its lavish style. Many of these early Baroque paintings stressed making religious art more exciting and accessible to the population. Unlike the reserved art of the Renaissance, Baroque artists strived to make art full of motion. However, the Renaissance masters were still extremely influential. They especially admired the Venetian artists such as Titian, who believed that good color was more important than perfect drawing.
Baroque artists made many incredible ceiling frescos. This fresco is “Triumph in the Name of Jesus” by Giovanni Gaulli in Rome. Notice how the fresco blends seamlessly into the architecture of the ceiling. It almost looks like there really is an opening in the ceiling.
One of the first artists to take on new style was the Italian painter Caravaggio. He painted biblical scenes with the characters depicted as everyday people. He is famous for his use of chiaroscuro, sharp contrast between light and dark. His paintings do a good job making the viewers empathize for the characters. He made this religious art for both churches and private collectors Here is a link to some Caravaggio paintings in other museums:
Unfortunately, there are no Caravaggio works in the Walters, but there are several paintings heavily influenced by his style. Many artists throughout Europe created tributes and studies based off the styles of Caravaggio and other famous artists. Here is a piece by the French artist Trophime Bigot painted in Italy using many of Caravaggio’s techniques, especially his chiaroscuro.
The Baroque style was further refined in The Spanish territory of Flanders in modern-day Belgium. One of the most famous artists of the Flemish Baroque style was Peter Paul Rubens. Based in Antwerp and traveling around Europe, he applied the elaborate Baroque style to both religious and secular works. In the 1620’s, he produced a series of paintings commemorating the French queen Marie de’ Medici. He glorified her life by including mythological characters in the paintings. Like many of the Baroque painters, he reused the elaborate style of his religious paintings and transferred it to secular and mythological subjects. He is famous for painting on gigantic canvases, this painting being twelve feet tall. His art ended up influencing Baroque painters all over Europe.
Here are more of Rubens’ paintings.
Another sharp departure from the cool, rational Renaissance art occurred in architecture. As a result of the Counter-Reformation, the church was funding huge architectural projects throughout Italy. These featured unusual floor plans and facades with dynamic styling. A good example of the innovative architecture of the period is Borromini’s Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome. Borromini also did much work on St. Peter’s Basilica, changing it from the original Renaissance to its final Baroque style. Here is a gallery of the architecture and sculpure of the cathedral.
One of the most striking examples of Baroque architecture is the Palace of Versailles in France. Versaille was originally a small hunting lodge for the royal family. In 1661, Louis XIV ordered a massive expansion to house the French government. Many artists and architects contributed to the massive Baroque palace and gardens that still exist today. From the late 1600’s to the French Revolution, other artists added to the palace’s decorations. It became a symbol of the absolute monarchies that ruled much of Europe during the Baroque era. In order to keep the nobility under control, Louis XIV had the nobles live idlely in the luxury of Versailles. To see the palace and its decorations, here is the official site of Versailles.
Sculpture was another medium that experienced a transformation during the Baroque period. Renaissance sculptures such as Michelangelo’s David were styled after Classical Greek models. They were idealized and reserved in emotion. Meanwhile, Baroque sculptors strove to fill their statues with movement and emotion. One of the most prolific Baroque sculptors is Gianlorenzo Bernini. Here is a link to his work. Compare his version of David with Michelangelo’s.
Here is a bronze sculpture on display at the Walters. It is an 18th century Baroque bronze piece by Notice how he uses the drapery to add to the movement of the sculpture.
Baroque art was the dominant style in much of Europe throughout the 17th century. At the same time, Baroque musicians like J. S. Bach and Vivaldi were laying down the foundations of what is now called Classical Music. Baroque was later replaced by the much more lighthearted Rococo style in the early 1700’s. However, Baroque art became extremely influential to later artists. Instead of relying on symbolism to convey meaning, for the first time artists tried to display the meaning purely through emotion. This artistic search for expression would later influence Romantic artists like Eugene Delacroix and Post-Impressionists like Van Gough.
Many Southern European Baroque paintings, sculptures and furniture can be found in the 17th and 18th century galleries at the Walters.
Here are some other Baroque artists by country (artchive.com):
Guido Reni (painting) (Web Gallery of Art)