The word Baroque was first applied to the art from the period of the late 1500s to the 1700s, by critics in the late nineteenth century. The word Baroque in no way though, seems to describe the art movement. In Italian the word Baroque means “Tortuous medieval pedantry” and Portuguese for “Deformed pearl”. Regardless, Baroque , is primarily associated with religious tensions within Western Christianity, spanning a 200 year time span. A divide had began in the Catholic church and the outcome would see the creation of a new offset of Christianity.
In 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. By 1520, Luther has been excommunicated and began a protest movement against the Catholic church. This protest movement would later be called Protestantism. Luther believed that the layperson, or someone who is not a clergyman, was being distanced from the church and understanding the scripture. He advocated hymns as a better way to communicate hard to understand mysteries of the church and made music an integral part of Protestant church services (evansville.edu).
The Catholics in response convened the Council of Trent to discuss and consider Luther’s Theses. In 1563 the council finished their work and made art an integral part of the process of helping the layperson to understand the scripture. Through a visual and emotional display of the church through art, they hoped to influence as many people as possible to remain faithful to the Catholic Church. This was not only through the funding of paintings, but also in the commissioning of churches with enormous domes, swirling forms, huge spiraled columns, multicolored marble and lavish murals. This new program of renewal, or counter reformation, would see the church commission all types of work that would be both doctrinally correct visually appealing, and emotionally appealing. This unique style, later referred to as Baroque, would start in Italy, but as the century progressed the style would make inroads into the Protestant countries. Baroque would become a style in which painters, sculptors and architects rummage emotion, movement and variety in their works.
The Protestant reformation would be a refresher course on the reality of life for the individual. This would change with the advances of the counter reformation, as the mood of middle age art once again found expression. The mystical, the abstract and the dominance of color over form would serve as an emotional stimulus for everyday people to reconsider the advantage of Catholicism. For some artists this transformation would be easy. The reformation had caused a separation between artist and church, which in turn caused a financial crunch on the already meager living of the typical painter (rice.edu).
This new visually intense form of expression took on very different characteristics in different regions of Europe. This is largely in part due to the topics covered at the Council of Trent. In Northern Europe and largely in the Netherlands, the Baroque movement took on a significantly non secular undertone. This is a result of the predominance of the Protestant faith in this region. The advances in techniques are still noticeable in different examples of the Baroque era from Protestant artists, however due to the nature of the Protestant practice the messages are drastically different. Contrary to Catholics of the time, who worshiped in lavish sanctuaries with elaborate services for mass, the Protestants experienced their faith internally. This meant that they enjoyed simple churches and took their religious messages from the bible itself, instead of the imposing Catholic Church (csun.edu).
The Protestants had their Reformation and the Catholics had their Counter Reformation. While the Catholics needed to attract viewers with religious art that more significantly impacted onlookers, Protestants would respond with a lack of religious art. Instead they would concentrate, for example, on genre paintings that taught their viewers moral lessons. Compositions from both tended to have more open space. Objects and scenes were in a state of motion to create emotion. They either came out as the viewer or something could fall on the viewer. The motion of these pieces was created through circular or diagonal compositions. On going at this time was a general knowledge that the Earth was in motion, which was a giant conceptual leap to show this aspect of life in art. Some characteristics of baroque was an attention to exact, naturalistic details. Spatial values, such as deep space, fooling the eye and objects being pushed into the viewers space. An integration of architecture, sculpture and painting. Stories being portrayed would seem to happen in the space and time of the viewer (smcvt.edu ).
One of the more influential Catholic Baroque artists of the time was Caravaggio. His influence on the art of his century would be significant. One of Caravaggio’s masterpieces is “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” (albany.edu). In it three dishonest characters, their faces concealed or turned away, are drawing, dragging and thrusting the cross to which Peter is nailed by the feet with his head put down. The Saint Peter, as portrayed by Caravaggio, cannot be called a martyr. Instead he is an old man, suffering from pang and in fear of death. The obscure, impermeable background attracts the viewer’s gaze back again to the keenly illuminated people, who remind us that the death of the apostle did not look like a heroic drama, but a hapless and humiliating execution.
In Caravaggio’s ” The Conversion of Saint Paul” (albany.edu), Saint Paul is seen rolling around in the dirt of an old stable This attacked both the prevailing ideas about painting as well as offending the religious sensibilities of the church. Caravaggio sought a way to bring the Catholic faith down from the heavens and make it relevant to the everyday man on the street. Through his paintings he wanted to create a convincing copy of the optical world and use this as a vehicle of spiritual meaning. His so called dark manner would be influential to all later Baroque painting.
One of the few northern Europe protestant artists to create religious paintings was Rembrandt. He was from protestant Holland and is well remember for creating about 60 self portraits. Biblical subjects accounted for one third of his entire production. This is quite rare for the Protestant North of the seventeenth century, for church patronage was nonexistent and religious art was not regarded as important. His famous painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son (tiu.edu), was finished shortly before his death in 1669. There is a sense of great tragedy as you gaze upon this work. The contrast between the light and the dark, the two mysterious figures that appear dimly in the background, the woman behind the father and the dishevelment of the younger brother, all contribute to this sense of tragedy.
The Baroque styles of Protestant Northern Europe and predominantly Italian Catholic artists are stylistically similar. This comes as no surprise since the techniques originated in Italy. The most notable distinction between the two styles is not the artistic tendencies, but rather the motives or message being conveyed through the paintings. The Catholic Baroque style included vivid imagery that displayed vigorous emotion and incited emotion in those that viewed it. While the Protestant Baroque style used many similar, if not the same techniques; portrayed uniquely intrinsic emotion felt by the artist and brought about emotion not so much through dramatic stimulation, as through sympathetic understanding. The fundamental difference between Protestant Baroque and Catholic Baroque is that Protestant Baroque painters convey subjects in ways that portray the artist’s personal emotion; while Catholic Baroque painters conveyed visually entertaining and captivating imagery in order to evoke emotions from the person viewing the image.