When Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses to the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, protesting the Catholic Church’s corruption, he initiated a movement that would transform the religious, political, and artistic landscape of Europe. For the next century, Europe would be in turmoil as new political and religious boundaries were determined, often through bloody military conflicts. Only in 1648, with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, did the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics subside in continental Europe.
Martin Luther focused his critique on what he saw as the Church’s greed and abuse of power. He called Rome, the seat of papal power, “the whore of Babylon,” decked out in the finery of expensive art, grand architecture, and sumptuous banquets. The Church responded to the crisis in two ways: by internally addressing issues of corruption and by defending the doctrines rejected by the Protestants. Thus, while the first two decades of the 16th century were a period of lavish spending for the Papacy, the middle decades were a period of austerity. As one visitor to Rome noted in the 1560s, the entire city had become a convent. Piety and asceticism ruled the day.
By the end of the 16th century, the Catholic Church was once again feeling optimistic, even triumphant. It had emerged from the crisis with renewed vigor and clarity of purpose. Shepherding the faithful—instructing them on Catholic doctrines and inspiring virtuous behavior—took center stage. Keen to rebuild Rome’s reputation as a holy city, the Papacy embarked on extensive building and decoration campaigns aimed at highlighting its ancient origins, its beliefs, and its divinely sanctioned authority. In the eyes of faithful Catholics, Rome was not an unfaithful whore, but a pure bride, beautifully adorned for her union with her divine spouse.
While the Protestants harshly criticized the cult of images, the Catholic Church ardently embraced the religious power of art. The visual arts, the Church argued, played a key role in guiding the faithful. They were certainly as important as the written and spoken word, and perhaps even more important since they were accessible to the learned and the unlearned alike. In order to be effective in its pastoral role, religious art had to be clear, persuasive, and powerful. Not only did it have to instruct, but it also had to inspire. It had to move the faithful to feel the reality of Christ’s sacrifice, the suffering of the martyrs, and the visions of the saints. Whether through shocking realism, dynamic movement, or exuberant ornamentation, seventeenth-century art is meant to impress. It aims to convince the viewer of the truth of its message by impacting the senses, awakening the emotions, and activating—even sharing—the viewer’s space.
In the context of European history, the period from c. 1585 to c. 1700/1730 is often called the Baroque era. The word “baroque” derives from the Portuguese and Spanish words for a large, irregularly shaped pearl (“barroco” and “barrueco,” respectively). Eighteenth-century critics were the first to apply the term to the art of the 17th century. It was not a term of praise. To the eyes of these critics, who favored the restraint and order of Neoclassicism, the works of Bernini, Borromini, and Pietro da Cortona appeared bizarre, absurd, even diseased—in other words, misshapen, like an imperfect pearl.
By the middle of the 19th century, the word had lost its pejorative implications and was used to describe the ornate and complex qualities present in many examples of 17th-century art, music, and literature. Eventually, the term came to designate the historical period as a whole.
Southern Baroque art generally refers to the art produced in Italy, Spain and Portugal during the 16th and early 17th centuries. Baroque art is characterized by:
- Dynamism and movement
- Visual splendor and spectacle
- Theatricality and emotion
- Illusionism and an emphasis on naturalism
The Southern Baroque style was influenced by the Counter-Reformation, which was the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. Part of this response was the assemblage of the Council of Trent, which defined and reaffirmed Catholic Doctrine, including the use of art in religious worship. Counter-Reformation art contains subject matter that is traditional and focused on core doctrine, presented in a style that is clear, realistic, accessible to all, visually stimulating and motivational.
The Conversion of St. Paul, Caravaggio
With most artists, we know about their lives and personalities from biographies that friends or contemporaries wrote about them. In the case of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, however, we know about his life primarily from police records. From these accounts, we learn that he had a bad temper, could be violent, and was frequently arrested and imprisoned for assault. He appears on the police records for mild offenses like carrying weapons without permission and more serious ones where he is involved in violent fights. He was even questioned once because he “gave offense” to a woman and her daughter—one wonders what that could mean! Ultimately, he killed a man over a bet and spent the last few years of his life on the run from the police.
One of the first things you might notice about Caravaggio’s style is the darkness. There’s actually a word for it: tenebroso, which means dark or gloomy. Caravaggio painted many of his scenes as though they were happening in the black of night with almost a spot-light effect on the figures. Several things are important about this. There is no background—only darkness. No architecture, no landscape, and so, as a result, we focus on the figures who are all located in the foreground of the painting. The spotlight effect of the lighting is very dramatic, and so we have very stark contrasts of light and dark (called chiaroscuro). In other words, where modeling is usually a slow movement from light to dark, here we have very dark shadows right next to areas of bright illumination. The effect is very dramatic.
Everything is located very much in the foreground of the painting, very close to the viewer. One of the main characteristics of Baroque art is the breaking down of the barrier between our space and the space of the painting so we feel like we’re part of it. Baroque artists like Caravaggio use foreshortening frequently.
Baroque artists were also interested in movement. In the High Renaissance, we saw compositions in the shape of a pyramid—a very stable shape. Here in Baroque art we see diagonals, or sometimes interlocking diagonals in the shape of an X.
Baroque art also tends to be very real—not only do the figures look “regular,” but the artist is giving us a very real sense of this moment. The figures are all very ordinary looking, not idealized at all, like the figures of the High Renaissance. They are figures we can relate to more—unlike the perfect figures of the High Renaissance.
We're in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome, and we're looking at one of the most famous paintings by Caravaggio. This is The Conversion of Saul. And this is one of two paintings that Caravaggio painted here in the chapel called the Cerasi Chapel, named for the Cerasi family, and, in fact, Tiberio Cerasi is buried here in this chapel. The painting itself shows an important story, it shows Saul, who's job it was to persecute Christians, and he was on the road to Damascus when he was blinded by light and he heard a voice. And that voice, the voice of Christ, said to him, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? And, Saul was blinded for three days. Now, that's important because Christ had been in his tomb for three days before he was resurrected and Jonah, in the Old Testament, remained in the fish, which is often called a whale, for three days, So, there is this Old Testament tradition that this is going back to of three days in the darkness before being saved by the divine. And, it puts Saul, who's name becomes Paul, in this tradition that comes out of the Old Testament.
So, here, we only see that divine supernatural force as light flooding down on Saul. He's fallen off of his horse. Caravaggio has stripped out everything that's not essential. He's created monumental figures that fill the frame of the canvas. He's pushed them forward and he's placed them against this deep, dark background so, when elements are illuminated, they stand out against that background. Saul's face is the only face here that's illuminated. While the groom doesn't even seem to notice what's going on. And that's what makes it all the more personal, that it's only Saul that hears God's voice. So, this darkness that this is set in, no architecture, no landscape, this tenebroso, this dark style, perhaps deriving from the art of Leonardo da Vinci, but here taken so far by Caravaggio and that darkness eliminating everything else that could distract us from this incredibly powerful moment.
It's interesting to think about why this is happening at this particular moment at the turn of the 17th century. The naturalism we see here, the way that we're getting the rear end of the horse, the dirt on the ground, the figure of the groom, who's taking care of the horse, looks like a man that Caravaggio probably asked to model for him that he met in Rome, and that naturalism is part of this interest in legibility, in clarity in art that comes out of the Counter-Reformation. And, specifically, out of the Council of Trent. The idea was that painting could be didactic. One of the questions that Luther and other Protestants raised was whether or not it was alright to have paintings, and the Council of Trent spoke to that directly and said, yes, paintings had important didactic value within a religious context. And, it's really interesting to compare this to the first version of this painting, which was apparently rejected by the patron, where we see a narrative. Here, although we do have a sense of a caught moment in time, what we have is a condensation, a distilling of this moment of personal conversion that was very popular among Baroque artists.
If we were looking at a Renaissance painting, it would be a more public moment. Figures would exist in a more rational space. But, here, it almost seems as if we have a privileged, private view. The chapel itself is a narrow space. And the space of the painting is confining, the figures take up side to side, top to bottom, with very little room to spare, and Caravaggio's definitely thinking about our view here, as we stand in this chapel and look obliquely across and up at the painting. Saul seems to fall out toward us. In the Renaissance, the idea was to create a sense of harmony, a sense of balance. Here, all of that is upended. This is precarious, it seems fleeting. The center of gravity is high, rather than low. The largest and most massive part of this painting is the body of the horse and it's at the top. And, beneath him, Saul seems very vulnerable, the horse's hoof is lifted up, Saul's helmet has fallen off of his head. There is this sense of the fragility of a human being being confronted with the power of the divine. Saul is so close to us and seems so real, he lies on the bare earth. And, his knees are up, his legs are spread, his arms are spread. His body is actually a triangle, but it's upended and whereas the Renaissance was concerned often with parameatal compositions, with creating a stable pyramid. This is turning that pyramid up on it's point. And, there's so much foreshortening here, not only is the body of Saul foreshortened, his sword is foreshortened, the horse is foreshortened. And, so, everything is so close to us. In the Renaissance, we often saw a distance between the world of human beings and realm of the divine. But, here Saul is present is our world.
Questions to Consider
- In what ways does Caravaggio break down the barrier between the viewer's space and the space of the painting?
- What are the social implications of how Caravaggio has chosen to depict the characters in this scene?
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was an Italian sculptor and architect. While a major figure in the world of architecture, he was more prominently the leading sculptor of his age, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. In addition, he was a painter (mostly small canvases in oil) and a man of the theater: he wrote, directed, and acted in plays (mostly Carnival satires), for which he designed stage sets and theatrical machinery. His broad technical versatility, boundless compositional inventiveness and sheer skill in manipulating marble ensured that he would be considered a worthy successor of Michelangelo, far outshining other sculptors of his generation. His talent extended beyond the confines of sculpture to a consideration of the setting in which it would be situated.
Baroque art wants us to be able to relate to the image in our bodies, not just in our minds. Bernini’s David uses the space around it—reaching out into the space of the viewer. It is not content—the way Michelangelo’s David is—to remain separate from us. When looking at David, we immediately start to feel what David is feeling. He is like a major league pitcher winding up to throw a 95-miles-an-hour fastball. The pitcher gathers all of his strength for each pitch and puts everything he has into it, and we feel every muscle tighten. This empathy is important to Baroque art. The diagonal lines resulting from David's unstable position immediately suggest movement, energy, and drama—different from the immobility of the pyramid shape from the Renaissance.
Tier 2: Context—David
Like all artwork, the context of this work helps us to know how to understand the work in its own time. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 2: Context.
Bernini's David is the third of three statues of significant statues on the subject. Understanding this aesthetic context clarifies how viewers might interact with this work.
The first of the three Davids was produced by Donatello, a bronze adolescent interpretation of the biblical figure with he head of the giant Goliath at his feet. This work shows us an early moment in the Renaissance—the beginnings of humanism when artists were first discovering contrapposto and the beauty of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. His young figure of David symbolizes the Republic of Florence, which saw itself—like David—as blessed by God. Donatello shows David victorious standing on the head of Goliath.
The second statue was the famous David by Michelangelo, a towering and ideally beautiful marble man looking in the distance at his approaching foe. Michelangelo seems to be asking us to contemplate the incredible beauty of an essentially static David, and through contemplating beauty (the beauty of man, God’s greatest creation), we come to know God. The statue's posture is contemplative and focused but free of stress and anxiety. The statue transmits the sense of effortlessness that writers like Machiavelli promoted in his omnipresent book, The Prince, a description of the emerging new style of a governing figurehead as a mixture of terribleness and grace in humanistic clothing.
Bernini shows us a less ideal, and more real David—one who, with God’s help, is actively fighting Goliath (perhaps the way the Church itself felt as they were battling against Martin Luther). There is no time for contemplation, only for ducking out of the way—our reaction is in our bodies, not in our minds. Bernini captures a fleeting moment of intensity and effort that heightens our anticipation for David's lunge forward. The path to God in the Baroque era is more direct, more emotional, and more bodily, and that, of course, relates to the embattled position of the Church, which wanted to appeal directly to the faithful.
We're in the Galleria Borghese here in Rome looking at one of several sculptures that Bernini as a young man in his 20s made for Cardinal Borghese here in this fabulously beautiful villa and this is the sculpture of David. So the story comes from the Old Testament and the young man who will become King David. He's a shepherd and the Israelites are in battles with the Phillistines. But a giant of a man, Goliath, is so powerful that nobody wants to meet him directly, but David takes off his armor and goes to meet him, not even armed with a sword. He gathers some stones and he goes to face Goliath and it is god on the side of the Israelites, David has that behind him when he goes to face and defeat Goliath, which he does with one stone from the slingshot. Which hits Goliath between the eyes and fells him. David then takes the giant's sword and severs his head but this is the moment of action itself. When most people think of the sculpture of David, they think of Michelangelo's High Renaissance sculpture. And that dates to the early 1500s, so here we are more than 100 years later and we've moved from the High Renaissance into the period of the Baroque. Bernini knew all about Michelangelo's triumphant sculpture, David, and it informs this , but Bernini is making this sculpture his own. Well, we're in a very different moment in history.
Michelangelo's sculpture during the High Renaissance was looking back to Ancient Greek and Roman art, this interest in classical antiquity, this moment of humanism in the Renaissance, of idealizing the human body. Creating a stable columnar figure, making the human body seem almost like a classical column in its purity, in its elegance. Michelangelo's David has tension in the muscles and a lot of tension in the face and a sense of drama in the face as he stares down Goliath, but it's as though that drama that was just incipient in Michelangelo is really, here, unleashed by Bernini. He's like a spring that's about to unwind. Michelangelo gives us the moment before the fight with Goliath and Bernini is giving us the moment where David is about to release this slingshot and kill this giant of a man, Goliath. In fact, some people have said that they don't want to stand in front of the sculpture because it looks like that slingshot might hit them. Bernini is able to activate the space around the stone. That's one of the big differences between the High Renaissance and the Baroque. With Michelangelo's David, we are very separate, we contemplate his ideal beauty, but here we're emotionally, bodily involved. Look at the torsion in David's body, the way he's twisted and he's about to spin that rock and unleash it. The body crosses itself, which is not something we see in Michelangelo's David and the body forms this diagonal line that has so much energy. Look at the knit brow of his focused attention, look at the way that the lips are pressed together, making so clear his intense concentration. And you can feel that he's gathering every ounce of strength that he has to throw this stone, he's got god behind him, but he's still using all of his strength. I always find myself wanting to say, "You can feel it," when I describe Baroque art, and I think that's the whole idea of Baroque art. It is a direct confrontation with the narrative, it is meant to bring us into the story, and Bernini does this so well that we forget that this is stone. So that emotional involvement, that almost bodily involvement where we almost wanna duck out of the way is so typical of Baroque art.
This moment in the 1600s when the Catholic Church is using art as a way to affirm and strengthen the faith of believers. That was a major tenet of the Counter-Reformation of the Council of Trent that suggested that art was didactic, that art could be a teaching tool to help deepen one's faith. Teaching is a funny word because it sounds so distant but the art of the Baroque, it doesn't feel like a lecture, it feels like we're being brought in, it feels seductive. Look at the naturalism here, look at his understanding of the human body, of its musculature, of the skeletal structure, even in this enormously complex pose. This is an artist who has taken all of the lessons of the High Renaissance but activated them and turned them to a purpose that even Michelangelo, I think, could not have predicted. When I look at Michelangelo's David, I feel as though I'm looking at a figure that is superhuman, too beautiful to be someone that you would pass on the street, but Bernini's David looks like a man, he is depicted naturalistically, but he's not idealized like a god, that is such a High Renaissance characteristic. But the naturalism that you're talking about, we see in Caravaggio, we see here in Bernini, it's very much a characteristic of the Baroque. These are artists that bring the Bible into our world.
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Bernini
The development of new iconographies was another significant feature of baroque sacred art. The Council of Trent promoted devotion to the Pope, the saints, and the Virgin Mary (which had been rejected by the Protestants), and, as a consequence, throughout the baroque era, old saints were revisited, new ones were created, and local devotions flourished—often times along a burgeoning sense of nationalistic pride. The figure of Saint Peter (who was considered the first Pope and, therefore, the head of the Catholic Church), for instance, appears in countless images of martyrdom and conversion. We also see distant and recent saints represented in various states of spiritual rapture and the Virgin Mary assuming attributes for new devotions.
Saints were particularly instrumental as they offered models of behavior for the believer, and the canonization of recent saints such as Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint Ignatius Loyola, and Saint Rose of Lima—the first saint from the Americas—demonstrated that anyone could become a saint. The Virgin Mary, too, acquired renewed status in her role as intercessor, in some cases verging into a national obsession, as was the case with the Immaculate Conception in Spain.
Las Meninas, Velázquez
Another example of the global Baroque style and its blurred lines between art and viewer is Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas. The work depicts the artist at work on a massive oil painting in his bustling workshop. Some figures look out of the canvas towards the viewer, while others interact among themselves. The five-year-old Infanta Margaret Theresa is surrounded by her entourage of maids of honor, chaperones, bodyguards, two dwarfs, and a dog. Just behind them, Velázquez portrays himself working on a large canvas. Velázquez looks outwards, beyond the pictorial space to where a viewer of the painting stands. In the background, there is a mirror that reflects the upper bodies of the king and queen. They appear to be placed outside the picture space in a position similar to that of the viewer, although some scholars have speculated that their image reflects the painting Velázquez is shown working on.
We're in the Prado in Madrid, and we're looking at the great canvas by Velázquez, "Las Meninas."
Did you mean "great" in terms of size? Because it is a very large painting. Actually, it's a painting with a very large painting inside it. That's the same size as the painting it is. In fact, some art historians have suggested that the painting that Velázquez, because notice there is a self-portrait of Velázquez in the act of painting, is in fact painting the painting that we're looking at.
Did you follow that?
I did. It is very complicated. So what we're seeing here is, in the center, the princess attended by the maidens of honor, a dwarf, her governess, and some other attendants. And on the back wall a mirror, which is the sort of puzzle in a way of the painting. We know it's a mirror because unlike the canvases on the back wall, this is a much more reflective surface. We can see the beveled edge of the glass, and of course in that frame, we see a reflection of the King and Queen of Spain, Philip IV and his wife. And some art historians have suggested that we must be them looking into the mirror and seeing our own reflection.
Others have suggested that in fact, the mirror is reflecting the image that is being depicted on the canvas by Velázquez, and then even other art historians have suggested, yes, the mirror is reflecting what's on the canvas, but the king and queen are still standing before us. Which is why the princess is looking out at us, and even the dog is, in a sense, taking notice. And why there is just sort of general attention being very much focused on where we are in front of the painting. Perhaps we're in the space of the king and queen, and this painting was meant for the study of the king, who would have been the person looking at it. So it's very much meant for his gaze.
That issue of looking, of gaze, is I think for me really one of the central keys to this painting. It seems to me to be a conversation of glances, a conversation of people reacting to each other's glances, of looking itself, a kind of essay on the way in which we see. To me it's more of paying attention. I think that's exactly right, and that would make sense.
This is the king and queen of Spain, one of the most powerful countries on the face of the Earth at this moment.
Yeah, you would have to pay attention to them if they walked in the room. You would ignore them at your own peril.
Exactly. And we can see it when we see the artist, Velázquez, who is first painter to the king looking out to the royal couple. He would have had, of course, the best job that an artist could have in Spain at this moment. I'm interested, though, in the sort of sense of naturalism, the sense of spontaneity, the sense of informality, which is so unexpected in a royal portrait.
That's the amazing thing about this painting, I think, that makes it so hard to say what it is and makes it so compelling is that it's not a "portrait." Because we know what portraits look like. They're on the walls all around us. And they're very formal portraits of the royal family kind of posing and looking powerful, and that's not what this is. So there is a kind of informality, like a genre painting, like we're looking at something like a day in the life of the painter's studio, but that's not what it is, either, because it is also a portrait. So it sort of straddles this weird line of being both those things.
It's like an intimate portrait. It's a portrait that gives you a kind of access to, in a sense, the real moment, the real life within this palace. In fact, some art historians have suggested that the painting is in part a way for the artist to promote himself and to show his importance and in a sense his value to the court. The idea that as a painter, he's not just a craftsman, but an intellectual.
So here's the irony. If Velázquez is in a sense trying to support this notion of the artist as intellectual, and not the craftsman, not the man who works with his hands, the painting is a bravura example of painting. We can never get away from the fact that this is fantastic painting; because although there is a tremendous sense of naturalism amongst these figures, the painting is also nothing but a series of strokes of paint. And I think that's most vividly witnessed in the sleeves of La Infanta, of her attendants, or especially that lightning bolt of stroke of white that goes down the artist's own sleeve and actually leads our eye to the palette. And here's the sort of most wonderful conundrum.
The palette is a representation in space of the raw paint which is, of course, the very stuff that the artist is using to create the depiction of the thing that it is. What I find so interesting, though, also, is that there is a time when the reverse happens. Look at the way that his hand holds the paintbrush. That is raw paint that almost dissolves, almost refuses to be fingers on a hand. So that he's in a sense playing on that edge. I can make very loose strokes of the brush feel clarified and come together and feel like cloth in motion, right?
Reflective light, taffeta, what have you. Or I can actually dissolve forms that you expect and allow the thing to become just the act of painting as well. Just the paint. I think what adds to this is the fact that we don't see what he's painting. There's a kind of mystery about the alchemy of painting, about how you take medium and solvent and pigment and turn it into reality. I would say that it's not just reality he's after. I think he's after a kind of condensed reality. I think he's after a kind of heightened experience of looking, a kind of heightened experience of the intimacy of this family, of this moment. And I think that he is doing something that is actually quite poetic and quite philosophical.
Questions to Consider
- How does this painting suggest the active participation of the viewer?
- This work includes a number of curious details. How does this work compare to other portraits you have studied?
On the Baroque: Dr. Esperança Camara, "Baroque art, an introduction," in Smarthistory, June 9, 2015, accessed July 19, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/a-beginners-guide-to-baroque-art/. On Caravaggio: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Caravaggio, The Conversion of St. Paul (or The Conversion of Saul)," in Smarthistory, April 24, 2017, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/caravaggio-saul/. On Bernini: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David," in Smarthistory, July 12, 2015, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/bernini-david-2/ and Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa," in Smarthistory, July 19, 2015, accessed June 7, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/bernini-ecstasy-of-st-teresa/ and Wikipedia contributors. (2023). Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gian_Lorenzo_Bernini