Catholic Baroque Art in Italy and Flanders

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino, St. Peter’s, Rome, 1624-1633

One of the leading artists of Counter Reformation Rome was Gianlorenzo Bernini, an accomplished painter, sculptor, and architect, and devout follower of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.  Bernini was invited to put the finishing touches on St. Peter’s Cathedral, which had been modified by several architects so that it would conform more readily to the traditional basilica plan (Bramante’s central plan was deemed too “pagan” for a Christian church!).  Bernini’s contribution included the great Baldacchino framing the main altar, and the Cathedra Petri (“Chair of Saint Peter”) that can be seen behind it.  The chair is set in a sculptural ensemble that makes it seem as though it is floating in a burst of clouds and light emanating from the window, creating a kind of “virtual reality” miracle that unfolds before our very eyes.

Bernini’s Cathedra Petri (Chair of St. Peter), Smarthistory

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Saint Peter’s Piazza

Bernini also designed the majestic colonnade enclosing the piazza in front of Saint Peter’s.  He described the colonnade as being like the “welcoming arms of the church” reaching out to embrace its flock, making it a fitting symbol of the Counter Reformation Church’s goal to combat heresy and expand its popular base.

Bernini’s Saint Peter’s Square, Smarthistory 

Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623

Bernini excelled as a sculptor, and had the remarkable ability to bring his marble figures vividly to life.  As Simon Schama writes:

“Gianlorenzo Bernini . . . cared a great deal about likeness, to the point where he redefined it as more than appearance. True likeness – the kind he wanted to capture in his sculptures – was the animation of character, expressed in the movements of bodies and faces. Bernini took the stat – the Latin for their usual condition of “standing” – out of statues. His figures break free from the gravity pull of the pedestal to run, twist, whirl, pant, scream, bark or arch themselves in spasms of intense sensation. Bernini could make marble do things it had never done before . . . . According to the contemporary writer Filippo Baldinucci, Bernini liked to boast that in his hands marble could become as impressionable as wax and as soft as dough. Bernini’s marble does indeed seem to mutate into other substances . . .  he could even make the skin of a figure appear to sweat. All of this made him an exceptional dramatist . . . . Contemporaries marvelled at this virtuosity, and believed that Bernini’s unearthly powers as the Great Transubstantiator were a sign that he must have been kissed by God.”
Simon Schama, “When Stone Came to Life”

This statue of the biblical hero David was commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V.  While Donatello had portrayed the calm moment after the battle, and Michelangelo represented the tense moment before, Bernini chose to represent the explosive, action-packed moment when David is about to release his rock at the unseen giant.  The viewer becomes a part of the action (indeed, we must duck to avoid getting caught in the crossfire), creating the kind of “viewer participation” and personal engagement that was advocated by the Counter Reformation Church.

Bernini also adhered to the Church’s codes of decorum:  modestly clothed, rather than nude, the figure is convincingly lifelike, though suitably ideal.  One of the most expressive features of the statue is David’s face, which shows intense concentration as he bites his lips.  Bernini used his own face as a model, and according to legend, Cardinal Borghese held the mirror for him while he worked.

Bernini’s David, Smarthistory

Read a vivid description:
Simon Schama, “When Stone Came to Life,” The Guardian, 16 September, 2006

Gianlorenzo Bernin, Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, 1645-1652

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa was commissioned for the private chapel of the Cornaro family, located in Santa Maria Vittorio in Rome.  Highly theatrical in its stage-like setting, the work combines painting, sculpture, and architecture, and is a Baroque attempt at creating “virtual reality.”  Members of the Cornaro family (many of them Cardinals) are depicted in theater-boxes in reliefs on either side of the chapel.

The centerpiece is a sculptural group representing a mystical image described in Saint Teresa’s published memoir.  She described an angel who came to her, and pierced her heart repeatedly with an arrow:

“The pain was so great that I screamed aloud; but at the same time I felt such infinite sweetness that I wished the pain to last forever . . . It was the sweetest caressing of the soul by God.”

Bernini captures the moment at which Teresa succumbs to the overpowering experience of divine ecstasy:

“With her head thrown back and eyes closed, Teresa herself collapses, overcome with the feeling of God’s love. Her physical body seems to have dematerialized beneath the heavy drapery of her robe. Twisting folds of fabric energize the scene and bronze rays, emanating from an unseen source, seem to rain down divine light. The combined effect is one of intense drama, the ethereality of which denies the true nature of the work of art. Despite being made of heavy marble, saint and angel—set upon a cloud—appear to float weightlessly.”
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Art Through Time:  A Global View (Annenberg Learner)

Teresa’s expression is almost a cliché of sexual ecstasy, with her head thrown back, eyes partially closed, and lips parted, and it communicates the idea of spiritual ecstasy in unmistakably sensual terms:

“Bernini’s sculpture is, after all, a spectacle that hovers on the borderline between sacred mystery and indecency . . . . Ecstasy in Bernini’s time was understood, and experienced, as sensuously indivisible.”
Simon Schama, “When Stone Came to Life”

Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, Smarthistory 

See also:
Historian Simon Schama discusses Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Tereza. From the BBC’s ‘Power of Art’ series:

Francesco Borromini, façade of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome, 1665-1676

Catholic Baroque art was dramatic, exuberant, exciting — and so was Baroque architecture.  Francesco Borromini treated buildings like sculpture, rejecting the simple flat facades that had been characteristic of Renaissance architecture.  The front of this building seems alive with movement and drama, with its undulating shapes, and alternating concave and convex elements:

“In the seventeenth century, the city of Rome became the consummate statement of Catholic majesty and triumph expressed in all the arts. Baroque architects, artists, and urban planners so magnified and invigorated the classical and ecclesiastical traditions of the city that it became for centuries after the acknowledged capital of the European art world . . . Throughout the seventeenth century, churches were constructed along Rome’s newly cut thoroughfares, and existing buildings were modified in keeping with Baroque taste. Borromini designed innovative churches, such as Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, in which complex harmonies of curved and rectangular forms create surprising, sculptural interiors.”
Baroque Rome, Heilbrunn timeline of Art History 

Borromini, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Smarthistory 

Virtual Realities:  Baroque Ceiling Paintings

Fra Andrea Pozzo, Glorification of Saint Ignatius, Sant’Ignazio, Rome, 1691-1694

The zealousness of the Counter Reformation called for the construction of many new churches, and a new kind of Baroque ceiling decoration became popular.  Drawing upon the science of Renaissance painting, artists used these techniques of illusion to make miraculous visions seem palpably real.  The astonishing feats achieved by Baroque painters is similar to the breath-taking special effects that thrill us in the movies today — they created virtual realities, where viewers could feel like they were actually experiencing the miraculous!

This ceiling depicts the ascension of Saint Ignatius Loyola into heaven.  The artist, Fra Andrea Pozzo, was a Jesuit monk, and an expert in perspective.  In this ceiling decoration, he creates the illusion that the architecture of the building opens up to the sky as hundreds of figures ascend into the heavens.  In the center, Saint Ignatius rises to heaven on a cloud in the company of angels.  His missionary achievements are commemorated in allegorical figures representing the continents of Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Pozzo’s Glorification of Saint Ignatius (Smarthistory)

Chalk portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, c. 1

Michelangelo Merisi (known as Caravaggio) revolutionized painting in Baroque Italy.  Denounced by one contemporary as the “anti-Christ of painting,” Caravaggio pioneered a new style of realism that pushed the boundaries of the Church’s rules of decorum. Rejecting the idealized representation of Holy figures dictated by the church, Caravaggio used real people from the streets as models for his pictures, and he placed them in darkened settings that look like the crime-ridden streets of Rome, where the artist often mingled with murderers and thieves (known for his criminal record, Caravaggio was even wanted by the police for murder).  Accused of painting “saints with dirty feet,” Caravaggio’s powerful style was nonetheless sought after for his ability to bring the stories of Christ’s life to life, in a way that had never been done before.

“Caravaggio was a violent man in violent times. The Sack of Rome in 1527 had ushered in a century of extraordinary strife and political intrigue for the populace of Italy . . . . In the late 1590s, Caravaggio’s contemporary street-life genre scenes attracted passionate admirers in Rome. Between 1600 and 1606 he was successful in obtaining the most prestigious commissions in Catholic Rome, decorating churches with large-scale religious compositions. His brilliantly staged assemblies of figures confront the viewer – resplendent with blood spurts, grime, dirty fingernails and feet. Caravaggio’s world emerged sharp-edged from the shadows, peopled with characters of an unnervingly ordinary humanity.

His unforgettable depictions of card-sharps, fortune-tellers and musicians were widely imitated by artists from regional Italian schools, as well as from France, Spain and the Netherlands. The models for his apostles, saints and other religious figures were plucked from the streets. Caravaggio’s effects of darkness split by raking light provided a lesson in dramatic technique that excited artists from Rubens and Rembrandt to the present day.”
Darkness and Light:  Caravaggio and His World, National Gallery of Victoria

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul, c. 1601

Before his conversion, Paul had been a Pharisee named Saul who persecuted Christians with a vengeance during the Later Roman Empire.  His “conversion” occurred with a blinding flash of light that threw him from his horse, as he heard the voice of Christ say to him “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

At first glance, Caravaggio’s picture looks more like an accident in a stable than a heavenly miracle.  The horse’s hindquarters take up three-quarters of the picture, while the hostler in the background appears old and dirty.   The scene takes place in darkness, illuminated only by a mysterious light that spotlights the characters.  Caravaggio draws us into the scene by locating the action close to the picture plane, so that we are “up close and personal,” as if we are witnessing the miracle ourselves.  The reclining figure of Paul is placed at an oblique angle to the picture plane, creating a strong diagonal that draws us into the action; this compositional arrangement is a hallmark of Baroque art.

This dramatic contrast between dark and light, called tenebrism, or tenebroso lighting, is one of the distinctive features of Caravaggio’s work.  The darkened setting creates drama and mystery, while the lighting  — which never comes from a “natural” source — evokes the mystical presence of God.

Caravaggio, Calling of Saint Matthew, c. 1597-1601

This work was painted for another chapel in Rome, and depicts another dramatic moment of “conversion.”  The scene is set in a darkened tavern where Levi, the tax-collector, counts money amidst a group of unseemly characters.  Christ enters with Peter from the right, as a dramatic beacon of light follows him.  He raises his arm and points to Levi, summoning him to follow him, while Levi points to himself in disbelief, as if to say “Who, me?”   The commanding gesture was based on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.

Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew, Smarthistory

The following video, from Simon Schama’s series “The Power of Art,” is a little long, but worth watching!

Simon Schama’s “The Power of Art – Caravaggio”

Caravaggio, The Entombment, 1602-3

Another extraordinary work by Caravaggio is The Entombment, which recalls the emotional intensity of Giotto’s Lamentation.  As in all of Caravaggio’s pictures, we see the use of tenebrism in the stark contrasts between dark and light.  The scene takes place close to the foreground picture plane, so that the lid of the sarcophagus seems to project out into our space, and we feel like we can almost touch the body of Christ.  The figures exemplify Caravaggio’s use of real life models:  the man holding Christ’s legs is dirty and ugly; Mary is portrayed as an elderly woman, with wrinkles on her face, rather than the beautiful girl we saw in Michelangelo’s Pieta.  This emphasis on realism was how Caravaggio endeavored to bring his stories to life:  to make them so vividly real and present that we feel like we are participants, rather than mere spectators.

Learn more at Smarthistory:

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, 1606

This painting was commissioned by one of the Pope’s advisors for a Carmelite church in Rome, but when it was completed it was rejected because church authorities regarded it as an unsuitable representation of the Holy Virgin Mary.  Instead of depicting the Virgin’s death as a miraculous moment or transcendence, Caravaggio portrayed her as a bloated corpse, with no sign of redemption in sight (the figure was rumored to be based on the corpse of a dead prostitute).  Others complained about the indecency of her exposed legs.  As the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History explains, Caravaggio’s daring approach to the representation of religious subjects dealt with fundamental questions about the representation of holy figures

“Should a depiction of the death of the Virgin emphasize the theological importance of the event and show the Madonna as the ageless mother of Christ, as worshippers had come to expect, or should it emphasize the physical reality of death—as Caravaggio’s painting seemed to do (Death of the Virgin, Musée du Louvre, Paris)? Should Christ’s burial be depicted as a tragic drama or as a sacred event? Much of Caravaggio’s work . . . reveals the artist dealing with these crucial issues.”
Caravaggio and his Followers, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History 

Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, Smarthistory 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638-1639

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting
Caravaggio’s dramatic style inspired a group of followers called The Caravaggisti.  One of them was Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, and one of the first female artists to achieve high-level recognition in Italy.  This painting represents the muse of painting, an allegorical figure that was typically depicted as female.  Recognizing the opportunity, Gentileschi used herself as the model, so that the painting is both a self-portrait and a tribute to her profession.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holfernes, c. 1614-1620

Gentileschi was attracted to stories from the Old Testament about heroic women, and the story of Judith is one such tale of female heroism.  A member of an Israelite tribe held captive by the Assyrian General Holofernes, Judith courageously entered his tent, got him drunk on wine, and cut off his head, which she and her maidservant then stuffed in a sack as they made their escape.  When Holofernes’s head was displayed to his armies they dispersed in haste, thus freeing the Israelites from their captivity.

Caravaggio’s influence can be seen in the tenebroso lighting, and the oblique angle of Holofernes’ body, which draws us into the action.  As Judith literally saws off his head, blood gushes everywhere, splattering her bodice and face, and making us feel as if we might get sprayed as well.  Bloody scenes like this were popular during the Catholic Counter Reformation, in much the same way that action-packed violence sells movies today.  Then as now, the goal was to catch the viewer up in the excitement and drama so that they feel like they are part of the action.

Gentilleschi, Judith and Holofernes (Smarthistory)

Catholic Baroque Art:  Flanders

Map of Europe in 1648 after the Treaty of Westphalia

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 led to a re-structuring of the political map of Europe, and a reconfiguration of religious alliances.  The Netherlands was divided in two:  while the Northern provinces broke away from Spanish control to form the predominantly Protestant Dutch Republic, the southern part of Flanders remained under Spanish-Hapsburg control, and was allied to the Catholic Church of Rome.  It was here that the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens emerged as one of the leading artists of Catholic Europe, producing religious altarpieces and other works for courtly patrons that included monarchs, dukes, and members of the upper clergy.  One of the most prolific masters of the century, Rubens set up his Antwerp studio like a factory, where he mass-produced his commissions, while the artist enjoyed the privileged lifestyle of an aristocrat.  He was knighted by the Kings of Spain and England, and was trusted enough by his royal patrons to be sent on diplomatic missions.

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, 1610

As a Flemish painter, Rubens was heir to the realistic detail of artists such as Robert Campin and Jan Van Eyck, but on his travels to Italy he studied the work of Michelangelo and Caravaggio, and he synthesized these sources in a style that combined the realistic detail of Flemish painting, the superhuman idealism of Michelangelo, and Caravaggio’s intense drama, lighting, and composition.

In this painting, a group of men struggle to raise the cross on which Christ has been crucified.  Their bulging muscles recall Michelangelo, but the attention to textures of skin and hair and reflective surfaces recalls Van Eyck.  The darkened setting and spotlighting of the figure recalls Caravaggio’s tenebroso lighting, as does the the placement of the figures in the foreground, and the dramatically forshortened figure of Christ that draws the viewer into the action.

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross (Smarthistory)


Web Resources:

Baroque Rome, Heilbrunn timeline of Art History

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Simon Schama, The Power of Art, Bernini 

Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, National Gallery of Canada

Simon Schama, The Power of Art, Caravaggio

The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentilleschi 

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