The seventeenth century was a time when the monarchies of Spain, England, and especially France were
strong, and they commissioned magnificent works to express their power. In Italy, a country that would
not be united until the nineteenth century, the papacy played a similar role in commissioning artwork. After
the intense self-questioning of the Counter-Reformation in the second half of the sixteenth century, the
Catholic Church emerged triumphant, reaffirming the importance of its basic doctrines, including the
importance of visual arts as an aid in spreading Catholic beliefs. In Protestant Holland, on the other hand,
commissions for large-scale religious works all but disappeared. Artists turned instead to the affluent
middle class for patronage.
Baroque art, that is, the art of the seventeenth century, is often thought of as exuberant, grand, and overly
ornamental—big gestures, big bodies, and much gilding. This is a fairly good description of some artists’
work—Bernini or Rubens, for example—but it doesn’t come close to capturing the intimacy of a Vermeer
painting or the clarity of a Poussin landscape. In spite of the striking local differences during this period,
there are some broad characteristics that many baroque works of art share. One of those characteristics is
a sense of theatricality. Many baroque artists were interested in lighting effects, which can be quite
dramatic. Figures are often captured in momentary poses, perhaps reaching forward as if bursting through
the surface of the painting. Even architecture can show this arrested movement, as if some part of a
building has just opened up. Most baroque art is naturalistic; however, a strain of classicism was particularly
strong in Italy and France, where academies held up classical and High Renaissance art as their ideals.
With strong monarchies in France, Spain, and England, an aggressively expanding Catholic Church, and a
staunchly independent Dutch Republic, it is no wonder that baroque art is traditionally discussed as
separate national traditions. There are connections, however, between traditions. Flemish and French
artists continued to visit Italy for training and exposure to masterpieces of the past. Caravaggio’s style
appealed at a more popular level and was adopted by artists across Europe. And those countries that
remained Catholic still commissioned church buildings and altarpieces with styles that developed from
earlier traditions. The next few chapters will present the unique qualities of the art in each country in turn,
but keep in mind how often works and people crossed borders in the seventeenth century.
Throughout the 16th century, the Catholic Church was still the greatest patron of the visual arts in Italy.
When the church leaders from across Europe gathered at the Council of Trent (1545–1563) to address the
challenges presented by the Protestant Reformation, they gave considerable thought to the role of religious
images. In the end, the council reaffirmed the importance of religious images, especially as a means of
instructing the uneducated. It also reaffirmed the importance of venerating the Virgin Mary and the saints.
As a result, in Catholic countries—Italy, Spain, and Flanders—the demand for altarpieces and large-scale
sculpture increased in the baroque period.
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