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Baroque is widespread from the late 16th century to the early 18th century. It is most often defined as “the dominant style of art in Europe between the Mannerist and Rococo eras, a style characterized by dynamic movement, overt emotion and self-confident rhetoric”.
The popularity and success of the Baroque style was encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church, which had decided at the time of the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant Reformation, that the arts should communicate religious themes in direct and emotional involvement. The aristocracy also saw the dramatic style of Baroque architecture and art as a means of impressing visitors and expressing triumphant power and control. Baroque palaces are built around an entrance of courts, grand staircases and reception rooms of sequentially increasing opulence.
Baroque painting is the painting associated with the Baroque cultural movement. The movement is often identified with Absolutism, the Counter Reformation and Catholic Revival, but the existence of important Baroque art and architecture in non-absolutist and Protestant states throughout Western Europe underscores its widespread popularity.
Most important and major painting during the period beginning around 1600 and continuing throughout the 17th century, and into the early 18th century is identified today as Baroque painting. Baroque art is characterized by great drama, rich, deep color, and intense light and dark shadows. As opposed to Renaissance art, which usually showed the moment before an event took place, Baroque artists chose the most dramatic point, the moment when the action was occurring: Michelangelo, working in the High Renaissance, shows his David composed and still before he battles Goliath; Bernini’s baroque David is caught in the act of hurling the stone at the giant. Baroque art was meant to evoke emotion and passion instead of the calm rationality that had been prized during the Renaissance.
Among the greatest painters of the Baroque period are Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez, Poussin, and Vermeer. Caravaggio is an heir of the humanist painting of the High Renaissance. His realistic approach to the human figure, painted directly from life and dramatically spotlit against a dark background, shocked his contemporaries and opened a new chapter in the history of painting. Baroque painting often dramatizes scenes using chiaroscuro light effects; this can be seen in works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Le Nain and La Tour. The Flemish painter Antony Van Dyck developed a graceful but imposing portrait style that was very influential, especially in England.
The prosperity of 17th century Holland led to an enormous production of art by large numbers of painters who were mostly highly specialized and painted only genre scenes, landscapes, Still-lifes, portraits or History paintings. Technical standards were very high, and Dutch Golden Age painting established a new repertoire of subjects that was very influential until the arrival of Modernism.
In Baroque sculpture, groups of figures assumed new importance, and there was a dynamic movement and energy of human forms— they spiraled around an empty central vortex, or reached outwards into the surrounding space. For the first time, Baroque sculpture often had multiple ideal viewing angles. The characteristic Baroque sculpture added extra-sculptural elements, for example, concealed lighting, or water fountains. Aleijadinho in Brazil was also one of the great names of baroque sculpture, and his master work is the set of statues of the Santuário de Bom Jesus de Matosinhos in Congonhas. The soapstone sculptures of old testament prophets around the terrace are considered amongst his finest work.
The architecture, sculpture and fountains of Bernini (1598–1680) give highly charged characteristics of Baroque style. Bernini was undoubtedly the most important sculptor of the Baroque period. He approached Michelangelo in his omnicompetence: Bernini sculpted, worked as an architect, painted, wrote plays, and staged spectacles. In the late 20th century Bernini was most valued for his sculpture, both for his virtuosity in carving marble and his ability to create figures that combine the physical and the spiritual. He was also a fine sculptor of bust portraits in high demand among the powerful.
Ecstasy of Saint Theresa
The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (alternatively Saint Teresa in Ecstasy or Transverberation of Saint Teresa) is the central sculptural group in white marble set in an elevated aedicule in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. It was designed and completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the leading sculptor of his day, who also designed the setting of the Chapel in marble, stucco and paint. It is generally considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque.
The two central sculptural figures of the swooning nun and the angel with the spear derive from an episode described by Teresa of Avila, a mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun, in her autobiography, ‘The Life of Teresa of Jesus’ (1515–1582). Her experience of religious ecstasy in her encounter with the angel is described as follows:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
The group is illuminated by natural light which filters through a hidden window in the dome of the surrounding aedicule, and underscored by gilded stucco rays. Teresa is shown lying on a cloud indicating that this is intended to be a divine apparition we are witnessing. Other witnesses appear on the side walls; life-size high-relief donor portraits of male members of the Cornaro family are present and shown discussing the event in boxes as if at the theatre. Although the figures are executed in white marble, the aedicule, wall panels and theatre boxes are made from colored marbles. Above, the vault of the Chapel is frescoed with an illusionistic cherub-filled sky with the descending light of the Holy Ghost allegorized as a dove.
The art historian Rudolf Wittkower has written:
‘In spite of the pictorial character of the design as a whole, Bernini differentiated between various degrees of reality, the members of the Cornaro Chapel seem to be alive like ourselves. They belong to our space and our world. The supernatural event of Teresa’s vision is raised to a sphere of its own, removed from that of the beholder mainly by virtue of the isolating canopy and the heavenly light.’
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