Art of the Baroque - H.R. Rookmaaker
by H.R. Rookmaaker
In a previous article we commented on a remarkable contradiction that
was unique to fifteenth-century art. On the one hand the medieval
formulas were preserved, formulas which were charged with a dogmatic
or at least a religious, meaning. On the other hand artists painted very
naturalistically and with a great concern for details and for the visual
givens, clearly much more interested in the natural than in the
supernatural and religious. This contradiction was nothing more than
an expression in the artistic realm of a more widespread cultural reality.
And in this regard there was really no fundamental difference between
the Italian artists and those north of the Alps. The only difference was
that the Italians, more specifically the Florentines, let themselves be
inspired, as far as form was concerned, quite nationalistically by their
great Roman history; while those in the North based their work more
directly on actual (visual) observations. We can see a clear continuation
of the nature/grace motive of the Middle Ages, which led in the
fifteenth century to great tension between the two.
By the end of the century this tension became almost unbearable.
Particularly in Florence, where this spirit had been taken to its extreme,
one at times gets the feeling that the supernatural or religious aspect
had become nothing more than a purely traditional affair. Somehow this
tension needed to find a release. It finally did so at the end of the
century in the person of Savonarola. He preached against the thorough
secularization and protested, for example, about the fact that when
artists painted a Madonna they in fact just painted a portrait of a
charming Florentine woman. Some of the artists whose works were used
as examples for that reproach took his charge very much to heart.
Botticelli, for example, became a confirmed disciple of Savonarola; his
art underwent a sharp change in direction and took on a much stricter,
almost ascetic character.
But that did not bring to an end the inherent contradictions of
fifteenth-century art. What was needed was a meaningful synthesis in
which the two opposite poles of the Roman Catholic life and world view
of nature and grace could be brought into relation with each other
again, with nature in service to grace. In other words, renewal was
needed within the Roman Catholic environment. We should mention in
passing that this was also the time of the Reformation, which tried to
bring renewal in a completely different way through a radical return to
God’s word. Dürer already worked in this spirit even before Luther
appeared on the scene. But we will leave that for now.
The master artist who formulated a solution and gave it magnificent
artistic expression was Raphael. Thus he was the one who, for many
centuries, became the shining example, who provided the inspiration
and leadership, and whose influence reached far into the nineteenth
century. He managed to make the new techniques developed in the
fifteenth century for depicting natural realities subservient to the
representation of that which is holy. In Raphael’s work the Madonna
truly became a Madonna again, unmistakably the supernatural Mother
of God. Her face was freed from that thorough individualism
characteristic of fifteenth-century Madonnas (painted by Fillippo Lippi
and Botticelli, for example). And the supernatural was clearly
distinguished from the natural. In order to do so Raphael employed a
method that had been used several times in earlier periods, specifically
by Orcagna and Fra Angelico. These artists had tried, in their artistic
rendering of the supernatural, to contrast it clearly with the natural by
elevating it above daily reality and placing it on the ‘clouds’. The best
example of this is the Madonna of the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s
masterpiece. To the right and left of her are two saints, and Raphael
managed with a stroke of genius to depict their garments in such a way
that the folds of the cloth do not seem to be a part of the material world.
Mary’s face is painted in a manner that from that time on would become
the accepted style – realistic, but not a portrait.
After Raphael the style called Mannerism formed a short
intermezzo. It is the art style of humanism in distress; artists were now
forced to typify the sacred as sacred in a substantial way, in contrast with
the artists of the fifteenth century who considered it sufficient to give no
more than a sidelong nod to tradition.
After Mannerism there emerged a movement that built on Raphael’s
solution, a style that we have come to know as Baroque. It is typically an
art style of the Counter-Reformation, an outspokenly Roman Catholic
art. We could typify it, in short, as a realism of a super-reality, the
supernatural reality in which saints move about as if on an otherworldly
stage. Carracci and the Bolognese school were the representatives of this
movement in Italy; Rubens, in the Southern Netherlands. In this
connection we also think of the sculptor Bernini, and of the ceilingmurals
in Italy and southern Germany in the late seventeenth and the
Guido Reni’s Madonna, a huge painting housed in the museum in
Bologna, depicts three ‘levels’, three layers of reality above one another.
At the top the Madonna is enthroned on the rainbow, surrounded by
angels, unmistakably a supernatural appearance. Below her, directly
related to her and gazing up at her are a number of saints – the visual
reality is here a clear expression of a religious and spiritual reality. We
might mention in passing that the saint to the far left was undoubtedly
inspired by the kneeling papal holy figure on the left of Raphael’s
Madonna of the Sistine Chapel. The saints depicted here were not selected
randomly; they are the patron saints of Bologna. Their supernatural
reality (even apart from the way in which they are painted) is also made
evident by the fact that they are kneeling or standing on a floor of
clouds. Under these clouds we catch a glimpse of earthly reality, our own
reality, in the view of the city of Bologna. The content of this work of art
is clear, and the relationship between Mary and Bologna (via the saints)
is visually portrayed in a Baroque style.
Besides the religious content there are other aspects to Baroque art
as well. It often depicts universal human principles in a grandiose way
through ancient mythology: Venus is used to symbolize love, Mars stands
for war, Mercury for trade, and so on. We think for example of Rubens’s
Abduction of the daughters of Leucippus, in which the essential content is
the magnificence of woman as inspiration for male activity. The erotic has
a clear but not exclusive role in this painting. There is also clearly no
attempt at a realistic portrayal of the world here. Rubens does not suggest
that it might have been possible to catch an actual glimpse of what he is
portraying or that it was ever visible in this way. Rather, it is a kind of icon,
the representation of an idea, a truth that is made visible in his art but
which in our day-to-day reality never actually looks like this. In that sense
the painting could be called ‘abstract’, since it depicts an idea.
Baroque art also saw itself as subservient to the absolute monarch.
We could mention Rubens in this connection again, in his grand series
created for the exaltation of Mary of Medici, now hanging in the Louvre.
Another good example is the ceiling of the staircase in the Würzburg
Palace, painted by Tiepolo.
For other articles belonging to this series, see the articles ‘About the content of works of art’,
‘About the Content of Medieval Works of Art’; ‘The Art of the Fifteenth Century’;
‘Theme, Style and Motif in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’;
‘Principles of Nineteenth-Century Art’ and ‘Form and Content of Modern Art’.
These articles were originally published in Dutch from 1963-1965 in Ad Fontes.
Published in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker:
The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.