Art history, like most histories, contains different movements. Yet within these movements we see even more flux and diversity. For example, the Baroque period begins in the late 16th century, and over its one-hundred-plus year stretch, transforms in content, style, and, of course, context. However, some patterns remain, for a fixed criteria do constitute Baroque as a unique and coherent movement. Let’s consider the “The Triumph of the Immaculate” painted by Paolo de Mattias from 1710–1715. Examining its content, style, and context will reveal the tendencies of the Baroque style as a whole.
According to art historians, the art of the Baroque period distinguishes itself by its grandeur, triumphal scenes, and exaggerations, particularly with regard to movement (Gardner, et al, pp. 503–504). The colors are normally vibrant, and as we shall discuss later, the content often religious. Finally, the paintings show high amounts of detail, unlike other periods of artwork that commonly portray dark scenes, indistinguishable boundaries, or simply a less-clear style, such as the Impressionists.
“The Triumph of the Immaculate” displays nearly 50 characters outside of a throne room or temple. Some people sit on the steps while others float and fly above. The Virgin Mary, as we assume by the title, stands at the center of the canvas, resting on clouds supported by small angels. The grandeur that marks the Baroque period is evident in the objects portrayed: the Virgin Mary, clouds and angelic hosts, even God himself, or else a magnificent prophet, looms higher and farther back than Mary, holding his hand out to an approaching dove. The temple location, and the blues and golds express royalty, which we can align with the tendency towards grandeur.
The detail of Mattias’ work is fine. While some of the upper and distant scenes of people in clouds appear less distinct, the majority of the painting shows close attention to the particulars. The smoke in the bowl at the far left contains a mix of black, greys, and white, forming a wonderful cloud of smoke. The garments of most everyone reveal the folds of fabric, multiple shades of color, and even matching accessories.
For example, the priest in black robes who approaches Mary wears many layers that fold on one another, and move from black to light-reflecting grey. Likewise, the shapes of muscle in the soldiers’ at the bottom of the scene appear defined and convincingly real. This brief selection demonstrates the detail that the Baroque period championed. Mattias lets not minor point aside as he attends to fabrics, folds, and color that express a grand and fine-tuned portrayal of men, women, and angels.
Lastly, what about the context? The 17th century marks the second century of the fierce battles between the Protestant and Roman Catholic church. The Catholics increased in power, ruling with popes that in a sense triumphed over church and state (Gonzalez pp. 118–119). Likewise, the grandeur of the papacy expressed itself in lofty cathedrals and at times indulgent lifestyles.
How does this historical setting relate to Mattias’ work? His painting expresses the ecclesial events of his context. We see the Immaculate Virgin Mary, a figure that distinguishes Roman Catholicism, at the center of the canvas with God above her, the soldiers beneath her, and priests and all others begging towards or surrounding her. We might say that Mary triumphs; the title assures of this conclusion. Likewise, the royal setting, magnificent colors, and lofty detail express a power that again supports the triumph of Mary herself. Thus, the painting not only matches the historical time-period, it expresses and reinforces the historical moment. Mattais, like many Baroque artists, coordinates the tendencies of the movement with the historical situation.