RenaissanceIn the late 14th century, European intellectuals renewed their interest in classical antiquity. This rebirth, the Renaissance, can be attributed partly to engagement with the Ottomans who never lost ancient knowledge, and partly to trade and exploration that exposed Europeans to “new” ideas. Petrarch (1304-1374) translated classical texts for contemporary audiences just a few years before the Church’s schism spotlighted Papal fallibility. The Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1450, Constantinople fell in 1453, and the Americas were discovered in 1492. The overall impact was the rise of humanism.
In the arts, humanism meant a return to the clean lines and pure forms of Classical antiquity. Exposure to known and newly excavated art, gave rise to the study of anatomy, the science of perspective and a guiding principle of naturalism. Instead of the flat, stylized art of the Middle Ages, artists labored to make their works lifelike and uniquely beautiful.
The Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church led to the end of the Renaissance and the birth of a new style known as the Baroque. The Church’s Council of Trent (1545-1563) called art to emphasize the glory, majesty and pageantry of the Catholic Church in contrast to the restraint of Protestantism. Additionally, Copernicus’s theory of heliocentricity sent shockwaves through the intellectuals; if Earth was no longer the center of the universe, then mankind was no longer the measure of all things. While this might have resulted in a backlash against humanism, when combined with the influx of the exotic and new from colonial expansion, it lead to an increased interest in detail and realism.
In the arts, the Baroque was a period, above all, of passion. The profusion of human emotion was expressed in bold compositions that had intense energy, dramatic tension and dynamic presence. It was a period of intense ornamentation that broke down the clean edges of the Renaissance, as though it, like the new view of the world, was bursting at its seams. Artists used light, shadow, color, and true-to-life facial expressions and gesture to increase the impact of their work and make it more accessible to the average viewer.
Relationship Between the Renaissance and the Baroque Periods
The Baroque is generally presumed to be a reaction to the increasingly mannered art of the late Renaissance, which was marked by elongated forms, exaggerated expression and psychological distress. It did not, however, abandon the humanism of the Renaissance. Instead, it built on it. The Renaissance’s focus on depth, clean line and correctness brought a stillness and serenity to art. The Baroque broke the stillness and order in favor of motion, emotion and disorder, as seen in ornamentation obscuring the clean lines of architectural elements. It learned from Renaissance science to study light and shadow (chiaroscuro) and tried to capture it, even with the use of external light sources. The Baroque saw a profusion of fountains that brought movement to sculpture with rushing water. If Renaissance artists looked to the ideal, Baroque artists looked to the real.
If any one factor can be said to account for both the continuity between the two periods and the Baroque’s movement toward…movement, it would have to be the Counter-Reformation as expressed in the Council of Trent. The need for an art that stirred the viewer to passion and empathy rendered the fundamental serenity of the Renaissance passé.
Michelangelo’s Pietà and Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa
When discussing the Renaissance and the Baroque, two sculptures inevitably arise as exemplars: Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498) and Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1647-1652).
Michelangelo’s Pietà was commissioned by Cardinal Jean de Billheres for a chapel at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Carved from a single block of marble, it portrays Mary holding the broken body of Christ after the Crucifixion. Unlike earlier treatments of the subject, Mary is young and idealized to represent the eternal Virgin. Christ is rendered in such exquisite detail that Giorgio Vasari proclaimed it perfect (ItalianRenaissance.org, 2012).
Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Cornaro for his burial chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, also in Rome. It incorporates metal, stone, painting and lighting effects to produce a theatrical experience of St. Teresa receiving an angel of the Lord (The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, n.d.). It is intensely sensual and immediate, as though St. Teresa is not captive in time but witnessed experiencing her ecstasy.
Both works provoke powerful emotion in the viewer: the Pietà through the eternal stillness of Mary in her grief and the forever broken body of Christ; The Ecstasy of St. Teresa through the explosive and wildly erotic passion of the Saint. Both employ perspective, depth, and anatomical correctness to create natural forms, but lets correctness affect the beauty of the work. Mary in the Pietà is larger than Christ and her body too large for her head so that she can support him on her lap. The drapery in The Ecstasy of St. Teresa looks realistic, but the folds and fall are wildly irregular. Yet in spite of the similarities, the two works are profoundly different as well. Michelangelo has captured the essence of the Renaissance in the serene, Classically inspired Pietà; it is sculpture at its purest, the carving and nothing more. Bernini has likewise captured the essence of the Baroque in the dynamic, sensual, individualized The Ecstasy of St. Teresa; it is an experience of passion, its multiple techniques and profusion of detail holding the viewer captive to the drama.
Legacy of the Baroque Period in Art
The Baroque period gave rise to the Rococo. It took the ornamentation of the Baroque to frothy excess, employing pastel colors and moving away from Catholicism to secular subjects like romantic love. Yet, the influence of the Baroque is everywhere evident in its refusal to accept the limitations imposed by its media and forms. Although later critics tended to denigrate the Baroque and Rococo as bizarre and expressive, the Baroque’s influence survives to this day, for example in the breaking of the fourth wall in films like Deadpool (Kinberg, S., and Miller, T., 2016) or the swirls and swooshes and patterns of contemporary body art.
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