The Baroque

The Baroque Style is really a diversity of styles that tend to be relatively unrestrained, overtly emotional, and more energetic than earlier styles. The word Baroque means irregular or imperfect, and was originally meant as a pejorative. Some characteristics of  Baroque art are that it departs from Classical restraint; is usually asymmetrical; and it lacks the appearance of controlled linear perspective.

Europe in the 17th century was characterized by competition for colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania. There were also a number of wars of religion, with Holland rebelling against the Catholic domination of Spain, which, after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, led to The Netherlands being divided into Protestant Holland and Catholic Flanders (modern Belgium). Puritans fled religious persecution in England by sailing to the colony of New England, while England beheaded King Charles I and introduced parliamentary rule. This came after Charles I tried to impose the same rule by divine right that Louis XIV in France had imposed. With the Parliamentary system in England, and the Constitutional monarchy, Charles’s attempt was doomed to failure from the beginning, and the beheading of the King led to the establishment of a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Astrological discoveries by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were all vigorously opposed by the Church, as they had discovered that the Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. This was seen as a dangerous heresy by the Catholic Church in Rome. Religious fundamentalism was on the rise, along with superstition and fear of the Devil and the Antichrist.

The Catholic Church in the 17th century saw itself as triumphant, moving towards the defeat of what it saw as the heresy of Protestantism. This was in no small part because of the forced conversion of thousands of Native Americans in the new Spanish territories in Central and South America, as well as the West Indies. The new Basilica of St. Peter’s at the Vatican was also now complete, and Pope Urban VIII had commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to complete the interior decoration, much of which celebrates this idea of the Church triumphant. One of the central commissions for this is the 9-storey tall Baldacchino, or honorary canopy, that marks the supposed burial place of St. Peter. The work is cast and gilt bronze, with 4 twisting Solomonic columns that replicate the original columns of the Baldacchino that was in the same spot in the original St. Peter’s Basilica, which were thought to have come Temple of Solomon, and been brought to Rome by Constantine, according to legend (the originals are set into balconies behind this structure). These are cast in 3 sections, and are covered in grapevines and sheaves of wheat, references to the Eucharist. The columns support a cornice with a scalloped and tasseled border that bears the Papal coat of arms as well as the 3 bees of the Barbarinis, the family of Urban VIII. There are 4 angels at the corners of this, and the entire work is surmounted by another cornice with a sphere with a cross on it, referring to the world redeemed by Christianity. This structure also frames Bernini’s Cathedra Petri above the high altar, the reliquary that is supposed to contain the throne of St. Peter, and which is also made of cast and gilt bronze with a stained glass window of the Holy Spirit above.


Gianlorenzo Bernini, Baldacchino, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican, 1624-1633 (photo By Jebulon – Own work, CC0,

Bernini then went on to design the Piazza San Pietro in front of the main church, with 2 curving arms that enclose the space and are meant to symbolize the arms of the Church encircling the faithful. The colonnade of this structure is actually 3 columns deep, and they line up if you stand on inset porphyry in the center of the square. There is also a obelisk in the center, originally brought to Rome by Caesar Augustus, but moved to that spot by Pope Sixtus V. Going along the top of the colonnade and church are statues of saints and the Apostles, and the entire space becomes a symbolic backdrop to the theater of the Catholic Church and the Pope.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Piazza San Pietro, Vatican, 1656-1667 (photos by By Johnny Ljunggren – Given to Helga at Norwegian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,, By Utente: Lovio – mia foto, Public Domain,,4 and By MarkusMark – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

One of the most innovative of these Roman architects was Francesco Borromini, the one-time collaborator with Bernini. After a falling-out, Borromini went on to design some of the most interesting buildings in 17th century Rome. One of these was the Trinitarian monastery and church of San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane. This design had to fit the monastery and church in a very small space on a corner in Rome, and Borromini solved this problem by designing a church that is in the shape of a diamond with rounded ends. the façade of the church undulates, with alternating convex and concave sections, but is still divided into 3s horizontally and vertically. On the interior, the large, smooth-shafted Corinthian columns are used to enhance the plastic effect of the walls, enhanced by the undulating nature of the walls as they approach the high altar. The dome expresses the Baroque concern for lightening architectural volume, and is illuminated on the interior by windows at the base. The coffers, which decrease in size as they approach the center, enhance the appearance of increased height and actual upward motion. At the center of the dome is the symbol for the Trinitarian order, and rather than square coffers, they alternate between octagons and crosses.

Francesco Borromini, San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane, Rome, 1634-1667 (photos by By SteO153 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Public Domain,

Francesco Borromini, San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane, Rome, 1634-1667 (photos By Sixtus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Jastrow – Own work, Public Domain,

Borromini also designed the Collegiate Church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, which was dedicated to Holy Wisdom. The façade of this church is entirely concave, with an elaborate tower at the top that serves as a lantern for the dome. The tower is meant to signify a ziggurat, and by extension, the victory of Christianity over paganism and the victory of Catholicism over Protestantism. The entire design of the church represents a star, the symbol of the Holy Wisdom. The organic quality is enhanced by the continual tension in the relationship of the walls to space. The shape of the dome also enhances the celestial associations of domed buildings.

Francesco Borromini, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome, 1642-1660 (photos By Tokyorama – Own work, CC BY 2.5, and By No machine-readable author provided. MM assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain,

Francesco Borromini, Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome, plan and dome, 1642-1660 (photos by Public Domain, and By Jastrow – Own work, Public Domain,

Bernini was a great innovator in his sculptural works and installations. He was commissioned to make a series of 3 works for the Palazzo Borghese by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. These are David, Apollo and Daphne, and Pluto and Properina, all completed between 1622 & 1625. These sculptures take the burgeoning theatricality and motion of the Late Renaissance even further. In the David, Bernini chose to show the moment of action, as David is getting ready to let go of the sling and hit Goliath with the rock. The armor given to him by Saul is piled at his feet, and David is a study in concentration. This is, like Michelangelo’s David, an adult male, in contrast to Donatello’s David. But, unlike the other 2, this is an active figure, full of drama. Apollo and Daphne shows the moment when the god has caught up with the nymph, but she is being transformed into the laurel tree. The work is full of emotion, and Bernini perfectly captured the textural differences in skin and bark as Daphne turns from female to tree. Pluto and Prosperina shows the moment of abduction, with the goddess struggling against the god. Bernini captured the realism of her hand pushing on Pluto’s face and his fingers digging into the flesh of her side and leg.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, David, 1623 (photos By Black leon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By Black leon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-1625 (photos By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, and By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Pluto and Prosperina, 1622 (photos By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, and By Int3gr4te – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

One of the most interesting installations completed by Bernini is the Ecstasy of St. Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. This commission, for the private family chapel of the Cornaro family (Cardinal Federico Cornaro was a powerful figure in Rome), represents the newly canonized St. Teresa of Ávila, a nun of the order of the Discalced Carmelites who claimed to have visions of god. In the one being represented in the Chapel by Bernini, St. Teresa claimed that an angel pierced her heart over and over with a flaming arrow, sending her into what she called “paroxysms of ecstasy.” This was one of the new Counter-Reformation saints, meant to reaffirm the rituals, ideals, and sacraments of the Catholic Church. Bernini’s installation has heaven painted at the top, with what can be described as a stage in the center. In theater boxes on either side, sit male members of the Cornaro family, including the Cardinal, and on the floor are inlaid marble mosaics of skeletons, meant as memento mori. In the center, St. Teresa is reclining on clouds while an angel holds an arrow, the implication of which is that the angel has been piercing her heart, and she is now in ecstasy. The arrow is gilt bronze, as are the rays that are behind the 2 figures, which are also lit from above by a widow hidden by the broken pediment above the figures. The entire piece, which fits with Bernini’s reputation as a set designer as well, fits within the Baroque tendency to theatricality and over the top display.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, 1645-1652 (photos By Napoleon Vier – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Jastrow – Own work, Public Domain,

There are other works in Rome, in both public and private spaces, that speak to the renewed vigor of the Catholic Church. Many of these were commissioned by either the Popes or the religious orders, and fit within the ideals of the Counter-Reformation Church. Pietro da Cortona’s fresco in the Sala Grande of the Palazzo Barberini, Divine Providence, is one such work, commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, Maffeo Barberini, in no small part than to cast his controversial election as Pope as divine providence. It was described by Ludwig von Pastor, in The History of the Popes (originally printed in 1855) as follows:

In the centre [sic] the figure of Divine Providence is seen enthroned in heavenly glory and resplendent with dazzling light; Immortality floating upwards holds a crown of stars with which to crown it; at its behest winged genii carry towards heaven the tiara, Peter’s keys, and poet’s laurel wreath shaped like a shield and bearing the Barberini bees. The representations of the longitudinal and transverse sides are likewise subordinate to the main group. The former show Minerva casting down the Giants, viz. Heresy and Unbelief; at the bidding of Justice, Hercules slays the harpies whilst Plenty pours out its cornucopia over the earth; human Wisdom and its spring, religion, overcome the passions of the body; Papal Sovereignty, guided by Prudence, fetters war and holds it in check by the creation of an armed force (Vulcan’s smithy).
The entire work, then, is a powerful image of both the Catholic Church triumphant and the power of Urban VIII and his Barberini family. Cortona_Triumph_of_Divine_Providence_01
Pietro da Cortona, The Triumph of Divine Providence, 1633-1639 (photo By Pietro da Cortona – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,
Another of these works is the ceiling fresco in the church of Il Gesù, painted by Giovanni Battista Gaulli. Here is the full Baroque theatricality of the Catholic Church triumphant on display, with the letters for Jesus’s name in the center surrounded by light, and saints and angels in heaven around. Below, in shadow are the sinners and heretics (read: Protestants) falling into Hell. Although the main part of the fresco is painted on the ceiling, and this central fresco is surrounded by stuccoed and gilt imagery, Gaulli added canvas panels which go beyond the borders of the fresco, and created shadowing in washes on the gilding, to enhance the effects of the work. Here is the true idea of the Catholic Church triumphant on display, made even more powerful in the mother church of the Jesuits, one of the newly created, Counter-Reformation religious orders.triumph_of_the_name_of_jesus
Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Triumph in the Name of Jesus, Il Gesù, Rome, 1676-1679 (photo by Giovanni Battista Gaulli [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Not all of the Baroque painters in Rome went for that extreme theatricality. There was another strain of more Classical, restrained Baroque, personified by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and his followers, called Caravaggisti. Caravaggio painted in oil, directly on canvas, and made no preliminary drawings. He also used tenebrism, extreme light and dark areas, to heighten emotional impact. This can be seen in his painting, Supper at Emmaus, where the extreme light and shadow create a narrow setting in which the action takes place. Caravaggio also used laborers from the street as his models to heighten the realism, as can be seen in the images of the Apostles, and enjoyed putting sensitively painted still lives in each of his works. His painting Boy with a Basket of Fruit depicts one of the fruit sellers of Rome, and shows Caravaggio’s attention to realism. The boy seems to offer himself and the fruit, some of which is already rotting. He also painted a shield with the head of Medusa in which Caravaggio is said to have studied his own grimacing face in the mirror, and it is rumored he used his own features for Medusa, telling us something of his personality. Another of these works in which Caravaggio included a self-portrait is David with the Head of Goliath, where Caravaggio’s face is Goliath’s and his young lover is represented as David. These are windows into the personality of an artist described as difficult, prone to fits of anger, and violent.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1601 and Boy with a Basket of Fruit, c. 1494 (photo by Public Domain, and by Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Medusa, 1597 and David and Goliath, 1605 (photo By Caravaggio –, Public Domain, and By Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of his most famous and successful works are those that depict saints, and were commissioned for churches. His Calling of Saint Matthew also shows the continuing influence of Michelangelo in the hand of Jesus, which recalls the hand of Adam in the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Ceiling, reminding viewers that Jesus is the new Adam. Here, St. Matthew and the rest of the tax collectors are dressed in early 17th century clothing and mostly ignoring Jesus, a metaphor for the sinful nature of people in this period. The tenebrism highlights the drama of the moment when Jesus called St. Matthew to follow him. A pair of companion pieces from the Cerasi Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus and The Crucifixion of St. Peter, also highlight Caravaggio’s tenebrism and use of dramatic foreshortening. Here, we also use Caravaggio’s attention to detail, with the use of laborers as models and Caravaggio’s interest in realistic portrayal of motion. These works highlight the drama of these Early Christian stories.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, 1601 and The Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1601 (photo By Caravaggio – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, and By Caravaggio – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,

Although there were many Caravaggisti, one of the most important was a female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first women artists to emerge as a significant personality in Europe in the Baroque period. She was also the first female artist allowed into Florentine Academy of Fine Arts, and she worked for the court of Cosimo I, as well as for Charles I of England. One of the most central events of her life was her rape by the painter Agostino Tassi in 1612. Although Tassi was convicted, Gentileschi was also considered to be at fault because her work as a painter in her father’s studio was considered to be unwomanly. Out of this experience came a series of paintings on the Old Testament story of Judith and Holofernes. Gentileschi used herself as a model for Judith, and Tassi for Holofernes, making the story a metaphor for the rape. She uses tenebrism to highlight the drama of the scene, and to enhance the strength and power of Judith and her maidservant. Gentileschi also removes the sexualized nature of many portrayals of the story by male artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, c. 1620 and Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1625 (photo By Artemisia Gentileschi – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, and By Artemisia Gentileschi –, Public Domain,

Judith with the head of Holofernes, by Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1616 (photo By Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

 Louis XIV in many ways personifies the Age of Absolutism. He came to power in 1643 of 7, and ruled on his own from 1661-1715. He was known as the Sun King, and he liked to compare himself to the sun rising and setting over France. Louis XIV wanted a centralized state ruled from Versailles, and compelled the nobility to spend much of their time there. He also centralized French governmental bureaucracy, and was famous for the statement “L’Etat, c’est moi,” which translates as “I am the state.” He was a great patron of the arts, establishing a number of arts academies and patronizing a number of famous artists, composers, and playwrights (including Molière). Louis XIV established the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1648, and it was established to create a national style that would reflect the glory of France and its king. Louis XIV hoped to manipulate imagery for political advantage. Artists at the Académie were trained according to the principle that tradition and convention had to be studied and understood, and steeped in the history of art and French culture. Other important aspects of the French Baroque style were the idea of the role of nature in the concept of the “ideal,” and the idea that properly trained artists should be able to produce the ideal in their work. The system of rules was partly derived from Platonic and Renaissance theory and partly from the French interest in the creation of an aesthetic order. Subject matter was arranged in a hierarchy, with Christian Sacraments at the top, followed by history painting, next was portraiture, genre scenes, landscape, and still life was the lowest on the scale. In the early years of the Académie, women were also allowed in if they were considered to be good artists, but this would change and shift as the Académie became the main force in French art.

Louis wanted to finished the Cour Carrée of the Louvre begun by his father, Louis XIII. He first commissioned Bernini to come and design the new wing of this part of the palace, which was also home to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. But, France rejected the exuberance of Italian Baroque, preferring a strictly rectilinear approach, and Bernini’s design was rejected. Instead, Louis commissioned Claude Perrault, Louis Le Vau and Charles Le Brun to design the east façade of the Louvre in a more French style, creating a high podium, with a sharply classicizing, geometric façade, much more in keeping with the rest of the structure, and much less ornate than Italian Baroque structures.louvre_cour_carree

Louvre, Cour Carrée, Paris, 16th-17th centuries (photo By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Design for the Louvre, 1650 and Claude Perrault, Louis Le Vau and Charles Le Brun, east façade of the Louvre, Paris, 1667-70, (photos By Лоренцо Берніні – скан з екрана, Public Domain, and By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra – Flickr: La colonnade du Louvre à Paris, CC BY 2.0,

Louis XIV moved his court to the small town of Versailles in 1667. Here, he rebuilt the 13 room hunting château of his father into a massive structure with over 2000 rooms. This was the central focus of the French court, and of the spectacle of Louis’s court. The gardens were also fully transformed by André le Nôtre, a landscape architect, who filled the spaces with fountains, sculptures, and plantings, often with references to Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, to remind people that Louis XIV was the Sun King. Just outside of Louis’s bedroom was the massive sculpture and fountain of Apollo and his chariot rising up to move the sun across the sky. The planned gardens, with palm trees, orange trees, and other things not native to central France, were also meant to remind people that Louis controlled all of France: the government, the nobility, the people, and nature.

 Delagrive, Château and Gardens of Versailles, 1746 and André le Nôtre, Fountain of Apollo, 1668-1670 (photos By Moonik – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The king’s rooms were directly above the main entrance, at the center of the palace, which was also meant to be a symbolic spot. Here, favored courtiers could attend the king’s levée and couchée. This was also where the king kept the bust of him commissioned from Bernini, which compares the king to Alexander the Great, in keeping with Louis’s views of himself. Here, we see the young king, wearing armor and an arrogant expression, with a swirl of drapery around him. Another portrait of Louis, although from later in his life, that shows his views of himself is the famous image of him painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701, originally for Louis’s nephew, the newly crowned Philip V of Spain. Here, we see the older king, standing in his state robes and the sword of Charlemagne, with his crown at his side and his scepter in his hand. He stands in front of a column, again signifying his status as the support of the state, and wears his famous heels, red, which also help to show off his legs. Louis was proud of his legs, as he was a ballet dancer in his youth.Inner_cour_d'honneur_of_Versailles,_April_2011

Louis le Vau, Inner Cour d’honneur, King’s bedroom in the center of the top floor, c. 1661-1678 (photo By Cristian Bortes from Cluj-Napoca, Romania – Palace of Versailles, CC BY 2.0,

Gianlorenzo Bernini, Bust of Louis XIV, 1665 and Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, Alexander the Great, original c. 335 BCE (photos By Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Own work by Louis le Grand on 2006-08, CC BY-SA 2.5, and By Gunnar Bach Pedersen – Own work (Own photo), Public Domain,


Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XIV, 1701 (photo By Hyacinthe Rigaud (Musée du louvre) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

About 1680, Jules Hardouin-Mansart took over the reconstruction of the palace, and added the Galerie des Glaces in collaboration with Charles Le Brun. This was the main gallery of the palace, connecting the Salon de la Paix with the Salon de la Guerre, and was the main space for balls and state dinners. Originally, there was solid gold and silver furniture, but Louis spent so extravagantly that this had to be melted down in his lifetime. The ceiling, modeled after the Sistine Ceiling, contains images of Apollo, and the wall of windows is meant to allow people to see the nighttime fireworks and naval entertainments in the gardens.

Chateau de Versailles - Galerie des Glaces

Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Charles Le Brun, Galerie des Glaces, palace of Versailles, c. 1680 (photo By Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The most celebrated of the French painters of this period also worked in a more classicizing style, and painted mainly in Rome. These were Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain.  Poussin is known for his strong use of line and outline in his paintings, leading to the application of the term “poussinistes” to later painters who also worked in a more crisp, linear style. His works usually have a strong moral or philosophical theme, often with Greco-Roman overtones, and, though he did do some religious paintings, that was not his main subject matter. His Assumption of the Virgin shows the application of this style and philosophy to more religious works. Here, the Virgin is ascending to Heaven on clouds with cherubs strewing roses into her now-empty grave. The entire work is very crisp and linear, and highlights the importance of living a good life. Another work that speaks to this moralizing tone is Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, which is a story from ancient Athens, and tells of a man who pays the ultimate price for holding onto his moral compass. This is also painted in a crisp style, with muted colors, and Phocion’s widow can be seen in the foreground, gathering his ashes for burial.

Nicolas Poussin, Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1626 and Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, 1648 (photos by Nicolas Poussin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Nicolas Poussin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Although perhaps less moralizing than Poussin, Lorrain was also a classicist. He is known for his landscapes filled with minute details, and his knowledge of the Bible, literature, and Greco-Roman thought, which informs works like Landscape with Hagar and the Angel and Aeneas’s Farewell to Dido in Carthage. In both can be see the crisp lines of Poussin, and in each the human figures are overwhelmed by the landscape or architecture around them. Here, the morality is less on display than the artist’s knowledge of the subject matter.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Hagar and the Angel, 1646-47 and Aeneas’s Farewell to Dido in Carthage, 1676 (photos by Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1666, there was a massive fire in London, which burned most of the city. Sir Christopher Wren was appointed chief architect to oversee the rebuilding of the city. One of his most important tasks was to build St. Paul’s Cathedral, the main church of the Church of England, which is the only Protestant sect to have something comparable to St. Peter’s at the Vatican. Wren was well traveled, and had seen the major buildings of much of the Continent, and so St. Paul’s Cathedral was a synthesis of French and Italian Baroque styles, with element of Renaissance and Gothic.

Sir Christopher Wren, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, 1675-1710 (photos By Chris Downer, CC BY-SA 2.0, and By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Charles I of England wanted to style himself as an absolute ruler in the mold of Louis XIV. His stumbling block for this was the English Parliament, but Charles used his chief portrait painter, Anthony van Dyck, who had studied under Peter Paul Rubens in Flanders, to attempt to give himself the same autocratic cachet. Two of these portraits, Charles I on Horseback and Charles I, King of England at the Hunt show Charles in a vast landscape, drawing on Louis’s ideas of control of land and people, and show him higher than other figures in the scenes. The piece of paper in the back of the equestrian portrait also highlights Charles’s ambitions of absolutism, but not long after these were painted, Charles was overthrown.

Anthony van Dyck, Charles I on Horseback, c. 1637 and Charles I, King of England at the Hunt, c. 1638 (photos by Anthony van Dyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Anthony van Dyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The most important artist in Flanders, who also served as a diplomat and statesman, was Peter Paul Rubens. He was known for large-scale sensuous paintings of mythological scenes as well as elegantly painted religious scenes. Rubens spent some time studying in Rome, and, in his mature style, you can see the influence of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio, as well as Titian. One of the hallmarks of Rubens’s paintings are his very pale, fleshy women who represent the idealized female of the European Baroque: white, well-fed, and available. These women reflect the idealized wealthy woman of Europe, who is well-fed, has access to meat and sugar (luxury foods), and reflects the wealth of her husband or father. An example of this can be seen in Venus and Adonis, where the idealized man is also on display: muscular, active, and tan. For 17th century wealthy elites, a woman’s place was inside, and a man’s was outside in the world. Some of his works also reflect on the importance of love within these elite settings, such as Garden of Love, which celebrates his second marriage within a lush setting. Rubens is also known for his painterly brushstrokes, which are very loose and soft. This, in contrast to the Poussinistes, spawned artists with similar brushstrokes called Rubenistes.peter_paul_rubens_-_venus_and_adonis

Peter Paul Rubens, Venus and Adonis, c. 1635 (photo by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Peter Paul Rubens, Garden of Love, c. 1633 (photo by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Rubens is also known for his religious works, often commissioned for public places within the city of Antwerp. One of the most famous was the Elevation of the Cross triptych, painted for the Cathedral, shows the influence of Caravaggio’s laborers and tenebrism, as well as Michelangelo’s muscular men. Rubens chose to focus on the emotions of the moment, and enhanced the drama of the scene through the use of strong diagonals throughout the scene. The Descent from the Cross, also painted for the Cathedral, is strongly classicizing in form, and the more somber colors are much more in keeping with the subject matter.peter_paul_rubens_-_raising_of_the_cross_-_wga20204

Peter Paul Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, c. 1610-1611 (photo Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


Peter Paul Rubens, Descent from the Cross, c. 1612-1614 (photo By Peter Paul Rubens – 1. Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork2. Lukas VZW Art in Flanders Imagebank, Public Domain,

One of the most influential of the Northern Baroque artists was Rembrandt van Rijn. He wanted his works to be valued as “Rembrandts,” and virtually invented the modern art market. Although he certainly used the tenebrism of Caravaggio, and was also influenced by the marketing and status of Rubens’s work, Rembrandt also collected a wide variety of objects and other art, which impacted his style. He also painted a number of religious scenes in addition to his portraits and self-portraits. In one of these, Samson Blinded by the Philistines (Triumph of Delilah), Rembrandt uses tenebrism, but also has a number of interesting touches of the realistic, such as the curved sword held by the man on the left, that probably come from his extensive collection. Rembrandt would have identified with the horror of a man blinded, which he depicts in the image of the man to the right who holds the sword but looks appalled. Another work in which Rembrandt emphasizes the mythical quality of light is the painting Belshazzar’s Feast, where the light and the hand of Yahweh fit with the story from the Old Testament. Again in this work, you can also see the interest in the exotic, and in his collections, with the fine details of the objects on the table and the headdress of Belshazzar.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Samson Blinded by the Philistines (Triumph of Delilah), c. 1636 and Belshazzar’s Feast, c. 1635 (photos By Rembrandt – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, and By Rembrandt – : Home : Info, Public Domain,

Rembrandt was also known for his large commissions with multiple figures in them that speak to the unique nature of Dutch society in the 17th century. This was the only country in Europe at this time that was primarily ruled by the middle class, and had a degree of religious freedom: other religions could be practiced, but only Dutch Calvinist churches could be built. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp depicts the doctor, who changed his name to reflect his love of the (at the time) exotic tulip bulbs. Here, the doctor is explaining as he dissects the arm of the cadaver of an executed criminal. Each figure within the portrait paid for their inclusion, and are important doctors in Amsterdam in the early 17th century. Another example is The Company of Franz Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, also called The Night Watch, which is a misnomer, as it is not a night scene, but was darkened by smoke. Here, the officers and men of the Dutch Civil Guard for the year of 1642 are portrayed, along with their weapons. The Civil Guard was in charge of guarding the city, putting out fires, and parade at certain festive occasions. Franz Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch are in the center of the composition, dressed in the most elaborate clothing, while the rest of their officers and men surround them. Some of the men are preparing muskets, others are drumming, and there is a girl with chickens in the center of the scene. All the way at the back, in the center of the work, peeping out from behind 2 men is Rembrandt himself.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632 and  The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch or The Night Watch, 1642 (photos by Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By Rembrandt – Scan from Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Public Domain,

Although Rembrandt did a number of portraits of important figures in Amsterdam society, it is in his self-portraits and the portraits of his wife Saskia that his interest in the psychological really comes through. After her death in 1634, Rembrandt continued to paint her, often in scenes with a Biblical context, such as Self-Portrait with Saskia as the Prodigal Son, which may also refer to Rembrandt’s excessive spending. His portrait of her in an elaborate dress, reworked from 1634-1640, shows her in strict profile, probably meant to refer to the classical means of showing the deceased. Here, the work feels like a tender exploration of a love story. Rembrandt also painted himself many times over the course of his long career. The comparison of the 2 here, from fairly early in his career and almost at the end, show an artist who went from being at the height of his power and fame to being broke and unpopular at the end of his life. In the one from 1633, Rembrandt peers out confidently, dressed richly, and wearing a necklace of honor, which he did not have. This may have been an attempt to position himself as a more elite artist than he was. The second, Self Portrait as the Apostle Paulus, from 1661, shows an old man wearing a painters turban and a more humble expression, looking out at the viewer from St. Paul’s Epistles. This may be either a reference to finding faith near the end of his life or to his status as an outsider.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Saskia as the Prodigal Son, c. 1635 and  Saskia, 1634-1640 (photos By Rembrandt – : Home : [1], Public Domain, and Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1633 and  Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paulus, 1661 (photos By Rembrandt – Marie-Lan Nguyen, Public Domain, and By Rembrandt – Unknown, Public Domain,

Rembrandt also did a number of etchings, a type of printmaking that gained in popularity in the 17th century. Rembrandt was known for reworking plates in between states, or printings, and changing the feel of the works. This can be seen by comparing states of his Three Crosses print. One of his most famous prints is Christ Preaching, also known as the Hundred Guilder Print for its price when it was first completed, something previously unheard of for a print. In this print, you can see Rembrandt’s experimental techniques and use of light and dark to tell the story in a print.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Three Crosses,  state 2/5, state 3/5, and state 4/5, 1653 (photos By Rembrandt – : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain,, By Rembrandt – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,, and By Rembrandt – Dorota Folga-Januszewska (2005) Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie. Arcydzieła malarstwa, Warszawa: Arkady, ISBN 83-21343-31-7., Public Domain,


Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Preaching, c. 1649 (photo By Rembrandt – cQEMT9y2iQ_A7Q at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain,

Many of the works of the Dutch Baroque period reflect the moralizing tendencies of the Calvinist culture. Also, unique to the Dutch, there were a number of female artists who painted these paintings. Judith Leyster, one of the most famous female artists of the period, painted The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) in about 1628-1629. In this piece, the 2 men drink, smoke, and carouse with Death, who holds an hourglass to remind them that this behavior will hasten their end. The iconography reflects the popularity of drinking, carousing and smoking in the Dutch Republic. In Maria van Oosterwyck’s Vanitas Still Life, each element contains a warning against folly. The word “vanitas” refers to the inevitability of death, and the transient nature of earthly vanities and pleasure, which means that they serve the same purpose of memento mori images from previous periods. Here, the celestial globe and other objects associated with navigation (the Dutch ruled the seas at the end of the 17th century) share space with flowers that are starting to turn, a skull, and a partially eaten corn cob: earthly accomplishments will fade as well.

Judith Leyster, The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), c. 1628-29 and Maria van Oosterwijck, Vanitas Still Life, 1668 (photos By Judith Leyster, Dutch (active Haarlem and Amsterdam), 1609 – 1660 (1609 – 1660) – Artist/Maker (Dutch (active Haarlem and Amsterdam)) Born in Haarlem, Netherlands. Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and Maria van Oosterwijck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The art of the Late Baroque period in The Netherlands changed from that of Rembrandt. There was more of an interest in meticulously painted scenes with a number of details that show middle class Dutch wealth and power. One of the painters that exemplifies this is Jan Vermeer, a Catholic painter and inn keeper who used a camera obscura to make sure his interiors were perfect. One of his pieces that exemplifies this new style is The Geographer, which shows the Dutch interest in exploration and science as well.  Here, the man stands in front of a window with light pouring in. The table on which he works is covered by a Persian carpet, which speaks to his wealth as well as the trading power of the Dutch. On the wall in the back is a map of The Netherlands, a signal of the pride of this new nation. Vermeer also painted a number of sensitive portraits of other people in Delft in this period. Many of them are unnamed, but the works express the realities of life for the middle class in the Dutch Republic. One of the most famous is Girl in a Turban, possibly a portrait of one of his daughters. Here, the light reflects off the pearl in her earring in a different manner than in her eyes, which shows Vermeer’s attention to light and detail. In many ways, all of Vermeer’s works are studies in light, and his subjects, such as The Milkmaid, often appear in front of a window, which also serves as the light source for the work.

Jan Vermeer, The Geographer, c. 1668 and The Milkmaid, c. 1660 (photos By Johannes Vermeer, Public Domain, and By Johannes Vermeer – 9AHrwZ3Av6Zhjg at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum, Public Domain,


Jan Vermeer, Girl in a Turban, c. 1665 (photo By Johannes Vermeer – : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain,

The 17th century also was a Golden Age of Spanish art. Much of the work focused on Spain’s place as the so-called Defender of the Catholic Faith. Many of the artists were focused on the importance of Catholicism within Spanish culture. Francisco de Zurbarán painted an image of the Crusader Saint Serapion in which the use of light and dark is used to emphasize the impact of death and suffering on behalf  of the Christian faith. In many ways, works like this speak to the Spanish fight against Protestantism, especially while fighting to keep the Dutch Republic in the Empire (unsuccessfully). francisco_de_zurbarc3a1n_026

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Serapion, 1628 (photo by Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The most famous and influential of the Spanish Baroque painters was also court painter to King Philip IV. This was the painter Diego Velázquez, who also advocated for a higher status of artists in Spain. Artists in Spain were still considered craftsmen, when in all other countries they were of higher status, and educated in academies. He executed a number of important works for the King and his court, including an equestrian portrait of the king, which shows him easily controlling a large war horse while dressed in armor in front of a vast landscape, a metaphor for the king’s control of Spain and the Spanish Empire, even if imagined. Spain was sliding back in feudalism as the king taxed the people to pay for his wars, ironic since Spain controlled the wealthiest colonies in the Americas. diego_velc3a1zquez_-_philip_iv_on_horseback_-_wga24410

Diego Velázquez, Equestrian Portrait of Philip IV, 1629-30, (photo by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

He also painted a work to commemorate one of the important moments for Spain in the war against the Dutch. This was his image of The Surrender of Breda, the city of the Princes of Orange, the capture of which in 1625 was heavily symbolic for the Spanish. The Spanish are shown with regular uniforms and orderly pikes, while the Dutch are the opposite, and the Spanish commander is bowing to the Dutch one, showing his respect. This makes the Spanish seem more magnanimous. But, the work was painted after the tide had turned against the Spanish, and only about 13 years before the Treaty of Westphalia ended the war and gave the Dutch Republic its independence.diego_velc3a1zquez_-_the_surrender_of_breda_28las_lanzas29_-_wga24401

Diego Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda, June 2, 1625, c. 1635 (photo by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Probably his most famous work is Las Meninas (The Handmaidens), which is also the most interesting and complex of his works. The painting is set in Velázquez’s studio, where the artist is painting a large canvas the same size as the actual work. The red cross on Velázquez’s chest was probably added posthumously as he gained noble status not long before his death. In the center is the princess, attended by her maids, dog, court dwarf, and court midget, and behind her are a nun and another man tasked with making sure the princess is not exposed to anything untoward. In the back, in an open door is the king’s chief minister, and next to him is a mirror reflecting the king and queen standing where the viewer stands. The subject matter here is complex, and there are a number of arguments as to exactly what it is, although it is certainly partially about the status of painters and the importance of the royal family.diego_velc3a1zquez_las_meninas_die_hoffrc3a4ulein

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656 (photo by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Baroque was one of the most complex periods of history, full of changes and upheavals that set the stage for the Rococo and Enlightenment that followed.


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