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Baroque Art: Protestant Vs. Catholic

This print version free essay Baroque Art: Protestant Vs. Catholic.

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Autor: reviewessays 14 February 2011

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Baroque: Protestant vs. Catholic

Before the purity of Neoclassicism, even before the carefree artists of the Rococo era, there was the dramatic and emotive Baroque. The term "baroque" is said to have been derived from the Portuguese word for an irregular pearl, and is certainly an adequate description. In the wake of what has become known as the Protest Reformation, the Catholic Church held the infamous Council of Trent. This eighteen year deliberation addressed several aspects of Catholicism under scrutiny and led to the requirements that new art depicting religious notions should reach the illiterate masses. Up until this point most religious forms of art were designated for the highly educated and sophisticated. This led to the dramatic artistic representations that arose during the Baroque period, roughly 1600 through 1750. Unlike the Renaissance with its strict order and cemetery, Baroque art is emotional and dynamic. Evidence of this non-traditional tendency can be seen in the period known as Mannerist directly preceding the Baroque. The style of Mannerism is noted by its "spatial complexity [and] artificiality" and developed a new "intense" form of visual art (Fiero, 2002, ch.20).

This new visually intense form of expression took on very different characteristics in different regions of Europe, largely in part due to the topics covered at the Council of Trent. In Northern Europe and largely in the Netherlands, the Baroque movement took on a significantly non-secular undertone. This is a result of the predominance of the Protestant faith in this region. The advances in techniques are still noticeable in different examples of the Baroque era from Protestant artists, however due to the nature of the Protestant practice the messages are drastically different. Contrary to Catholics of the time, who worshiped in lavish sanctuaries with elaborate services for mass; Protestants experienced their faith internally. This meant that they enjoyed simple churches and took their religious messages from the bible itself, instead of the imposing Catholic Church. This can be seen in examples of Protestant Baroque artists of the time such as Van Dyck and Rembrandt.

One of the more famous artists of the time, Rembrandt, created many paintings as well as etchings and wood carvings. One of his paintings known as Monk Reading (Fig. 1)demonstrates the stanch influence of Protestant principles. In Monk Reading the solitary monk is seen reading alone almost concealed by his cowl. This inwardly transfixed individual is brought to the foreground in traditional baroque style by being placed on a dark background. The Monk's gaze is thoughtfully on the pages in his hand which shed the only luminescence in the painting. Unlike many Baroque paintings, depicting extreme emotional circumstances such as murder or other foul acts, this Monk appears to be contently in deep thought while studying the text in his hand. He seems relaxed and reverent which is contrary to most examples of Catholic Baroque art and indeed many examples of Protestant art.

Most forms of Catholic Baroque art are assertive and, as intended, assault ones senses. The evolution of religious art from the uniform composition characteristic of the Italian Renaissance through the evolving Mannerism in to the bold and striking Baroque was striking to say the least. The stylistic changes from Da Vinci's The Last Supper to Tintoretto's version in the 1590's bear a perfect example of this transition. The point of view in Da Vinci's was central and allowed for a symmetrical picture of the group with the focus of the painting, Jesus, in the center. While in dramatic contrast to this, Tintoretto's remarkable imagery offers no symmetry with the focus off center. The intensely gloomy color schemes used depicting a dark or black background, contrasted by a luminescent accentuation of particularly pious figures was customary of Baroque era paintings.

Another prominent Catholic Baroque artist was Artemesia Gentileschi, who also depicted many scenes from the bible. Most of theses paintings contained a centrally feminine theme or character identity. One of the more well-known scenes that she depicted was the beheading of Holofemes in the book of Judith. Gentileschi painted several versions of this story, portraying Judith as empowered boldly severing the head, as well as a timid Judith unsure and uneasy. One of these paintings titled Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (fig 2) is a famous rendering of the moments just after the murder when Judith and her Maidservant are fleeing. The women are urgently leaving the tent which is evident by their postures and special dramatic flare is added by the hand blocking the light and casting a shadow on the face of Judith. The color contrasts and luminescence of focal points is characteristic of the Catholic Baroque style as is the portrayal of biblical stories.

The Baroque styles of Protestant Northern Europe and predominantly Italian Catholic artists are stylistically similar. Since the techniques originated in Italy this comes as no surprise. The most notable distinction between the two styles is not the artistic tendencies, but rather the motives or message being conveyed through the paintings. For example, the Catholic Baroque style included vivid imagery that displayed vigorous emotion and incited emotion in those that viewed it. Protestant Baroque style, on the other hand, while using many similar if not the same techniques; portrayed uniquely intrinsic emotion felt by the artist and brought about emotion not so much through dramatic stimulation, as through sympathetic understanding. The fundamental difference between Protestant Baroque and Catholic Baroque is that Protestant Baroque painters convey subjects in ways that portray the artist's personal emotion; while Catholic Baroque painters conveyed visually entertaining and captivating imagery in order to evoke emotions from the person viewing the image.


Fiero, G. K. (2002). The Humanistic Tradition Volume II: The Early Modern World to the Present (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

National Gallery of Art (2006). Rembrandt's Late Religious Portraits [On Line Tour]. Retrieved April 23, 2006, from http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2005/rembrandt/flash/index.shtm

The Life and Art of Artemisia Gentileschi (2005). Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes . Retrieved April 24, 2006, from http://www.artemisia-gentileschi.com/judith5.html

Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (2006). Baroque. Retrieved April 23, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baroque#Baroque_visual_art