Despite the church-wide acceptance of high-Renaissance style in the 16th century, church leaders to come would blame the humanism embraced during that time as a main cause for the groundbreaking Protestant Reformation. After the massive schism to the North, the Catholic Church needed a strategy to retain membership. This new style needed emotional strength to counter the rational, balanced ideology of the new Protestant faiths.
This new form was the Baroque, an awe-inspiring display of emotional intensity and virtuosic composto—the utilization of multiple mediums—designed with the intent of enveloping the viewer in a religious fervor. For artists of this time, the goal was spiritual awakening: “Baroque features include the deliberate evocation of intense emotional responses in the viewer” (Stokstad 352). To this end, Christian Baroque artists sculpted modern day saints, illustrated moments of great spiritual elicitation and emotional awakening, and forwent the nudity and sexual promiscuity of the Renaissance. This stands in direct contrast to Bernini’s sculptures of Pluto & Proserpina, and Apollo & Daphne, but in the religions Baroque “Lascivious thoughts and nude figure were prohibited” (Stokstad 352).
Any discussion of Baroque art must not go without the mention of Bernini, who will occupy the entirety of works analyzed here. Working for the Borghese family, Bernini created and exemplified the style and rhetoric of Baroque artists, even before he began his work for the church. His sculptural finesse and emotional power not only set the bar for every baroque artist to come, but gave the Church the genre it needed to retain membership in the Mediterranean.
Thus, although Baroque artists, especially Bernini, developed a wildly evocative and individual style (especially in their invention of composto), their art actually can be considered more conservative than that of the Renaissance, for theirs were, first and foremost, works of an evangelical function.
By now, the image of David had been cemented in passivity. Michelangelo focused on the anticipation, Donatello focused on the victory, but neither bothered with the battle. Then the Baroque came, and with it, Bernini’s lucid visualizations of istoria in sculpture. Previously employed in mythical statues, Bernini brought his unique ability to bring marble to life to the Catholic Church with the creation of his David for the Borghese Family.
Bernini captures David in a moment of sheer tension. Drawing from Michelangelo’s ignuti, he sculpts the dynamic contortions of the body in motion—muscles flare, the body lurches forward, and the face furrows into the glare of a warrior. Suddenly, we have a return of the warrior saint, reminiscent of early Christianity’s Imperial Christ. But the piece is far from antiquated—never before in sculptural history has Istoria been so present. Bernini’s David comes to life completely on his own, without the pictorial assistance of setting or interactions—in Bernini’s catalog, paragone seems to side with the historical power of the sculptor.
This departure from previous models wasn’t done on a whim. In all of Bernini’s work, he sought an emotional elicitation that fell in line with the aims of the Counter Reformation. In the moment of crucial action, the viewer finds himself or herself entirely enveloped in the sculpture and thus subject to a spiritual awakening. These emotions are absent from previous works, where intellectual inquiry dominated the viewing of art. This change aimed to ignite faith in people who were defecting to Protestantism. Emotional tactics were needed to counter the rational spiritualism that pervaded the Renaissance and took on a different, anti-Catholic fervor as it moved northwards.
Cornaro Chapel & The Ecstasy of St. Teresa: Bernini, Sta. Maria della Vittora in Rome, 1652 (Photo c/o Columbia University)
In Bernini’s most famous piece, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, nearly every Baroque element is highlighted in the ultimate display of spiritual enlightenment in the sculpture and the surrounding Cornaro Chapel. Bernini’s artistic technique is backed, first and foremost, by a unique subject matter. As a modern-day saint, St. Teresa of Avila was the perfect Baroque vessel to revitalize faith. Instead of working with biblical heroes of old, Bernini sculpts a contemporary saint, thus reminding Christians of the accessibility of God in the current era.
In addition to utilizing a contemporary saint, the exact scene that is sculpted is representative of a popular Baroque motif—conversion. As the angel of God penetrates Teresa in the ultimate moment of transformation, the viewer sees the ecstasy of Christianity in Teresa’s expression. This moment, to many modern viewers, can also be seen as one of brutal sexuality. The metaphor of an angel penetrating Teresa to the point of ecstasy is not subtle, but it was also ignored at the time. The Baroque, far from embracing sex and nudity as the Renaissance did, avoided such topics entirely. For Teresa, the ecstasy was purely spiritual, and that was the point of the Baroque.
Surrounding Teresa, composto elements of Baroque planning are abundant. As a natural light shines down from a hidden window above the sculpture, the metal rays behind Teresa shine with the luminescence of God. Far from being sculpted down from a single block of marble, Teresa and her penetrator are built up polylithically—her conversion is a complex scene, not a frozen image. Contemporary spectators watch from around the room as the Holy Spirit appears in the clouds above the conversion, blessing the scene with an eruption of light painted on the ceiling. The architecture of the altarpiece pushes the conversion outwards onto the viewer, who can’t avoid the sensory overload. The entire room is an emotional masterpiece, combining elements of nearly every artistic style in order to envelop the viewer in a moment of spiritual awakening.
St. Peter’s Square: Bernini, Vatican City public area, 1667 (Photo c/o Wikipedia)
Bernini’s final work wasn’t of sculpture, but rather of architecture. And while it did embrace the Baroque philosophy, it did so in his most gentle way to date. The new Basilica of St. Peter’s, standing dominant in Vatican City, needed a gathering place to its front as a welcome point for pilgrims around the world.
The layout of the square, with two semi-circular arms wrapping around the entire piazza, came to symbolize the loving embrace of the church, “stretching out its arms maternally to receive Catholics” (Bailey). Instead of forcing viewers to gaze in awe at the powers of Christianity, as he did in the past, he instead welcomed them into the Christian family, beneath the towers of St. Peter’s. This welcome was supplemented by open entryways between the pillars of the arms, thus allowing for the free circulation of visitors.
On top of the “arms” sit a multitude of saints in the round, looking down in protection and welcome upon the entire square as it leads up to the grand church of Catholicism. The design—entirely Bernini’s—signaled a mellowing in Bernini’s Baroque ideal and highlighted a more important message of the church. As Protestantism peeled off in a huff of rationality and individuality, Bernini’s last work countered with gentler Baroque themes of emotion, unification, and love. Far from the fervent spirituality of St. Teresa and David, St. Peter’s Square embraces the familial emotions of Catholicism at the time. As the front man for the Baroque, Bernini’s works were inspired by as well as influential towards the Church’s theology at this time. Again, we have the church and the artist, influencing one another in an ever-evolving symbioticism.