Baroque Art Exemplified

The Form of Baroque Art is Governed by Theology and Philosophy as Much as Iconographic Art

In a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a painting by an artist I had never heard of before caught my eye as an excellent example of baroque liturgical art. The Scourging of Christ is by an artist I had never heard of before, Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1574-1625) an Italian who was based in Milan. This has all the classic features of baroque art and was an excellent example for me to talk about to the students. Here are the features that caught my eye:

Most of the painting is shrouded in shadow. Baroque art seeks to portray the world after the Fall (in contrast to iconographic art which portrays the heavenly realm). The shadow represents the presence of evil and suffering in the world, which is then contrasted with the lights, which represent the Light overcoming the darkness.

The light runs up and down the full figure of Christ. This is exactly what I was told when I was studying the acdemic method (which would have been used by baroque artists) at a school in Florence, Italy. I was told that this was reflecting a Christian humanism. (If you look at Velazquez’s famous crucifixion, you see the same effect, for example.) Accordingly, the features of the face are not emphasized by the artist more than the figure itself. This interest in the general at the expense of the particular, is very different from portraiture, in which the face is the most important aspect. It is one of the things that distinguishes 17th century sacred art from 19th century and much modern naturalistic sacred art, as discussed in a previous article, here.

When we look at anything in the world around us, those areas that are in peripheral vision, because of the structure of the eye, are always depleted of colour and out of focus. The baroque artists understood this and only put full natural colour and sharp detail in those areas that are of primary interest in the painting. Notice how muted the colour is, for example, in the rendering of the sleeve of the soldier on the left.

The assumption behind this is that the natural world is made by God for us, so that through its beauty we can know its Creator. Then, so the idea goes, if we paint a painting so that it gives visual information in the way that we naturally take it in, we will perceive it as beautiful also and it will raise our souls to contemplation of heavenly things.

When the defining edge of an object is painted so that it is blurred, the effect of blurriness is reduced if you retreat from the canvas to view the picture from further away and it will appear to sharpen. This means that even those areas that are intended to seen as detailed and sharp, should be painted so that they are soft and blurred to some degree when seen from nearby. The ideal distance to see a baroque painting was taken to be three times the greatest dimension. This is a difficult process to control well. Procaccini’s is a large painting perhaps 12ft high and we had to retreat to the far side of the gallery in order to see it properly. Everything popped into place as I retreated at that point when the reduction in the angle of vision was such that it allowed the painting as a whole to be taken in, as far as possible, with a single impression (this is about 15 degrees). It was noticeable how at this point, the colour and the focus all seemed balanced and natural. Things look different at a distance, for example, what seemed barely discernable close-to seems a properly coloured and detailed from afar.

The result of all of this is that the artist sets up the baroque dynamic of prayer between observer and painting; the aim is to create the sense that God is present with us in this fallen world. It says to us, in effect, ‘You stay where you are, I am coming to you’; (see here for more detail about this).

I have attached some photographs below which were taken in a drawing class teaching the academic method that I was involved in (taught by the well known Catholic artist, Henry Wingate). I should point out that none of these students have drawn using this method before, so you can see how effective this systematic method of drawing is. They are using charcoal to draw white plaster casts of sculptures. The method requires them to walk backwards to a marked point several feet away and compare the drawing with the cast and the image. Then they walk forward to the easel and draw from memory, before retreating again to compare what is newly drawn with the cast. This is the process whereby the image is created to be viewed at some distance. It’s hard work. Aside from being a way to create accurate drawings, I found being on your feet for six hours a day for any number of days is a great way to lose weight! Everybody I knew left Florence thinner than when they arrived.

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