The Church and the Baroque
The patronage of the Roman Catholic Church was fundamental to the Baroque style. Promoted by generations of popes, cardinals, priests, missionaries, worshippers and lay-patrons, the style spread to the four corners of the globe. Holy imagery was everywhere, on street corners and squares, on shrines and public statues, and carried in procession. Although the Baroque style was strongly associated with the power and authority of the Catholic Church, it would also have been familiar to many Protestants.
Baroque employed painting, sculpture, architecture and the applied arts in tandem with other arts such as music and poetry. The aim was to appeal to all the senses. Seeking a combined and integrated effect, these total works of art sought to affect not only the hearts and minds of onlookers, but also to touch their very souls.
Baroque religious art was designed to move, impress and please. Holy objects were both functional and ornamental: the vast array of pictorial and decorative images could focus on complex theological subjects or the mundane and the familiar. They brought spiritual improvement to the devout and comfort to believers at every stage of life. All brought honour to those who commissioned them and those who created them.
The most influential expression of the Baroque theory of the total work of art can be found in the work of Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). At the Cornaro chapel and in his portfolio of designs for St Peter's, Bernini united sculpture, painting and architecture. In creating works of art, Bernini used terracotta sketch models to explore what he called the 'concetto' – his vision of the total impact of the work, kept in his mind's eye throughout each stage of the creative process.
Space & ritual
The secular and the religious were not mutually exclusive. Travellers to Catholic countries remarked on the lively social interaction of the congregation witnessing the solemn Mass. In the midst of this bustling social life, religious art had to compete for attention. Performance was as prominent in the sacred spaces of chapels and churches as it was in the theatres. Religious processions, church services and other rituals were designed to maintain social cohesion as well as offer a route to personal salvation. The ability of the Baroque style to communicate effectively and immediately with audiences of all kinds, and in a range of situations, made it a powerful tool in the organisation of sacred ritual.
Rome & the Papacy
Baroque Rome was not only the headquarters of the Roman Catholic church, it was also a princely court, a government bureaucracy, a centre for cultural heritage and learning, a focus for pilgrims and tourists, and an archaeological site. The popes were both secular lords and bishops of Rome. Like princes, they used their patronage to wield power, within the Vatican and beyond. They spent vast sums on building projects, art commissions, and establishing their collections.
The popes and their families rivalled one another to secure prestigious burial places in the most important Roman churches and to erect splendid funeral monuments. Some popes set artistic trends by favouring particular artists, art media and subjects. The most favoured of all the papal artists was Bernini, who worked for a succession of popes for over fifty years. Alexander VII (1655–67) was one of Bernini's most important patrons. The design for his tomb was to show the pope kneeling while allegories proclaim the triumph of Time over Life and Truth over Time.
In the Baroque church, the onlooker entered a densely populated world of images and ornament. Each part of the church had specific functions, utensils and furnishings, and even the most utilitarian items were decorated accordingly. Bronze was employed for railings, grilles and lighting, silver for the ceremonial objects used during the Mass. Carved and decorated wood was used for seating and framing. Paint and gilding were on every surface, and embroidered textiles were used as hangings, vestments and covers. There was also sculpture of every description – wood, stone, metal, clay and plaster – set on and around altars, and even into the flooring. Any available flat surface was painted.
Busts of the sorrowful Virgin were often placed in the side chapels of churches as a focus of private devotion, perhaps alongside a similar bust of Christ displaying his wounds. The resigned anguish of the Virgin's expression on the de Moro sculpture, and the carving of her veil and ringlets (made from twisted wood shavings) are particularly skilful and affecting.
The altar & the Mass
High Mass was a compelling, multi-sensory performance combining music, incense, splendidly decorated ritual vessels, bread and wine. Conducted in commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice, the sacrificial table or altar was central to the ritual. The altar was both the setting for the dramatic re-enactment of the Mass and also the station for distributing the host to the communicants.
The host was central to the ritual of the Mass. This was a small, flat wafer symbolising the bread of the Last Supper and miraculously transformed into the actual body of Christ. The congregation mostly witnessed this ritual from afar. This meant that the officiating priests had to use dramatic gestures, and church artists and designers had to employ strong visual effects. The host was displayed to the faithful in the glazed compartment of a monstrance, either during Mass by the officiating priest or carried in solemn procession.
Religious devotion did not only take place in church. Protestants read the Bible at home, and Christians of all denominations were encouraged to engage in spiritual improvement and renewal. This involved sets of devotional exercises to be undertaken at all hours and in all situations. Some of these rituals were carried out collectively but many were undertaken in private. Worshippers would open their souls to God through prayer, or by means of intercessors such as saints or the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their devotions were facilitated by images and other works of art ranging from simple wooden crosses hanging on the walls of modest family homes to costly bejewelled treasures wrought in exotic materials and kept locked away in the prince's strongroom.
The macabre wax relief tableau of Time and Death would remind viewers of the transience of life and worldly glory. Among dead bodies in various stages of decay are the figures of Time and Death (a crowned skeleton). While wax was widely used in Naples for sculpting small-scale Nativity scenes, only a handful of these 'little theatres of death' are known to have survived.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Baroque 1620 - 1800: Style in the Age of Magnificence', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 4 April - 19 July 2009.