The Sheikha Amna Bint Mohammed Al Thani Gallery
The art and design of 17th-century Europe were shaped by trade, colonisation and religious conflict. The Dutch and French established colonies in Asia and the Americas, just as Portugal and Spain had done a century earlier. The Catholic Church also expanded overseas. The transatlantic slave trade gathered momentum. Imported goods, materials and commodities changed the way Europeans lived. The dominant style, which we call Baroque, was based on the classical tradition but imbued with a new sense of magnificence, movement and drama.
Around 1620, a new style emerged in Rome. Monumental, expressive and dramatic, it stretched and broke the rules of classical design. Artists and designers combined the arts to create theatrical and awe-inspiring works with a unified design and a single message. These works proclaimed the power and splendour of great rulers and the Catholic Church. We now know this style as Baroque, from the name for a deformed pearl, a term used by later art critics to express their disapproval.
Video: Baroque in Portugal
This film shows how the Baroque style flourished in early 18th-century Portugal during the reign of King John V.
Under the leadership of the pope in Rome, the Catholic Church attempted to extend a unified system of belief across the world. In Europe, its devotional practices were reinforced through internal reform within the church. Overseas, Catholic missionaries spread the word to Spain and Portugal’s colonies in Asia and the Americas. Catholics were encouraged to meditate upon the miraculous transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during Mass, and to deepen their devotion by contemplating holy images.
At a time of religious upheaval, the theme of death became prominent in the visual arts. Macabre memento mori (remember that you will die) imagery reminded people of the transience of human existence and worldly pleasures. Moralising images instructed them to live a virtuous life on earth, in preparation for the Day of Judgement and in the hope of eternal reward in Heaven.
The Dutch Republic was one of the few places in Europe where Jews could live and worship without severe restrictions. The Dutch prided themselves on their religious tolerance and also recognised the value of Jewish commercial networks. By the 1670s there were over five thousand Jews in Amsterdam, both Ashkenazim from Germany and Poland, and Sephardim from Spain and Portugal.
In 1648, after a long military struggle, the Dutch Republic was recognised as an independent state, free from the political and religious domination of Catholic Spain. The new Protestant republic was the most powerful trading nation in Europe, and the economy prospered. Many people had more money to spend on domestic comforts, and fewer married women had to work. The focus of most women’s lives was their families and homes, where the day-to-day management of the household was seen as a Christian duty.
The Thirty Years War (1618–48) began as a localised, religious struggle between Protestants and Catholics, but grew into a dynastic and imperial war of attrition between the house of Habsburg and other European powers. It was the first Europe-wide conflict. Contemporary accounts suggest that the arts suffered as cities, churches and palaces were destroyed by cannonfire. But the war also stimulated artists to champion causes, commemorate leaders, celebrate victories and record the terrors they witnessed.
Trade with Asia and the Americas brought new goods to Europe, transforming social habits and creating new industries. Europeans traded raw materials, foodstuffs, manufactured goods and even enslaved people. Imports from America included hardwoods, sugar and raw cotton, largely produced by slaves from Africa. From Asia came spices, tea, painted and printed cottons, porcelain and other finished goods, also produced with cheap labour. Many Asian goods were made to European designs. Asian porcelain, cottons and lacquer were also widely imitated in Europe.
By the 17th century, the Spanish crown ruled land stretching from Mexico to northern Bolivia. While silver from South America flowed into Europe, Chinese silks and porcelain from Spain’s colony in the Philippines were shipped to the Americas. Colonisation and commerce had a marked effect on the art of indigenous craftsmen. They fused European and Asian designs with their own traditions to make products for both local and export markets.
Dancing and playing a musical instrument were an essential part of a noble education. Ballets of the 17th century were performed at court, by rulers and courtiers as well as professional dancers. The emergence of opera at the beginning of the century dazzled audiences with virtuoso singers and scenic marvels. However, music-making and dancing were regarded by some as vain pursuits associated with worldliness and seduction, and were criticised in moralising images.