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The Age of the Baroque Essay

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Updated: Jul 18th, 2021

Discussion Question

Please choose three works of art, architecture, music, literature, or philosophy from the Age of the Baroque. Then, explain how these works are influenced by either the Protestant Reformation or the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Initial Response (At least 3-4 sentences that directly answer the question)

In fine art, the term Baroque (from Portuguese “Barocco” – a pearl or stone of irregular shape) referred to a complex artistic movement that took origins in Rome, Italy, and dominated the European art from circa 1590 through 1720. The Catholic Church of Rome was not happy with what the Protestant Reformation brought about and desired to reassert its power and dominance. The language of art was understood by many, and the Catholic church used paintings, sculptures, and buildings as media for spreading its views on Christianity.

Peter Paul Rubens was one of the key figures of the Baroque and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. He was a renowned expert at creating so-called chiaroscuro – a painting technique characterized by employing a striking contrast in lighting – and expressing the melodrama and mystery of Catholic faith (Sauerlander 45). The Descent from the Cross by Rubens takes up the center panel of a triptych that he painted for the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp. Over the 16th century, Antwerp had seen many conflicts on the grounds of religion (De la Torre 185). In the early 16th century, Antwerp switched from Catholicism to Calvinism and prohibited religious visuals from churches (De la Torre 185). By 1585, the rule had been repelled, and among other events, the installation of The Descent from the Cross contributed to the rise of Catholicism.

Jesus Christ is the central character of The Descent from the Cross and draws the viewer’s attention from the first glance. The other characters include St. John the Evangelist, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and the three Marys – the Virgin Mary, Mary of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (Sauerlander 156). The most prominent characteristics of the Catholic Counter-Reformation art are found in the Descent from the Cross: overlapping figures, vivid colors, and a large scale. This particular painting was supposed to let the viewers imagine themselves being part of the scene and also repent their sins when contemplating the reformed Mary Magdalene holding Christ’s hand.

Caravaggio was one of the most prominent artists of his time who was best known for his strikingly realistic painting style. He masterfully combined the embellishment and exaggeration of the Baroque with elements of classicism and revitalized large scale religious art in Italy (Benay 69). His artistic idiom was both admired and criticized: the most conservative Catholics found the realism too vulgar for showing Christian scenes while art collectors appreciated his innovative manner (Puglisi 106). Akin to Rubens, Caravaggio was an expert in chiaroscuro and tenebrism, the use of deep shadows to set the tone for a painting.

The Calling of Saint Matthew depicts the time when Jesus Christ compels Levi, the tax collector, to become the apostle Matthew and follow him from then on. According to the Scripture, eventually, Levi rose and expressed his commitment to the teaching of Jesus Christ (Benay 78). Even though the figure of Levi is somewhat downplayed by the tone and color as well as his placement to the far left of the composition, the viewer notices him right away because of Christ’s gesture. Levi is visibly surprised – he points to himself, asking if Christ is talking to him. Saint Peter, standing next to the Lord, appears to be calm and positive about the outcome of this meeting. This approach is intentional: the viewer can relate to this piece of art and empathize with both the amazement and uncertainty of Levi and the assurance and serenity of St. Peter.

One of the best Spanish artists, Diego Velasquez, had religious inclinations and left a few paintings showing Biblical scenes. Christ Crucified was created after Velasquez took a trip to Italy that proved stimulating and motivating. This painting provides an intensely powerful image of the dead Jesus Christ on the Cross. Velasquez was no stranger to painting male nudes such as Apollo in Vulcan’s Forge (Justi 56). However, depicting Jesus Christ was different – the artist had to shift the focus from the physical to the Lord’s dignity and serenity. Christ Crucified is both realistic and iconographic: it succeeds at both showing the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ (Viladesau 67). In summation, Velasquez stayed contributed to the reassertion of the Catholic faith by engaging the viewer with moving visuals.

Textual Evidence that Supports Your Initial Response (Include the full, direct quotation and page number or website address of your evidence)

  1. “As a symbol, however, Guadalupe is more than the keeper of ancestral beliefs and a symbol of national syncretism” (De la Torre 185).
  2. Here the laurel-crowned and halo-enriched apollo presents himself in a flowing gold-coloured robe” (Justi 91).
  3. “The Christian painter filters out a Stoic martyrdom from the prose of the Roman historian” (Sauerlander 26).
  4. “Christ’s portrayal with an open mouth as he beckons Levi, who listens attentively, underlines the spiritual message” (Puglisi 111).
  5. “It was important for the meaning of Counter-Reformation paintings to be easily understandable” (Viladesau 25).

What You Learned / Your Final Response (At least 4-5 sentences that offer a new insight to the discussion question and how you have changed or modified your original position)

Baroque art characterized by its tendency to exaggerate and embellish was a logical successor of the idealism of the Renaissance and the somewhat “forced” nature of the Mannerism. Above all, the art of the Baroque epoch reflected the religious conflicts and tensions of its age. Caravaggio, Rubens, and Velasquez were some of the best painters of the Baroque era and devout Christians who contributed to the reassertion of the Catholic faith in Europe. In their religious paintings, the artists used realism, contrast, and vivid colors to make the viewer experience piety and admiration.

Textual Evidence that Supports Your Final Response (Include the full, direct quotation and page number or website address of your evidence)

  1. “Compared with Velázquez, Titian’s colouring seems conventional, Rembrandt fantastic, and Rubens infected with a dash of unnatural mannerism” (Justi 7).
  2. The religious symbol is also a transmutable object, which admits the duality of meanings, due to the changes in the materials it is produced with and appears in” (De la Torre 193).

Post-learning Reflection

After you have been exposed to the course content and done reading, online research and have engaged in discussion, in what ways have your initial reflections changed? Remained the same? Why? What new evidence or ideas do you have to support your position?


In what way are humans all the same? In what ways are we different? How do these similarities and differences affect our various human cultures?

I was surprised to learn that even back in the 16th century, art was heavily influenced by politics. The historical context and the events of the past with which I have familiarized myself throughout this course added an extra dimension of meaning to the paintings analyzed. I cannot say if the Catholic Church was in the right to manipulate the public through artistic media. However, regardless of what agenda the artists followed in the past, they left a compelling legacy that we are fortunate to enjoy today.

Works Cited

De la Torre, Renée. “Ultra-Baroque Catholicism: Multiplied Images and Decentered Religious Symbols.” Social Compass, vol. 63, no. 2, 2016, pp. 181-196.

Justi, Carl. Velázquez and His Times. Parkstone International, 2016.

Puglisi, Catherine. “Talking Pictures: Sound in Caravaggio’s Art.” Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions, edited by Lorenzo Pericolo and David M. Stone, Ashgate Publishing, 2014, pp. 105-122.

Sauerlander, Willibald. The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs. Getty Publications, 2014.

Viladesau, Richard. The Pathos of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts-The Baroque Era. OUP USA, 2014.

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