Baroque Sacred Art Exemplified

6 08 2010

We are now approaching the end of our summer program at the Way of Beauty Atelier at Thomas More College. Part of it was a two-week class in traditional academic drawing taught by Catholic artist, Henry Wingate.

To support the practical work, we drove down to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston one evening in order to look at works of past Masters. Amongst the many wonderful paintings there was one that I had not noticed before that is 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. I was told when we were drawing and painting the figure in Florence to do the same thing so that the emphasis was on the whole person, 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 emphasised 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 through the reduction in the angle of vision allowing the painting as a whole to be taken in, as far as possible, with a single impression. It was noticeable how at this point, the colour and the focus all seemed balanced and natural. 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 Henry Wingate’s drawing class. I should point out that none of these students have drawn using this method before. 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.




6 responses

7 08 2010
Steve Cavanaugh

I’m very impressed by the students’ work! Thanks for sharing this, and the “right” way to view Baroque paintings. I’ll put that to use next time I get to visit MFA.

8 08 2010
Matthew James Collins

Another great post. The only drawback to studying paintings in museums is that we see them removed from their original context. Almost all art before the 20th century was created on a commission basis. Baroque artists(as artists before) were sensitive to the final placement of their work and the total effect of the work and its environment. It would be very interesting to find the original home of this work and study its relationship with the architecture.

Procaccini is a very fine artist, contemporary of Reni. He continued in the mannerist trend and is a good example of how the Baroque visual language exaggerates nature to increase the spiritual and emotional effect. Even though this cannot be considered a 1st class example of 17th century painting, it is much more powerful than any 19th century religious work. Bouguereau’ s Scourging of Christ pales in comparison.

8 08 2010

Hi Matt, thanks again for your thoughts. The point you make about the placement of the art being important did occur to me. To my eye, the picture looks to me as though it might have been once bigger, it seems too closely cropped for the outer figures to be fully comfortable within the composition. This is a possibility, I suppose, but another is that, as you say, the relationships between the shapes within the composition might have been created so that it looked balanced in situ. Other paintings or prominent furnishings closeby often affect our sense of a painting. I’m not sure what the answer is. (A third possibility is that the picture is fine as it is, and I’m the only one to whom it seems not quite right.

9 08 2010
Matthew James Collins

That is a good point. Its true that the painting is very closely cropped. Who knows why. The action becomes more immediate because it would reinforce the frame as ‘window’ and infer that the action continues beyond the frame.

A great example of the ‘in situ’ experience is the Matthew cycle of Carravaggio in Rome.

29 11 2010
Where Should Catholics Go to Learn Icon Painting? « The Way of Beauty

[…] that can be missed if one is not alert to it. (Two short pieces on different aspects of this are here […]

13 12 2010
A 20th-Century Deposition (by artist Carl Schmitt) « The Way of Beauty

[…] The sacred art of baroque of the 17th century (in contrast to 19th century naturalism) always plays down the individual characteristics with skillful use of shadow, depletion of color and variation in focus. This is not to exclude the particular altogether; we must know enough to know who is depicted. It is a question of balance. An example of how a baroque artist described this is given here. […]

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