The tremendous diversity of Baroque art
A small sample of artworks showcases the astonishing diversity that characterizes what we now know as “Baroque” art.
A beam of light falls dramatically over a group of dashing rogues in Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew. In Miguel Cabrera’s Virgin of the Apocalypse, an oversized Virgin Mary steps triumphantly over a dragon, creating a dynamic diagonal effect. Luisa Roldán’s Jesus of Nazareth awes the viewer with its astoundingly realistic likeness.
The ecstasy of Bernini’s Saint Teresa unravels theatrically in a rapture of folds and ascending movement. A façade of symmetrical, repetitive elements imposes with its restrained classicism at Versailles. Two connected ovals and their undulating walls test the limits of formal experimentation at José Pereira dos Santos’s Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks in Ouro Preto (Brazil).
The ceiling of the Church of the Gesù in Rome opens up into an apotheosis of limitless otherworldly heavens, and the altar of the Church of Santa Prisca and San Sebastian in Mexico compulsively merges disparate forms into a horror vacui of “ornamental fervor.” 
While the Greek philosopher Aristotle introspectively contemplates a bust of Homer in Rembrandt’s Aristotle, the likeness of Dutch painter Judith Leyster greets the viewer with vibrant immediacy in her self-portrait. Members of the Spanish court make reality enter fiction in Velázquez’s Las Meninas.
“Baroque” is here understood as the art produced through the 17th and much of the 18th centuries in a broad range of geographies across the globe. But what do all these disparate works have in common? What does “Baroque” mean? And can we speak of it as being global?
Baroque: limitations and possibilities of an art historical concept
The “Baroque” is one of the most disputed styles of art history, and the history of the term is just as convoluted as the art that it describes. The origins of the term are not entirely clear, but the most accepted (and evocative) theory is that it originated from a term (barrôco in Portuguese, barrueca in Spanish) describing a specific type of irregular pearl: in other words, a natural but artificial-looking, precious but misshapen object. As you probably guessed, when applied to art, the word “Baroque” can connote a certain measure of distortion and imperfection. But this is an inaccurate characterization that assumes a unified style. As shown in the examples above, there are many versions of the so-called Baroque.
Consider the ordinary figures, stark realism, and dramatic tenebrism of Diego Velázquez’s The Waterseller of Seville or Jusepe de Ribera’s Allegory of Taste—prime examples of what is sometimes referred to as “Baroque realism” alongside the “Baroque classicism” of Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, an image set in ancient Greece with quasi-archaeological accuracy.
And now consider the stage quality of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Cathedra Petri—a chair (that of Saint Peter) that appears to float in the air through a combination of painting, sculpture, architecture, glass, and light. It characterizes yet another mode, Bernini’s “Theatrical Baroque” (Bernini was in fact a stage designer). To complicate matters, consider how many works conjoin these various Baroque modes at once: Juan Sánchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber combines the hyper-realistic depiction of fruits and vegetables with the theatricality of staging these objects under dramatic lighting against a dark background, as well as an erudite classical reference: like most Baroque still life painters, Cotán was probably emulating the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, who was known through written accounts for the deceptively illusionistic powers of his paintings.
Like other art historical categories such as Gothic or Romanesque, the notion that there was a Baroque style originated from unsympathetic critics of a later period. More precisely, in the second half of the 18th century, when it started to refer to art of the previous century, the term “Baroque” designated art which was “not in accord with the rules of proportions.”  In the 19th century, it was associated with notions of bizarreness, and then finally became associated with a distorted and degenerate version of Renaissance (or more precisely of Italian Renaissance) art.
For these reasons, some scholars reject the use of Baroque as a valid artistic category: it is anachronistic—people at the time didn’t refer to art of the period as being “Baroque”—and it can carry pejorative connotations. Ultimately, as with almost all such examples of a period style—a label created artificially and after the fact to refer to the defining characteristics of art from a particular historical period—“Baroque” is necessarily reductive.
So, why are we using it here?
Despite its flaws, most scholars have embraced the “Baroque” as a useful category to give coherence to the striking variety of artworks from this period. The most influential scholar was Heinrich Wölfflin, who offered the first positive assessment of the Baroque in his Principles of Art History (1915), though he considered it primarily in the Italian context. To demonstrate that the Baroque was distinct from and just as valuable as the Renaissance, Wölfflin devised an influential comparative formal analysis—much like you might see in an art history class today, with images side-by-side. By closely looking at examples of Renaissance and Baroque art, he concluded that Baroque works were characterized by:
- painterliness—loose brushwork, blurred contours, and color over line;
- expansiveness—the impression that the artwork continues beyond its borders, oftentimes through the use of diagonals; and
- uncertainty—the emphasis on how things appear instead of how they actually are, that is the prioritizing of pictorial effects over legibility of form.
In highlighting these Baroque traits, Wölfflin was implying that tension, contradiction, and even imperfection were valuable forms of artistic expression. To him, this was in opposition to Renaissance linearity (the preference for clearly distinct forms perfectly defined by line), self-containment (the way a work is contained within its frame), and clarity (allows one to clearly distinguish each element in a work at once).
A comparison between Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch from the Renaissance and Peter Paul Rubens’s The Assumption of the Virgin from the Baroque illustrates Wölfflin’s categories. Raphael’s painting emphasizes defining lines, self-contained figures—notice how through her gaze and posture, the Virgin draws the composition inward rather than expanding it beyond the borders of the canvas—and spatial clarity. Rubens’s Assumption, on the other hand, displays painterly brushwork, prominent color, the blurring of contours, dynamic diagonals, and dramatic contrast of light and shadow. It also seems to project outward into the space of the viewer.
Wölfflin’s analysis was far from perfect—for example, he excluded the more restrained and classically inspired works of artists such as Annibale Carracci or Nicolas Poussin because they didn’t fit his idea of the Baroque. More importantly, he was so focused on visual elements that he didn’t pay enough attention to social and cultural factors. Many scholars after Wölfflin addressed these issues: from Erwin Panofsky’s view of the Baroque as a phenomenon unique to Counter-Reformation Italy (the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation), to John Rupert Martin’s definition of the Baroque as a mentality with shared attitudes towards the world.
In Martin’s view, features as distinctive of the Baroque as Naturalism (the imitation of nature) and Psychology (the interest in human passions) are related to developments in science (the direct observation of nature promoted by thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Johannes Kepler) and philosophy (the study of emotions of philosophers such as René Descartes) such as they appear, for example, in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes.
What about art outside of Europe?
However, in their discussions, none of these earlier critics considered art produced outside of Europe. By contrast, in the past few decades, scholars have started to recognize the Baroque as a global phenomenon—some even considering it the first truly global style. Scholars of Latin American art and culture have pointed out that Wölfflin’s recognition of difference and paradox–the tensions, contradictions, and imperfections discussed above–as essential features of Baroque aesthetic is useful to think about the Baroque in all its global diversity and complexity (even though applying a European category to the rest of the world is also problematic). For example, consider the church of San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas in Peru, which features a combination of European, Islamic, and Indigenous Andean elements. In a way, such a work defies categorization. But it also embodies quite neatly the Baroque elements of difference and paradox singled out by Wölfflin.
Some scholars have even embraced the Baroque ahistorically—that is, suggesting that we can find a Baroque aesthetic across any time and space—but most recognize it as an array of styles that developed around the globe in a specific time period (c. 1585–1750) from very specific historical conditions—including the Counter-Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the consolidation of absolutism, the rise of capitalism, the expansion of colonization—through which European countries exerted control over Indigenous populations—and globalization.
What did it mean to be global in the Baroque?
In the 17th and 18th centuries, globalization meant connectedness across distant geographies, but not that every part of the globe was connected to each other. Rather, there were specific pathways shaped by the contours of religion, colonization, and trade, which themselves were closely linked. For example, the establishment of Portuguese colonies in India since the early 16th century facilitated the presence of religious missionaries such as the Jesuits, who in turn employed Hindu carvers to build extraordinary churches such as São Paulo in Diu, India.
The Jesuits were also largely responsible for the dissemination of European prints that were used as models for religious images in colonial contexts. But those who were forced into religious and artistic models were by no means passive receptors. Rather, they were active contributors who creatively transformed those models, forging, in turn, completely new and original versions of the Baroque.
For example, consider how Miguel González and/or Juan González’s The Assumption of the Virgin, one of the many Latin American works related to prints after the painting by Rubens of the same subject, transforms the European model into something distinct and unexpected through the use of mother-of-pearl inlay enconchado, an artistic technique which reflects both a longstanding tradition of Indigenous peoples in Mexico and Japanese namban lacquer work, and that through its shimmering effect emphasizes the divinity of the subject. 
In case you are wondering, knowledge of Japanese traditions such as lacquerware in Mexico was possible through the effect of global trade. Although wide geographical networks had existed before, what made the Baroque truly globe-encompassing was not only the inclusion of new continents such as the Americas to the mix, but also the establishment of trade routes and chartered companies in which imperial powers systematically promoted and monopolized the exchange of goods.
- the India Run (the voyage made by the Portuguese between Lisbon and Goa, on the southwestern coast of India. from the 16th to the 19th centuries)
- the Manila Galleon (maintained by Spain between 1565–1815 to bring Asian goods—including the Japanese lacquer works that Mexican artists embraced in enconchado paintings such as the one mentioned above—across the North Pacific from Manila in the Philippines to Acapulco in New Spain, now Mexico),
- and the Dutch East and West India Companies (VOC and GWC), which monopolized trade with Eurasia and Southern Africa and with West Africa and the Americas, respectively, during much of the 17th and 18th centuries.
These routes and companies moved exotic luxury objects such as Indian and Chinese fabrics, lacquer furniture, ivory figurines, porcelain, and spices across all the known continents. But most were also involved in the slave trade, adding a brutal aspect to this early modern globalization in the thousands of Africans who were forced into slavery in Europe and the Americas.
The wealth of materials, techniques, and especially the countless artists, artisans, and craftsmen of various origins who contributed to the creation of this global Baroque can’t be overestimated. Think about how the desire for Chinese porcelain in the Dutch Republic drove the production of delftware (illustrated earlier), a domestic version of the coveted ware (and in turn how the Chinese created new types of ceramics for European markets), or how the “perfect red” attained with American cochineal dye became the color of royalty and nobility across Europe and the Americas.
Now consider the painstakingly rendered reflections bouncing off the Chinese vase in Jan Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Necklace (shown earlier), the objects from across the globe set on display in Antonio de Pereda’s Still Life with Ebony Chest; or the diaphanous muslins from Cambay (India) in Josefa de Óbidos’ Christ Child as Salvator Mundi.
Even more, think about objects as uniquely global as the Biombo with the Siege of Belgrade (front) and Hunting Scene (reverse) (known as the Brooklyn Biombo, shown below), created in the circle of the González family. This luxurious object, commissioned in Mexico City by the viceroy of New Spain and probably displayed in the viceregal palace, is a reinterpretation of the Japanese folding screen or byōbu, with designs based on various European sources–including Dutch etchings and tapestry designs, and inlaid mother-of-pearl enconchado inspired by pre-contact Mexican and Japanese techniques.
Repressive or liberating?
The inlaid mother-of-pearl of the Brooklyn Biombo painting leads us back to the Baroque pearl metaphor mentioned earlier. The infamous pearl is particularly poignant to discussions of the global Baroque when we consider what these jewels meant in the early modern world and the many frictions involved in their transatlantic trade. Although pearls had been available and treasured as jewels in Europe for thousands of years, it was after Christopher Columbus’s voyages into the Caribbean (between 1492 and 1502), sponsored by the Spanish Catholic Monarchs, that pearls became emblematic of overseas imperial wealth. Such wealth involved the exploitation of pearl fisheries in the region through an enslaved labor force—first of Indigenous peoples, and later of Africans forcibly brought to the continent for that purpose. To twist the metaphor of the baroque pearl even further, we should add that the wonder, exuberance, and opulence that characterizes so many examples of the global Baroque often originated from violence, force, and coercion. Paradoxically, this violent global world witnessed artists of African descent, such as the painters Juan de Pareja and Juan Correa and the architect Antonio Francisco Lisboa (known as Aleijadinho), thriving as professional artists in Spain, Mexico, and Brazil, respectively.
We can’t deny that one strand of the global Baroque is its Catholic, monarchical, and colonizing nature, but this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t room for artistic individuality, experimentation, or even dissent. Like the beautiful, unconventional, mutable forms and porous surfaces of the Baroque pearl, the forms and surfaces of Baroque artworks from across the globe reflect the Baroque styles’ countless permutations, as well as the overlapping histories and cultural encounters of those who created and enjoyed them.
Notes: Robert Harbison, Reflections on Baroque (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 127.  Helen Hills, “The Baroque: The Grit in the Oyster of Art History,” in Helen Hills, ed. Rethinking the Baroque (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), p. 12.  As Aaron Hyman has recently noted, while bearing an unmistakable resemblance to Rubens’ “original” painting, we should also consider how such a work may have been in dialogue with the many other colonial versions of the Rubens that already existed, forcing us to reconsider the primacy of the European model and the meaning of (baroque) originality. Rubens in Repeat: The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2021), pp. 6–10.
Gauvin A. Bailey, Baroque and Rococo (London; New York, NY: Phaidon, 2012)
Timothy J. Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2009)
Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello, “The Global Lives of Things: Material Culture in the First Global Age.” In Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello eds., The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (Routledge, 2015), pp. 1–28.
Byron Hamman, “Interventions: The Mirrors of Las Meninas: Cochineal, Silver, and Clay.” The Art Bulletin vol. 92, issues 1/2 (2010), pp. 6–35.
Robert Harbison, Reflections on Baroque (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)
Helen Hills, “The Baroque: The Grit in the Oyster of Art History.” In Helen Hills, ed. Rethinking the Baroque (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 11–36.
Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, “Introduction to the Spanish Viceroyalties in the Americas” in Smarthistory, February 1, 2017, accessed January 6, 2022.
Aaron Hyman, Rubens in Repeat: The Logic of the Copy in Colonial Latin America (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2021)
José Antonio Maravall, Culture of the Baroque: Analysis of a Historical Structure (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986)
John Rupert Martin, Baroque (New York: Harper & Row, 1977)
Vernon Hyde Minor, Baroque and Rococo: Art and Culture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999)
Erwin Panofsky, Three Essays on Style (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995)
Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup, “Baroque, New World Baroque, Neobaroque: Categories and Concepts.” In Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup, eds. Baroque New Worlds: Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 1–35.
Molly A Warsh, American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492–1700 (Williamsburg, Virginia: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018)
Thijs Weststeijn, “Cultural Reflections on Porcelain in the Seventeenth-Century Netherlands,” in J. van Campen and T. Eliens, eds. Chinese and Japanese Porcelain for the Dutch Golden Age (Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 2014), pp. 213–229, 265–268.
Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art (New York: Dover Publications, 1950, ©1932)