How to recognize Baroque art

Painted and sculpted bodies move into our space. Everything feels like it’s in motion, including the light.

A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris about how to recognize Baroque art

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] How can you look at a painting or sculpture and know that it was made during the period that we call the Baroque?

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] How do you recognize the Baroque style? Let’s start by looking at this very important sculpture by Bernini of the Biblical story of David, who defeats the giant Goliath.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] I’m standing in front of this sculpture, and I want to duck. This man is about to launch a rock.

Dr. Harris: [0:28] He’s giving this every ounce of energy he’s got.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] Look at his eyebrows, the way they’re knit together. Look at the way that he’s biting his lips. The artist is observing the human body, understands all of the naturalistic lessons that had been gained during the Renaissance, but is putting them towards an intense emotionalism.

Dr. Harris: [0:46] This is a position of the body that could only be like this for a split second.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] The body itself has broken with the stability that had been so characteristic of the Renaissance. Bernini’s body is wound up and is about to release its energy. He’s like a spring that’s taut. You’re right, his body could never hold this position for more than a moment.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] We see a diagonal.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] It’s not just straight diagonals, these are interrelated arcing diagonals. There is this tremendous energy that’s not only the result of the representation of his body, but it’s the very forms and lines that the artist is creating in stone.

Dr. Harris: [1:24] That’s part of the way that the figure involves us. It moves into our space. With Michelangelo’s David, we maintain a polite distance. Its ideal beauty is there for us to contemplate, but Baroque art does something different. Instead of appealing to our minds, it appeals to our bodies.

Dr. Zucker: [1:44] It appeals to our emotions.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] Michelangelo’s David looks like a god.

Dr. Zucker: [1:48] Michelangelo is largely unwilling to sacrifice the pure linear qualities of his figure. Notice the way in which the line of his body is almost unobstructed, whereas Bernini is absolutely willing to cross his body with his arms, with all of those diagonals that energize, but also move away from that notion of the ideal.

[2:09] There’s another important aspect that the complexity of Bernini’s composition enables, and that is a greater set of contrasts between light and dark. Michelangelo’s David, because he is so planar, the marble is all available to the light, so you don’t get deep shadow.

[2:26] With Bernini, because the form is crossing itself, you get these contrasts between highlights and shadows that further activate the sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [2:34] How do we see this in painting?

Dr. Zucker: [2:36] One of the great examples is to look at the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio.

Dr. Harris: [2:40] This is an amazing painting and incredibly powerful, very much like Bernini’s David. We’re confronted with something very close to us. Here is Saint Peter, who asked to be crucified upside-down because he said he wasn’t worthy to die the way that Christ had died.

[2:57] Here we see Peter nailed to the cross. The bottom of the cross almost feels like it’s so close that we could touch it. So the same way that Bernini’s David moved into our space, Caravaggio is using foreshortening.

Dr. Zucker: [3:10] It also creates an incredible sense of instability. Look at the way that that cross is just being raised up, and we’re not sure that the massiveness of Peter and of the lumber is too heavy, whether or not he may fall with a giant thud. That everything feels contingent and in motion.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] Here we have the diagonal of the cross, but also another diagonal formed by the back of the figure who’s helping to raise the cross and the figure underneath who’s raising it with his back. We have crisscrossing diagonals, which is also a very common feature of Baroque art.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] It’s interesting to compare this to the Bernini sculpture because Bernini was working in the round. Here, the artist is creating an illusion of form, of mass, and one of the ways he’s able to do that is to create the sharp contrast between light and shadow, which, just like the Bernini sculpture, is creating a sense of vividness and energy.

[4:02] We’ve got this dark background and these brilliantly highlighted figures creating this sense of veracity, that we could reach out and touch them.

Dr. Harris: [4:11] The whole thing about Renaissance painting was there was an illusion of space: there was architecture, there was landscape behind the figures. But here Caravaggio gives us darkness, that everything is pushed to the foreground.

Dr. Zucker: [4:22] So it’s emotional. It’s intimate. It feels real. It feels immediate.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] It gets to us in our bodies. Look at how close Peter’s feet are. And we can see the nails that have been driven through his feet. We can see the nails in his hand. There’s an interest in making us emotionally involved, even in the violence here.

Dr. Zucker: [4:43] I’m interested in the way that the center of gravity has been shifted. It is being raised up so that there is this instability.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] A way to drive this point home is just to compare this to a painting by Raphael, from the High Renaissance, where we have an emphasis on stability and balance. The figures in this painting by Raphael are in the shape of a pyramid, which is the most stable of forms.

[5:06] There’s a clear light on the figures. They’re situated within this three-dimensional space. We can move from foreground to middle ground to deep background.

Dr. Zucker: [5:15] Raphael is enjoying the opportunity to give us as much information as he can, not only about the three figures in the foreground but about the natural world beyond them, whereas Caravaggio is being much more careful about what we’re going to focus on.

Dr. Harris: [5:30] Look at that beautiful face of the Madonna. She’s not a particular person. She is the divine mother of God.

Dr. Zucker: [5:37] Peter is an actual individual that we’re seeing. This is a particular man at a particular point in his life.

Dr. Harris: [5:43] There’s dirt and clothes that are disheveled. This is much more of the real world than we ever see in the High Renaissance.

Dr. Zucker: [5:51] All of the art that we’ve looked at has been Italian. Can we see these same characteristics in art that’s being produced north of the Alps?

Dr. Harris: [5:58] We can certainly see it in the art of Reubens. If we looked at Reubens’ “Raising of the Cross,” we would see a diagonal, we would see dramatic contrasts of light and dark.

Dr. Zucker: [6:07] What if we were looking at artists who lived in a Protestant context?

Dr. Harris: [6:11] A lot of the characteristics we’ve been describing, these are characteristics that we associate with Catholic Baroque art that sought to energize believers. In Holland, we’re looking at paintings that are very different than the altarpieces from Catholic Europe. That’s because we’re in a Protestant country, where artists are no longer commissioned to paint altarpieces for the Church.

[6:31] Let’s take something that seems like the opposite of the Baroque art we’ve been talking about. Let’s take Vermeer’s “Woman with A Water Pitcher.”

Dr. Zucker: [6:38] Instead of seeing a Biblical scene, we’re seeing a common domestic scene, a wealthy woman in her home in the north of Europe.

Dr. Harris: [6:45] What makes this Baroque?

Dr. Zucker: [6:47] Everything in this painting is quiet. The light has a subtlety to it that is very different from the drama and violence of the light that we saw in Caravaggio. Instead, the artist seems to be in love with the very subtle modulation of light, the very subtle gradations of tone. Look especially at the way that the light filters through her headdress.

Dr. Harris: [7:08] Or under her right arm as she opens that window.

Dr. Zucker: [7:12] We see a woman surrounded by rectilinear forms: the rectangle of the window, the map on the upper right, the rectangle of the table to the lower right. She inhabits that space between, but she’s moving and resisting the stability and geometry that is set up by the environment around her.

Dr. Harris: [7:31] She’s picking up or putting down the pitcher, opening the window. This caught moment in-between. Even the light has a sense of being in-between, of the light coming in from the outside of the light in the interior, and that interest in light is key to Baroque art, whether it’s Caravaggio’s drama or the subtlety of light in Vermeer.

Dr. Zucker: [7:54] This is a painting that is about subtle transition. Whether or not it’s the subtle transition of the light or the subtle transition of her attention from the basin and pitcher to the window.

Dr. Harris: [8:05] We are close to her. We feel as though we could reach out and feel that rug that covers the table. That closeness that we saw in Caravaggio and Bernini is still here.

Dr. Zucker: [8:17] Let’s move through all of these different types of paintings. How do we recognize the Baroque in 17th-century Dutch landscape?

Dr. Harris: [8:23] Here is Ruisdael’s beautiful painting of the bleaching grounds. Notice it’s not an ideal landscape. This is the landscape of Ruisdael’s hometown of Haarlem.

Dr. Zucker: [8:33] We call this a landscape, but this is really about those clouds. Look at those huge, voluminous forms that are moving across that sky. I can see them forming and un-forming before my very eyes. This is still about transition.

[8:47] Look at the way that those clouds cast shadows that create these alternating fields across the land below.

Dr. Harris: [8:53] Baroque art is about time. It’s about effects of light, whether that’s dramatic or more subtle. It’s about involving the viewer, of moving into our space, of breaking down the barrier between us and the work of art. It’s about the use of the diagonal, of a sense of energy and drama, sometimes subtle drama, but still drama.

Dr. Zucker: [9:15] For me, it’s always about a sense of direct relationship with the subject.

[9:19] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "How to recognize Baroque art," in Smarthistory, May 10, 2016, accessed June 13, 2024,