The age of the baroque is generally dated by historians as lasting from 1600 to 1750. The artistic style spread throughout western Europe, taking on different characteristics as it developed against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Baroque art is usually described as theatrical, emotionally appealing, dynamic, and awe-inspiring. Much baroque art in Italy and other Catholic countries was a direct response to Protestantism.
Martin Luther and his followers had criticized the Roman church for excess pageantry and for propagating the veneration of images. Catholic authorities responded by defending the use of devotional images but decreed that artists should be forced to follow stricter guidelines and create pictures that related biblical events clearly, vividly, and realistically. Such images, they felt, would help nurture piety in believers. Architecture, on the other hand, should celebrate the power of the papacy and its victory over rebellious Protestant sects.
In Italy, the greatest baroque project was the completion of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. This was very much a collaborative project. The famous sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) oversaw the sculptural program of the entire basilica, and he designed the oval colonnaded piazza in front. Carlo Maderno (1556–1629) built the facade. A wide variety of baroque painters executed altarpieces for the interior.
Baroque took a somewhat different direction in Protestant countries such as Holland. There it was used to glorify the young republic, rather than the papacy or ruling monarch. It also led to greater interest in atmospheric effects and human emotion in painting, as can be seen in the work of the two most famous Dutch artists of the seventeenth century, Rembrandt vanRijn (1606–1669) and Jan Vermeer (1632–1675). In Protestant England, the baroque made its mark in the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723), especially in his design for new St. Paul’s Cathedral, built between 1675 and 1710.
In the eighteenth century, the baroque gradually gave way to the more ornate style of the Rococo.
- The term baroque was first used pejoratively in the nineteenth century to criticize the period. Today it is used colloquially to mean “extravagant,” “complex,” or “bizarre.”
- The Italian baroque painter Caravaggio’s The Death of the Virgin caused a scandal when it was first exhibited because the artist depicted Mary with a bloated stomach, something that was considered indecorous for a saint. According to legend, Caravaggio (1500–1534, real name Michelangelo Merisi) used a local prostitute as his model