In each period of art history, there is a story. For Baroque art, the story is why the period has been classically misunderstood. In the early 1600s, artists and intellectuals worked in academies to explore humanism begun in the Renaissance, classical thought (i.e. Plato and Aristotle), and new trends in human thought and expression. But why does the word “Baroque” have a negative history? The original translations of this word include Italian for “tortuous medieval pedantry” and Portuguese for “deformed pearl” (Honour and Fleming). In other accounts, Baroque is associated with strange, bizarre, and spectacle.

The biggest contributions to Baroque art were made by its greatest sculptor, Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Born the son of an Italian sculptor, Pietro, he worked with his father and produced a bust at the age of ten. He was a child prodigy much like Dali and Michelangelo. Bernini enjoyed immense popularity and networked with the powerful elite of Europe, contributing important works of architecture and sculpture, especially for the Church. For example, Pope Urban VIII hired him at age 26 to craft the Baldacchino (1624-1633), a 95-foot high canopy decorating the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. This exquisite bronze work can still be viewed on a Vatican tour.

Writing at the end of the 19th century, Johann Georg Heck recalled the famous quote—“It would have been better for sculpture had Bernini never lived.” The controversy of this period is reflected in Bernini’s outrageous departure from the Renaissance. In a marble statue, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645-1652), Bernini revived a Catholic theme with his own interpretation. Here is Vernon Hyde Minor’s description of the artist’s portrayal of divine mysticism:

“For Bernini and the Baroque, mysticism was not just an inward and hidden experience, but one that involved a direct intuition of the divine, one so clear and palpable that it could be described with vivid language and concrete, visual forms.”

In the Baroque period (1600-1790), artists continued religious and secular themes in portraits, paintings, busts, church ceilings, churches, sculptures, and other works. Realism abounds in Baroque figures, combining realism with spectacle and fierce independence. Great artists included Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), his assistant, Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), and Simon Vouet (1590-1649).

The outright, provoking sexuality in Baroque art is not only found in The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Other Baroque artists also sought to captivate audiences. Peter Paul Rubens captured voluptuous women on canvas in The Rape of Lucretia (1610) and The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1616-1617). Anthony van Dyck captured the muscles and sinews of the male form in The Mocking of the Christ (1620). Interestingly, Rubens owned this painting until his death in 1640.

The Baroque period offers deep perceptual experiences through vivid realism and symbolism. From Bernini’s diagonals to the soaring churches of Europe and the New World, Baroque challenges the idea that this period is best described as Early Modern.