Art History - Boroque Art

  • Chapter Twenty-three – Northern Europe and Spain

Lesson Objectives

  • Identify the formal and iconographic characteristics of 16th-century art in Northern Europe and Spain
  • Describe Dürer's art theory and its impact on his work
  • Explain how 16th-century Northern European art reflects the principles of the Protestant Reformation
  • Describe how 16th-century Spanish art embodies the principles of the Catholic Counter-Reformation
  • Consider how patrons employed art and architecture in the 16th century
  • Explain the influence of Italian Renaissance and Mannerist art in Northern Europe and Spain
  • Discuss the history, processes, and functions of prints in Northern Europe


I. The Holy Roman Empire

The Protestant Reformation and the ideas espoused by Martin Luther and other reformists had a profound effect on artistic production. Luther argued that the Bible, not Church tradition, was the only legitimate authority and he rejected all sacraments but baptism and communion. Luther also argued that salvation came only from God, not from pious works on behalf of the church, which left artists without a regular supply of patrons seeking salvation through expensive altarpieces. Likewise, although Luther did not prohibit religious art, he and other reformers objected to the idolatry they perceived in Catholic art; they considered altarpieces and frescoes to be distractions from the word of God. This led to iconoclastic rebellions and Protestant churches denuded of ornament. Northern European artists consequently saw the ecclesiastical market for their art drastically reduced as well. Protestants embraced prints as devotional aids and didactic tools. Woodcuts like Lucas Cranach's Allegory of Law and Grace presented illustrations of the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism.

The Holy Roman Empire was a battleground in the religious struggles of the Reformation. Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece is an example of Catholic art created in Germany before the region embraced Protestantism. The altarpiece, created for a church located next to a monastery hospital, presents an array of scenes from the Life and Death of Christ as well as saints associated with the plague. The paintings are fearsome and graphic, and the altarpiece warned patients and clergy to live devout lives. Albrecht Dürer, on the other hand, displayed Protestant ideas in his woodcut of the Last Supper. Christ and the apostles sit beside a humble table that displays only wine and bread, referring to the communion's commemoration, not symbolic reenactment, of the Last Supper. The print, which displays Dürer's masterful command of the linear medium, also emphasizes community and avoids references to Christ's sacrifice. Dürer's Four Apostles similarly represent Luther's ideas about Christianity, privileging the word of God over the hierarchy and traditions of the Catholic Church.

Dürer's art is also significant for bringing Italian Renaissance ideas about figures and illusionism to Northern Europe. Dürer wrote a treatise on proportion and illustrated his ideas about ideal human forms in the engraving Fall of Man. The classically-proportioned figures exist in a setting derived from Dürer's observation of nature, as the artist promoted sight as the noblest sense. He applied the same combination of Italian and Northern ideas in Knight, Death, and the Devil, one of four master engravings that helped bring new esteem to printmaking.

Hans Holbein's art similarly displays a combination of Northern realism and monumental Italian-influenced figures. The German artist, who spent much of his career painting in England to avoid religious upheaval in his homeland, is known for his linear patterns, highly realistic portraiture, and his masterful use of color. Holbein's The French Ambassadors, displays the artist's polished technique and his use of complex symbolism, such as the anamorphic death's head in the foreground.

II. France

French king Francois I brought Italian artists to Italy to raise his country's cultural sophistication. The French king liked Italian Mannerist art and brought Rosso Fiorentino and Benvenuto Cellini to France to decorate his palaces. Rosso and Primaticcio outfitted the palace at Fountainebleau with an explosion of painted and stucco figures that display Mannerist characteristics of elongated figures, spatial ambiguities, and stylized elegance.

French 16th-century architecture combines ideas from the Italian Renaissance with French architectural traditions. Francois I's Chateau de Chambord, for example, features an elevation inspired by Italian palazzo alongside corner towers and a steep roofline from local traditions. The redesigned Louvre, on the other hand, reflects greater French interest in classical architecture. Its elevation reflects the influence of Bramante's architecture, with a strong visual base and lighter upper stories. The projecting pavilions on the corners, the double-columns flanking niches, and the steep roof, however, reflect French tastes.

III. The Netherlands

Netherlandish 16th-century art privileges genre, since Protestant patrons no longer commissioned religious works for their homes and churches. Merchant collectors favored moralizing paintings of secular themes, such as Quinten Massys's Money-Changer and his Wife with its descriptive detail and moralistic message of spiritual and material balance. Viewers similarly found allegorical messages in Pieter Aertsen's Meat Still-Life and its reminder of spiritual well-being. Netherlandish artists also produced many portraits, some by women artists, to satisfy their middle-class patrons.

Pieter Bruegel's paintings emphasize human activity in rustic landscapes and he rejected classical themes in favor of common human events and moralizing proverbs. His realistic Hunters in the Snow shows a dignified group of men returning to their humble village. His Netherlandish Proverbs reflects the Netherlandish obsession with moralizing proverbs.

IV. Spain

Spain was a fervently Catholic country in the 16th century. Charles V's palace at the Alhambra employs a classicizing style influenced by Bramante. The king likely chose this style to symbolize European conquest of the former Moorish seat of power. Philip II's Escorial similarly employs a stark classicizing vocabulary for this monastery and royal residence. The simplicity and severity of the facades reflects the regularity of the plan, which is said to be based on Saint Lawrence's instrument of martyrdom, the gridiron.

El Greco is the best known Spanish 16th-century painter despite not being Spanish. The Greek painter came to Toledo via Venice and Rome, and brought a unique combination of Byzantine, Venetian, and Roman ideas with him. His idiosyncratic Mannerist style, characterized by elongated figures, undefined spaces, and rich colors, appealed to the piety of Toledo's citizens. El Greco's otherworldly art captured the fervent Catholicism of Spain with his forceful and expressive Catholic figures.





  • Chapter 24: Italy and Spain, 1600 to 1700

Lesson Objectives

  • Identify the formal and iconographic characteristics of 17th-century art and architecture
  • Understand the diversity of forms and iconography in 17th-century art and architecture
  • Discuss the significance of social and political events in the production and use of art and architecture
  • Explain how absolutist rhetoric is embodied in examples of 17th-century art and architecture
  • Describe the influence the Catholic Counter Reformation exerted on 17th-century art and architecture
  • Explain the significance of the classical tradition in examples of 17th-century art and architecture
  • Analyze the shifting status of artists and architects in the 17th century


I. Italy

Much Italian art in the 17th century embodies the mission of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Italian architects employed dynamic and theatrical effects as propaganda designed to restore the preeminence of the Catholic Church and to persuade the viewer to piety. Architects achieved this dynamism by treating their structures as much like sculpture as architecture, with classical architectural elements used for expressive effect. Maderno's façade of Santa Susanna, for example, has a focal point located on the building's vertical central axis. The engaged columns, pilasters, niches, and pediments create a rhythm of projecting and receding elements that appear in highest relief at the central portal. Bernini's piazza at St. Peter's likewise seeks theatrical visual effects from classical architectural elements, embracing the visitor in its two trapezoidal and elliptical colonnades, and communicating the grandeur of the Catholic Church. Inside St. Peter's, Bernini's Baldacchino employs spiral columns and a bronze canopy to mark the site of Peter's grave, to identify the high altar, and to frame the view of the dazzling Cathedra Petri. Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane represents the epitome of the sculptural treatment of Baroque architecture. Its complicated plan and coffered dome likewise represent the unification of interlocking geometric shapes and the illusionistic effects employed by Italian Baroque architects.

Bernini's David exemplifies Italian 17th-century sculpture, emphasizing emotion, time, and movement through space. The sculptor's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa captures the mystical drama of the saint's experience and uses sculpture, architecture, and painting to create a properly theatrical setting for the event. The saint and angel seem to hover within a cloud illuminated by rays of divine light bursting from the proscenium at the back of the chapel. Like his architecture, Bernini's sculpture draws the viewer in and employs theater as an effective tool of the Catholic Counter Reformation.

Italy's 17th-century painting was more diverse than its sculpture. Caravaggio, working at the beginning of the century, employed stark realism, tenebrist lighting, and common settings for his religious scenes. He populated his paintings, such as Entombment, with plebian figures who project from darkened backgrounds seemingly illuminated only by divine light. Foreshortening and a familiar naturalism draw the viewer into the scene, which supports the Counter Reformation goal of persuading viewers to piety. The Caravaggisti like Artemisia Gentileschi similarly employed tenebrism and dark subjects for extreme dramatic effect. Annibale Carracci, on the other hand, returned to the principles of classical art and the style of the High Renaissance masters in Loves of the Gods and other paintings. His academic approach employed idealized figures, descriptive lighting, and pastoral settings to communicate religious and mythological themes. Guido Reni practiced the Carracci academic method in his fresco Aurora, filling the quadro riportato with figures derived from Raphael and ancient Roman reliefs. Cortona, Gaulli, and Pozzo departed from the restrained classicism of Carracci and Reni, opting for illusionistic frescoes that transformed their secular and sacred imagery into majestic theater. They employed illusionistic painted architecture to transform the architectural setting into a glimpse of heaven and to allow the viewer to witness heavenly events.

II. Spain

Spanish 17th-century art reflects the peninsula's fervent piety. Artists responded to the Catholic Counter Reformation and the recommendations of the Council of Trent by painting scenes of religious martyrs designed to move the viewer. Ribera's Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, for example, employs a shocking realism akin to that found in Caravaggio's art. Zurbarán's Saint Serapion is a quieter study of self-sacrifice that privileges contemplation over emotion. Velázquez, Spain's most famous 17th-century artist, began his career as a realist painter, painting plebian figures and genre scenes with semi-divine dignity. He soon became court painter to Philip IV in Madrid and used his skill to glorify Spanish achievement, as in Surrender of Breda or the Fraga Philip. Velázquez's Las Meninas presents a visual and narrative complexity not yet fully understood. The artist used the painting to testify to the dignity of his profession and likened himself to Apelles, and Philip IV to Alexander the Great. The painting employs a complex perspectival system that seems to tell of the mystery of vision itself, and his tonal gradations anticipate optical effects discovered centuries later.




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