What is Baroque? How do you define Baroque? Have you ever looked at something and referred to it as Baroque? It’s a peculiar word that has meant different things over time. Started in the 17th century as an art movement promoted by the Catholic Church in Europe, Baroque is also used as an individual word to refer to art that is overly extravagant, among other things. We will go over the original definition and meaning of Baroque, along with notable examples from painting, sculpture, and architecture. We will also cover the theories and questions that surround Baroque as it pertains to cinema.
An intro to the Baroque period
Our Baroque definition is going to cover the traditional movement, as well as mention the more modern meanings associated with the word.
What is Baroque?
The Baroque is an art style that was dominant in Europe during the 16th and 17th century. It could be found in painting, architecture, sculpture, music, and other art forms. Baroque era art works emphasized movement, contrast, and detail, often seen in religious works which made up the period. Baroque (the word) is also used to refer to things as “grotesque,” “extravagant,” or “flamboyant.” The combination of the art period and this somewhat informal definition is what leads to theories of Baroque cinema.
Baroque art characteristics include:
- Religious and contemporary themes
- Emphasis on movement and contrast
- Ornate and decorative details to “shock and awe”
Examples from the Baroque Period
The Baroque Period produced a wealth of art from different European countries, all with their own unique spin. Much of this can be found in architecture, with Baroque inspired buildings still standing across the continent. A famous example of Italian Baroque architecture can be found in Rome with St. Peter’s Square by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Another famous Italian example comes in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which contains a number of Baroque sculptures within. This includes the Baldachin altar by Bernini, which uses spirals and Christian iconography to present a grand and upward presence to those worshiping below.
Speaking of architecture doubling as sculpture, there are plenty of famous sculptures of the Baroque period.
The most famous is likely The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, also by Bernini, which depicts an angel about to pierce Teresa of Ávila.
However, the art form from the Baroque period that probably has the most exposure and notoriety are Baroque paintings. This is where the visual contrast of the era shines, as many famous Baroque paintings have darkness as a defining feature.
Baroque paintings also contain the usual movement and religious themes; extravagance (as seen in sculptures) is sometimes downplayed, though a sense of awe is often present.
Three of the most famous Baroque painters are Rembrandt van Rijn, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and Diego Velázquez.
Rembrandt’s most famous painting is commonly known as The Night Watch, which has a lot going on and is a premiere example of portraying movement. It is also very large, which no doubt plays into its sense of awe and grandiosity when seen in person.
Caravaggio’s paintings often emphasized darkness and shadows, which can be seen in many of his art works. But of course, many of his paintings are also religious in nature.
It then might be fitting that one of his all time classics is The Calling of Saint Matthew, which was commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel inside the San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome; it, along with The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, are still there today.
While obviously a dark painting, the careful use of lighting, along with the simple gesture of Jesus pointing at Matthew, are part of what make the painting a masterpiece of the Baroque period.
It should also be noted that the group of men at the table (where Matthew is seated) are dressed in contemporary clothing.
Velázquez is responsible for a painting so famous that Pablo Picaso made his own version of it: Las Meninas.
Featuring Velázquez himself (as a painter), it presents a royal Spanish court, with Margaret Thersa of Spain highlighted near the middle.
With a darkened background and bright foreground, Las Meninas continues to be among the most famous paintings of all time, with centuries of praise and analysis following it.
Baroque in Cinema
While classical ideas of Baroque can be found in film, there exists a theory that goes by the name Neo-Baroque. While in-depth analysis has been written using this term and covering this theory, the straight-forward explanation is that Neo-Baroque (as well as just Baroque) in cinema refers to movies that exhibit large scale flash and visual splendor.
A variety of contemporary films can claim to have a Baroque style, with one analysis by Angela Ndalianis looking at the Jurassic Park franchise, due to its emphasis on spectacle. This analysis looks not only at the 1993 film, but also the theme park attraction and video games that came from it.
To put it another way, Jurassic Park is a series that, above all, presents spectacle, and that is reinforced in other media tied to it.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is another example, as most, if not all, of the films present larger than life characters doing larger than life things. It can be said that the films downplay narrative in order to present pretty visuals that seek to entertain.
In another view, the MCU hinges on spectacle and over-the-top heroics in order to be successful entertainment. The same can be said for films by Michael Bay, where spectacle and thrills often take precedence over everything else, to the point of (intentional?) incoherence.
Every Frame a Painting covers his directing style (popularly referred to as Bayhem) in the video below.
Similar to the MCU, James Cameron’s Avatar series can be said to intentionally emphasize visual effects to the point where it’s the most important element to the films.
Many people have derided the franchise (or at least the first film) for having a familiar plot that’s been seen in other films, like Disney’s Pocahontas. Despite that, Avatar (2009) still went on to gross over $2 billion; it can be said that it got there off of its incredible VFX alone. And now its sequel, The Way of Water, is on its way to also making a boatload of money for similar reasons.
If we are to look at the theories around Baroque/Neo-Baroque and cinema, we can say that many popular and successful films in the 21st century are prime examples. However, there are also theories that claim that film is inherently Baroque due to always relying on spectacle, going all the way back to the creation of cinema. At the end of day it’s a theory and it’s up to you to decide how much stock you want to put into it.
Explore More Styles and Movements
This was just one of many fascinating segments of art history. There are many eras, styles, artists, and movements to discover. Let's continue our study by choosing the next stop on your way to becoming an art aficionado. Below you can visit our Art Styles Index, our Art History Timeline, or choose an individual movement.