The Western Humanities: Baroque Art

Continuing with my series based on this book, today I’m taking a look at Baroque art.

“‘Baroque’ is a label for the prevailing cultural style of the seventeenth century.” The term was first used disparagingly by eighteenth century artists and scholars, and likely originated with the Portuguese word “barroco” meaning an imperfect pearl.

The Western Humanities includes two chapters on the Baroque Age, considering art, literature, music, politics, and science. In this post I’ll be focusing on Baroque art, which the authors divide into three styles: Florid, Classical, and Restrained.

The Florid Baroque

The Florid Baroque style is directly related to the Counter-Reformation. During the Council of Trent (1545-1563) Roman Catholic church leaders emphasized the need for “a new art that was geared to the teaching needs of the church and that set forth correct theological ideas easily understood by the masses.” The Florid Baroque is characterized by drama, emotion, power, realism, and theatrical effects. Ecstatic visions of the saints and the sufferings of Jesus were popular themes.

St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is the prime example of Florid Baroque architecture.


Perhaps the best example of Florid Baroque sculpture is The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gianlorenzo Bernini.


Great artists of the Florid Baroque style include Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, Andrea Pozzo, Diego Velazquez, and Peter Paul Rubens.

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio, 1600-1601
Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, ca. 1625
Allegory of the Missionary Work of the Jesuits by Andrea Pozzo, ca. 1621-25
Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, 1656
The Education of Marie de’ Medici by Peter Paul Rubens, 1621-25

The Classical Baroque

In France, where art was guided by the royal court rather than the church, the Classical Baroque exhibited a secular focus and the values of simplicity and dignity.

The foremost example of Classical Baroque architecture is the palace of Versailles, redesigned by Louis La Vau and Jules Hardouin-Mansart for King Louis XIV.


The only Classical Baroque artist covered in The Western Humanities is Nicolas Poussin. “Although he was inspired by Caravaggio’s use of light and dark, the style that Poussin forged was uniquely his own, a detached, almost cold approach to his subject matter and a feeling for the unity of human beings with nature.”

Et in Arcadia Ego by Nicolas Poussin, ca. 1640

The Restrained Baroque

The third (and least ornate) style of Baroque art was shaped by the Protestant culture of northern and western Europe.

The most famous architect of the Restrained Baroque style is Sir Christopher Wren, whose masterpiece is St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

St. Paul's Cathedral, City of London. Exterior, elevated view from south east.

No doubt you’ve heard of at least one of the preeminent Restrained Baroque artists: Rembrandt van Rijn. Two others are Jan Vermeer and Anthony Van Dyke.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt, 1642
The Lacemaker by Jan Vermeer, ca. 1664
Lords John and Bernard Stuart by Anthony Van Dyke, ca. 1639

I hope you enjoyed this whirlwind tour of Baroque art and architecture!

Please comment if you have a topic or time period of Western culture that you’d like me to tackle next.

6 thoughts on “The Western Humanities: Baroque Art

  1. Emily Miller says:

    I didn’t even know (or if I did I forgot) that there were all those different types of Baroque. 🙂 (p.s. the two guys in that last painting… their hair looks like shaggy dogs.)

    1. M.E. Bond
      M.E. Bond says:

      They do look rather silly. I think my favourite of all the featured paintings is The Conversion of Saint Paul.

    1. M.E. Bond
      M.E. Bond says:

      I can’t take credit for choosing which paintings to include, but pictures really do make blog posts more interesting!

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