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Differences between Renaissance and Baroque Art

In the study of art history, comparing two different periods is an important skill! Not only does it help you see how art changes over time, but it helps you to understand how creation is an organic process that takes inspiration from the past. To help illustrate this idea, I’ll be comparing two of the most popular art historical periods: Renaissance and Baroque. So, to learn more, keep on reading!


Before we get started though, let’s refresh our memories on what the Renaissance and Baroque eras were all about. The Renaissance came first, lasting from about 1300-1550. For western Europe, this signaled a “rebirth”, the meaning of the word Renaissance. One of the major reasons for this shift was the fact that the Eastern half of the Roman Empire was conquered by the Ottomans. Many scientists, artists, and scholars fled to the west and brought previously “lost” knowledge with them. In addition, archaeological digs became popular, unearthing classical art for the first time in centuries. Artists like Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo were inspired by these developments and created some of the most famous art in history.

In the mid to late 16th century, a new artistic style began to sweep over Europe. It was called Baroque, meaning “complex” or “different”. (There is some debate on the actual reasoning, but these seem to be the two most popular theories). This period was marked by the Counter-Reformation or when the Catholic Church used art and architecture to reinvigorate itself against the rising Protestant numbers. They hired artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, Bernini, and Velazquez to create art that celebrated this history and miracles of the church in a way that would draw people back to the “true faith”.



Now that we’ve established some background information, let’s dive deeper into the differences between Renaissance and Baroque art. First off, these two styles utilized

completely different techniques of composition. During the Renaissance, the goal was to achieve balance. Every detail was meticulously placed. This can be seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco: The Last Supper. He painted it around 1495 for the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. Christ sits at the center of the table and the vanishing point is directly above his head. On either side, there are six disciples in various states of shock and sadness. Behind the group are three windows, one large and two small, representing the Holy Trinity. Each element of this work is perfectly aligned to create a mathematically pleasing composition.

In sharp contrast to Leonardo’s work is Caravaggio’s painting The Entombment of Christ. This is one of his most famous works and he created it between 1603-04. Today, this painting is in the collection of the Vatican Museums. Caravaggio encompasses the tragedy and drama of the moment by creating a strong diagonal composition. The viewer’s eye is drawn

from Christ’s dead body, to the men placing him into the tomb, and finally to the two Mary’s (his mother and Magdalene) mourn. The scene twists upwards which creates a gradual unveiling of the story.

In essence, Renaissance art used balance to lay the story out on the table (no pun intended) while Baroque art allows the story to unfold slowly as the viewer takes in the piece. This difference can likely be explained by the fact that the Papacy, who commissioned Caravaggio’s work, wanted to remind people of the sacrifices that Christ made on humanity’s behalf. It was a calculated way to bring people back to the “true” faith.



Created in 1507, Raphael’s La Belle Jardinière is a wonderful example of a Renaissance Madonna painting. Although it was commissioned by a Sienese nobleman named Fabrizio

Sergardi, this work now hangs in the Louvre. It features a beautiful young Madonna in a lush landscape. She watches over her son, Jesus, and his cousin, John the Baptist. They are both infants in this depiction, though they still have their iconographic markers.

Throughout the work, there is uniform light. It is soft and warm, speaking to a lovely spring or summer day. It also symbolizes the holiness of the three figures. Their presence casts that light onto humanity itself. Although there are examples of contrasting light in Renaissance art (such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks), they are far less common.

Once again, we are turning to Caravaggio for an examination of Baroque art. This painting is called The Madonna di Loreto and was created between 1604 and 1606. It serves as decoration in the Cavalletti Chapel in the Church of Sant’Agostino in Rome. In this work, the Madonna stands holding the infant Jesus. There is barely any indication of her identity, just a small golden halo. In front of Mary are two pilgrim

s. They have fallen to their knees in worship at the divine figures in front of them. Caravaggio uses light to his advantage to tell the story. The Virgin is partially shrouded by shadow, adding to the mystery of her divinity. Her face is illuminated, allowing the viewer to fully take in her glory. The pilgrims themselves

are partially obscured by the shadow she casts, showing they aren’t supposed to be the focus.

When shown together, the difference in lighting becomes abundantly clear. And, once again, they tell viewers a lot about the motives behind the pieces. In the Renaissance, it was all about classical beauty. The Madonna is fair and handsome, while the two holy infants are plump and adorable. In order to convey this, the lighting had to be perfect and even. But, in the Baroque era, it was all about the story being told. The light was manipulated in such a way that it created a beginning, a middle, and the end. Essentially, it was a restoration of the narrative.



Our final difference between Renaissance and Baroque art is the utilization, or lack thereof, of emotion. And for this, we are turning to sculpture. First up: Michelangelo’s Pieta. This is one of his earliest works, sculpted around 1498-99 and is housed in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pieta is one of the most common themes in art. It shows the Virgin Mary cradling Christ after

he died on the cross. However, despite this tragic moment, in this work, both figures are quite serene. Mary looks down in reverence and Christ could simply be sleeping. Rational calm seems like a strange choice, but when you consider where the statue is placed, it makes more sense. It was meant to be an aid to worship in one of the holiest places in the Catholic world.

Gianlorenzo Bernini, like his predecessor Michelangelo, was often in the employ of the Catholic Church. In fact, they commissioned him to create this piece. It is called the Ecstasy of St. Teresa. He sculpted it for the Cornaro Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome between 1647-52. To say this work is dramatic would be an understatement. From the left, an angel swoops in to pierce St. Teresa with an arrow. She throws her head back in both pleasure and pain. Behind the pair, golden sunbeams rain down. This sculpture tells a story and an amazing one at that. It

speaks to the mystical element of the Catholic church, an excellent subject for the Counter Reformation.

Although both of these sculptures depict holy women, they are worlds apart. The Virgin Mary is the epitome of containment. Despite having just lost her son, she has no grief on her face. Her sorrow is buried within. However, St. Teresa expels hers with reckless abandon. She is the opposite of contained! The story of her ecstasy bursts forth out of the space and threatens to invade the viewers. Once again, we see the theme of rational knowledge versus a dramatic beckoning of the truth.


Today, Renaissance and Baroque works are some of the most popular in the study of art history. And with very good reason. Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, they are able to resonate with viewers. They connect with different parts of the human mind and our desire to understand the world around us.



Gardner's Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S. Kleiner


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