Progression of Art
The Calling of St Matthew
This work shows a dark tavern where a number of men dressed in contemporary clothing have turned to face Christ, his right arm pointing toward St. Matthew. The light, creating a diagonal that follows Christ's gesture, highlights the expressions and gestures of the men, conveying a sense of the dramatic arrival of the divine. The figures are depicted realistically, their strong muscled calves and thighs in mid-movement. The man at the end of the table is slumped over counting coins.
This work was one of three paintings that the artist created in a commission to depict the signature moments in the life of St. Matthew. Employing chiaroscuro, the intense contrast of light and dark, the work exhibits the direct realism and intense sense of psychological drama that distinguished Caravaggio's work. His technique involved using ordinary people as models and painting them directly, leaving out the drawing stage, and, as a result, as art curator Letizia Treves said, he "made these Biblical stories so vivid, he brought them into his own time - and he involves you, so that you don't just passively watch. Even today, you don't need to know the story...to feel involved in the drama."
In the early 1600s, noted artists including Rubens, Velázquez, Rembrandt, and the Caravaggists throughout Europe were widely influenced by Caravaggio's style. He also influenced lesser-known artists like Dirck van Baburen, Gerrit van Honthorst, and Valentin de Boulogne. By the end of the century, his work fell into obscurity displaced by a rising emphasis on classicism, and wasn't revived until the mid-20th century with a major exhibit in Milan in 1951. His work has again become influential, for example, upon photographer David LaChappelle, the artist Mat Collishaw, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Scorsese said of his work, "You come upon the scene midway and you're immersed in it ... It was like modern staging in film: it was so powerful and direct."
Oil on canvas - San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
Le debarquement de Marie de Médicis au port de Marseille le 3 November
This painting depicts the arrival of The Queen of France Marie de' Medici, dressed in resplendent silver, accompanied by the Grand Duchess of Tuscany and the Duchess of Mantua, as she disembarks on a red parapet. A soldier in a blue cloak patterned with gold fleur-de-lis to signify France, opens his arms to greet her. Above her, a mythological winged figure, representing Fame with two trumpets, heralds her arrival to marry King Henry IV. The diagonal of the red parapet that extends from the gold prow of the ship creates a sense of movement and it also divides the painting into two different worlds; the elegant and refined world of nobility above, and the classical mythological scene below. Three Greek Naiads, goddesses of the sea who ensured safe voyages, fill the lower frame. To their left, Neptune with a gray beard holds out his arm to calm the sea, while next to him, the god Fortune leans against the boat while steering it. These mythological figures lend grandeur and allegorical meaning to the Queen's arrival, but, at the same time, the three nude Naiads overshadow the event with their dynamic sensuality.
Rubens' masterful compositions that combined a wealth of history and allegory with depictions of signature moments in scenes of visual exuberance were much in demand with the nobility. The unabashed sensuality of his full-figured female nudes was also innovative, and so distinctive they are still dubbed as "Rubenesques." As art critic Mark Hudson wrote, "He imported the proto-baroque painting of Titian and Michelangelo and the gritty realism of Caravaggio into Northern Europe, fusing them into a physically gigantic, sensually overloaded, triumphantly Catholic art."
This was one of 24 paintings commissioned by Marie de' Medici in 1621, after the assassination of her husband Henry IV, to create a cycle to immortalize her life. She may also have been motivated to portray her rightful standing, as tensions between the ruling factions in France and a "foreign" queen had led to her banishment from the court in 1617. Rubens, the most famous painter in Northern Europe, was drawn to the commission as it gave him permission to explore a secular subject, and one that he could inform with allegorical and mythological treatments. Art historian Roger Avermaete wrote of the work, "He surrounded her [Marie de' Medici] with such a wealth of appurtenances that at every moment she was very nearly pushed into the background. Consider, for example, the Disembarkation at Marseilles, where everyone has eyes only for the voluptuous Naiads, to the disadvantage of the queen who is being received with open arms by France."
Ruben's work was influential upon artists like Velázquez and informed the Rococo artists that followed including Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher. He also influenced Eugène Delacroix, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso. Though less known, his landscapes also influenced J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, and Thomas Gainsborough. As Mark Hudson wrote, "From Rembrandt, Watteau and Delacroix to Cézanne and Picasso, the Rubenesque sensibility runs strong and deep through Western art."
Oil on canvas - Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Judith and Holofernes
This dynamic painting depicts the Biblical story of the pious widow Judith and her attendant Abra as they behead the struggling Assyrian general Holofernes. When Holofernes besieged and threatened to destroy her city, Judith adorned herself and went out to meet him on the pretext of offering information. Intending to seduce her, he invited her into his tent for dinner but as the Bible says, "was so enchanted with her that he drank far more wine than he had drunk on any other day in his life." Taking a sword, Judith beheaded him and returned with his head in a basket to the city, where she was acclaimed as a hero. Unlike traditional depictions which emphasized Judith's beauty and delicacy and portrayed Abra as an observing witness, this work innovatively emphasizes the women's strength, their expressions conveying determined resolve, as they work together, sleeves rolled up, to do a difficult but necessary task. The intense physicality and violence of the depiction, as art historian Esperança Camara wrote, "to this day...strikes its viewers with both revulsion and awe at the skill of the artist who so convincingly transformed paint into blood."
This particular subject was popular in Renaissance Florence, as seen in Donatello's statue Judith and Holofernes (1460). In the Baroque period, it became identified with the Church Militant, an expression of the victory of Christianity. But Gentileschi's portrayal took on a unique immediacy as it was informed by a personal traumatic experience. She portrayed herself as Judith and Holofernes resembles the artist Agostino Tassi, her art tutor who raped her. In 1612 he was put on trial (although it was Gentileschi who was tortured to ascertain her truthfulness), found guilty, and spent eight months in prison before being pardoned early into his sentence. Even though he had been convicted of rape previously and suspected of having murdered his wife, Tassi benefited from both the gender privileges of the era and the protection that powerful patrons extended to artists. Pope Innocent X said, "Tassi is the only one of these artists who has never disappointed me," meaning because he never pretended to be a man of honor. As art critic Jonathan Jones wrote, "she communicated a powerful personal vision," that "fought back against the male violence that dominated the world she lived in." Perhaps as a result of that intense personal vision, her work was later hidden away. By the 1700s it was viewed as 'too violent.' In her own time, as Jones wrote, "the visceral power of her paintings made her one of the most famous artists in Europe." Feminist artists, including Judy Chicago and the Guerilla Girls in the 1970s, subsequently rediscovered her work.
Oil on canvas - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
The Barberini family of Pope Urban VII commissioned this Baldachin, or ceremonial canopy, for the site of St. Peter's tomb in the Vatican City. It is made of four helical Solomonic columns that twist upward towards four monumental angels who gather beneath a gleaming gold cross resting on an orb in a classic symbol of the triumph of Christianity. The dynamic energy of the columns, named for the ancient Temple of Solomon, metaphorically connect the past to the present to convey the continuing authority of the church. A dramatic and awe-inspiring effect is created, towering over the high altar. Innovatively combining sculpture with architecture, the structure meditates between the vast scale of the basilica and the human scale of the gathered worshippers, while also framing and leaving open the view to the Chair of St. Peter, also designed by Bernini.
Bernini's elaboration of surfaces with symbolic details pioneered the High Baroque's emphasis on the ornate. The plinths, or marble bases, are carved in eight escutcheons, showing the Barberini coat of arms with bees, a tiara with the keys of St. Peter, a satyr's head, and a woman's head. The woman's facial expressions dramatically change and are replaced in the last plinth with the face of a cherub causing a number of scholars to have dubbed it the "childbirth sequence." Moving higher up the columns, olive and laurel motifs, small cherubs chasing bees, and an occasional lizard proliferate, creating both an organic vitality and symbolic meaning. These details are so precisely observed and realistic that a legend spread that Bernini had covered a living lizard to cast it.
In his Montage and Architecture (1940) the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein described the sequence as "one of the most spectacular compositions of that great master Bernini," with the coats of arms as "eight shots, eight montage sequences of a whole montage scenario."
Bronze, gilded, marble - St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy
The Night Watch
This painting depicts a militia company (basically a civil guard unit) as it prepares to move out to protect the city. Employing light and shadow to center on the figure of Captain Frans Banning in black and his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, wearing the shimmering yellow of victory. To the left of Banning, a single girl dressed in luminous fabric may symbolize the company. Her belt contains two clues: a pistol and the talons of a dead chicken, which represented the clauweniers, or the Dutch name for this company of harquebusiers, (men armed with long guns.) A sense of dynamic anticipation is conveyed by the facial expressions and gestures of the company: a man beats a drum on the right but no one appears to be paying attention; another man awkwardly tries to load his musket; and a man wearing a helmet with oak leaves has just fired off his own. As a result, Rembrandt captures the comedic, boisterous, purposeful, and individualistic humanity of the group.
The Militia Company of District III commissioned the group portrait in 1639, meant for exhibition in the new Kloveniersdoelen (Musketeer's Meeting Hall). Rembrandt's piece accomplished the traditional representation of every individual yet compositionally presented something new; as art critic Maaike Dirkx wrote, "Rembrandt did something very different: in his Night Watch not the sitters but the action is the focus of attention and where other civic guards paintings are static, his is all about movement."
Although in later life, Rembrandt's career went into decline and his work was generally forgotten, his work was rediscovered in the 1800s and he influenced a number of artists including Auguste Rodin, Max Liebermann, and Vincent van Gogh. Now one of the world's most recognizable paintings, this piece has enjoyed continual cultural presence evoked by philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Luc Godard's film Passion, The Night Watch (1982), and Peter Greenaway's film Nightwatching (2007).
Oil on canvas - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba
This work presents an imagined and idealized city drenched with a feeling of calm grandeur, enhanced by the work's poetic emphasis upon light. It references the biblical story of the Queen of Sheba's visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem, yet focuses primarily on the landscape with the sun and its rays vertically intersecting the canvas. Classical buildings frame both sides of the view, creating a strong sense of composition, informed by a precise linear perspective. The columns on the left mirror the ship's masthead, intersected by its diagonals of sail and prow. On the right, the columns of the building draw the viewer's attention down to the group around the Queen descending to a launch boat.
Claude innovatively chose the moment of the Queen's departure, rather than the traditional depiction of her meeting with King Solomon, allowing him to focus on a harbor scene, a subject he pioneered. His innovative explorations of light made him the most noted landscape painter of his day. Though French, he trained in Rome and subsequently, worked in the city for noted patrons, including the Duc de Bouillon, a general in the Papal army, who commissioned this work as part of a pair depicting joyful Biblical scenes. The other painting, Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca (1648) makes the landscape itself the subject, as the only reference to the Biblical story is a small inscription on a tree painted in the idealized pastoral.
Claude's work greatly influenced J.M.W. Turner who painted Dido Building Carthage (also known as The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire) (1815), echoing this painting. Turner felt this was so important to his oeuvre that initially his will requested he be buried wrapped in the canvas. He later amended his will to request that the painting be shown, paired with his Sun Rising through Vapour, Fishermen Cleaning and Selling Fish (1807), along with Claude's pair of paintings.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London, United Kingdom
Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
The colorful interior of Bernini's Cornaro Chapel located in the Santa Maria della Vittoria Church is highly embellished. Within it on the right, we see a statue of St. Teresa in a state of ecstasy. Above her on the left, a male angel smiles down upon her, holding the spear that he will plunge into her heart. The marble seems to swirl and fall emphasizing Teresa's swoon as the sculpture is lit from a ray of golden light from above.
St. Teresa of Avila was canonized in 1622. To portray her mystical encounter, Bernini followed the Spanish nun's autobiographical account in The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1515-82). He managed to radically transform a spiritual vision into a sensual and physical image, as art critic Irving Lavin noted, the work "becomes a point of contact between earth and heaven, between matter and spirit."
Part of Bernini's innovative strategy was to position the main figures of the narrative within a vivid theatrical setting. The sculptures are illuminated within the backdrop while at the same time the richly colored framing columns and niches place the nun and angel within a separate, otherworldly space. Theatre boxes, visible on the left and the right, containing life-sized sculptures of the Cornaro family in animated conversation, heighten the effect. The contrast of the human figures in white marble with the colored marble of the settings subtly conveys an underlying identification between the vision of the saint and the vision of the papal family. As art historian Rudolf Wittkower wrote, "In spite of the pictorial character of the design as a whole, Bernini differentiated between various degrees of reality, the members of the Cornaro Chapel seem to be alive like ourselves. They belong to our space and our world. The supernatural event of Teresa's vision is raised to a sphere of its own, removed from that of the beholder mainly by virtue of the isolating canopy and the heavenly light."
Other noted mystics were to describe spiritual union with God in physical even sensual terms, and Bernini's interpretation emphasized the sensual by the positioning of the saint's body and her facial expression, leading his biographer Franco Mormando to write, "Certainly no other artist, in rendering the scene before or after Bernini dared as much in transforming the saint's appearance." This innovative blending of spirituality and sensuality made his works influential, but his greatest innovation was combining painting, sculpture, and architecture to create a unified environment, so that the viewer literally steps into the embodiment of his artistic vision.
Marble, stucco, paint - Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, Italy
This iconic painting, which translates to "Maids of Honor," presents a sumptuous scene in which the five-year-old Infanta Margarita, the heir to the Spanish throne, is surrounded by her ladies in waiting and other attendants in Velazquez's spacious painting studio. She is the daughter of King Philip IV, of whom Velazquez was court painter, and his second wife, Mariana of Austria. The large seven by ten feet painting also reveals Velazquez himself, standing behind a large canvas on the left side. The strongly foreshortened wall on the right has three rows of artwork, which help to establish the space. More than half of the space is dim, dark, and empty around the figures. The royal couple is shown as a reflection in a mirror on the back wall. Two court dwarves, and a large dog linger in the bottom right hand corner. Behind the dwarves, two women, a nun, and a lady's guard are in conversation while the queen's quartermaster is seen on the stairs at the rear in front of an open sunlit door.
Technically, the work is a testament to Velazquez's brilliance with composition. Here, he employed astute observation to create compelling portraits, but the real focus of the work, utilizing real space, mirror space, and pictorial space, is its almost modern play upon perception itself. He utilized strategic placement of his subjects to create multiple visual planes and diagonals, which draw the eye to various areas of the room in a balanced fashion. We are led not only to witness the activity in the room, but also to ponder what is outside the frames of what we can see.
Las Meninas is considered to be one of Velazquez's most famous masterpieces, representing the sum total of a career's worth of genius, intelligence, and technical mastery. It is also lauded, even 300 years later, by artists and viewers alike as a seminal example of the art of painting. Velazquez's influence lasted into the 21st century and Édouard Manet called him the "painter of painters." Picasso's 58 paintings in his series Las Meninas (1957) reinterpret the Spanish artist's work, and Dalí painted his Velázquez Painting the Infanta Margarita With the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory (1958).
Oil on canvas - Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
This façade of the Church of San Carlo in Rome innovatively employs convex and concave bays to create an undulating effect. On the lower level, the two outer bays are concave, while the center is convex, thus emphasizing the importance of the entrance. Smaller columns frame niches filled with carved scenes and figures, creating a sense of elaborated depth. A cluster of three statues, depicting St. Charles Borromeo, patron saint of the church, and St. John of Matha and St. Felix of Valois who were also part of the Trinitarian order that Borromeo founded, preside over the central portal. Creating a contrasting vertical energy, four tall columns rise to a curved entablature, from which the four upper columns continue to another curved, but sectioned, entablature. A large oval in the center of the upper entablature, held by two angels that are asymmetrically placed, emphasizes the curvilinear flow of the structure.
Borromini's interior was equally innovative, as his plan used a complex interweaving of zones: an undulating lower zone, a middle zone in a traditional Greek cross, and an oval dome that appeared to float above the interior. Rather than depicting images, the dome had a complex but symmetrical geometric pattern that combined unequal hexagons, Greek crosses, and circles with octagonal molding. At its base, clear windows let natural sunlight into the building, and the oculus, too, was clear glass, as the light unified the space with a predominantly white interior.
The building site was challenging, as the church was located at the corner of an intersection, and had an adjoining cloister on one side that the architect also designed. Cardinal Francesco Barberini commissioned the church in 1634 and it was the architect's first major commission, though due to various financial difficulties and changes of patronage, it was not completed until after the architect's death. As art critic Olivier Bernier wrote, "based... on geometry... in the handling of form, volume and light... his buildings, although they unmistakably belong to their century, often have a startlingly modern look. Constantly playing with rounded forms - concave and convex cylinders are extensively used - Borromini gives his facades amazing animation without ever relying on mere decoration."
Marble, stone - Rome, Italy
Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius
This fresco depicts the triumph of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, shown left of center in his grey cassock extending toward Christ, who holds a cross in the middle. All the light in the fresco comes from Christ, emphasized both by the golden swirling center and the gradually darkening color palette in the figures at a greater distance. The ray then breaks into four diagonal rays, representing the light of Christianity reaching the four continents of the world, and symbolizes the missionary work of the Jesuits. Also depicted are many Biblical warriors with their foes including David and Goliath, Jael and Sisera, Samson and the Philistines, and Judith and Holofernes. This innovative choice of subject matter reflected the militant Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation and the apostolic zeal of the Jesuits, seeing themselves as "warriors" for the faith.
Pozzo, a brother in the Jesuit order, said his intent was to visually embody Christ's statement, "I am come to send fire on the earth," and St. Ignatius's directive to his order, "Go and set everything aflame." The work is an innovative masterpiece of quadratura, as the viewer in the nave looking up would see a lofty dome, when in actuality the church's ceiling was flat. To achieve this effect, the artist employed extreme foreshortening, painted architectural motifs, and strict perspective, while emphasizing a dramatic swirling movement. A metal disk was placed in the floor of the nave, marking the spot where the viewer should stand to see the work with full effect, as the artist said, "To deceive the eyes, a certain fixed point" is needed.
The rich colors, swirling draperies, and excited gestures convey a feeling of a greatly impassioned crowd within a vast space. The work became a standard for ceiling paintings in Jesuit churches throughout Europe, as art historian Filippo Camerota wrote, his "perspective inventions represent the art of quadrature on its highest level. The illusory power of his fictive architecture was so strong that it forcefully conditioned the perception of space."
Fresco - Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius, Rome, Italy