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The Baroque: Tridentine Art for the Latin Mass

, from The New Liturgical Movement, by Gregory DiPippo

Is there a natural style of sacred art for the Latin Mass?

The Mass, at the heart of the liturgy as a whole and as it was celebrated after the Council of Trent, was the driving force for a cultural movement formed in response to the Protestant “reformers”, which is often called the Counter-Reformation. This is, to all intents and purposes, the Mass of the 1962 Missal. The Council of Trent was the impetus behind the development of an artistic style that was in harmony with it and eventually became what is today called the Baroque.

The art that developed after the Council closed in the mid-16th century did so as a result of some simple directives of the Council, so as to serve the worship of the faithful in the liturgy. While the liturgy itself was the most important influence, there were external influences as well. The tradition grew out of the style of the masters of the High Renaissance and other great painters of the 16th century, especially Titian. This was the Baroque style.

Caravaggio is credited with popularizing the style, beginning around 1600, but perhaps a better articulation of what became the Baroque style was done slightly earlier by another Italian, Federico Barocci (yes Federico, not Frederico!) Consider this painting of St Jerome from 1598.

I have never read any historical account that confirms this, but I have often wondered if the mysterious name for the style, Baroque, is in part a play on his name. Certainly, his work of this period bears all the hallmarks of the tradition and was pioneering. Notice certain features that are the hallmarks of Baroque art:

  • The figure of St Jerome is painted with the most naturalistic coloration and is most brightly lit, most detailed in its rendering, and most sharply focused. All of these are devices to attract the eye to the most important part of the composition.
  • He draws attention to the figure, further, by contrast with the background, for which he uses a limited palette, in this case, one color, sepia, which he only varies tonally. There is very little detail in the rendition of the background in comparison with, say, the face of St Jerome; notice how the brightest colors are in the cloth next to him. And the sharpest contrast in tone is between the line on the edge of his right elbow which traces its way along his shoulder to a sharp point under the right ear. This leads our eye to the face. See also how this contrast is sharpened by making the background very dark immediately adjacent to this edge.
  • The focus, that is the sharpness and clarity of expression, varies in different parts of the painting too. The least focussed parts are those on the periphery and the most focussed are those in the primary point of interest, the face and the hands of the saint. These are the primary points of interest within the Saint because the face and gesture communicate most powerfully the mood of the person. This is how the artist communicates to the viewer of the painting that this is not a sterile wax model, but a living being with a soul. Ordinarily, we would discern this by observing a person in real time.

Compare Barocci’s with a painting from nearly 50 years later of the same subject, painted in 1646 by José De Ribera, a Spanish artist who spent most of his professional life in Italy.

Here we see the same stylistic features, but now the face of St Jerome is not the main focus. De Ribera directs us instead to the Word of God as exemplified by the scroll, on which St Jerome has written some part of his Latin translation of the Bible, By directing our eye to this, Ribera is perhaps making the point that Catholics do take Scripture seriously, against to those Protestant reformers who alleged otherwise!

The contrast between light and dark that is so pronounced in Baroque art is intended to acknowledge the evil and suffering that is present in this fallen world, but to contrast it with the Light that overcomes the darkness. By this, Christian hope which transcends suffering is portrayed.

In only a few years, this form of idealized naturalism became the model for all sacred art for the Roman Rite. As with all authentic traditions, there is room for the artist to maneuver within the bounds that define the tradition, so that we get differing individual styles – some might use a lighter ochre or a number of pigments and not exclusively sepia for the tonal rendition, for example – but broadly speaking, they all stuck to it.

Tiepolo, for example, who was from Venice, developed a lightness of touch through his use of greys and orange ochres.

The Last Supper, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1745-47

The further development of the Baroque style was cut off at the end of the 18th century and early 19th century, when the neo-classical style replaced it in the academies.

In my opinion, if we want to inspire a powerful Counter-Modern or Counter-Postmodern Catholic culture today, we need to reconnect today’s worship with art so that people are engaged with it in the course of their worship, rather than having their noses buried in missals. We cannot influence contemporary culture constructively if our culture of faith is disconnected from our worship.

This would involve in part some legitimate development of the style of worship normally associated with the 1962 Missal, I think, but also we need a style of art that works in harmony with this. One suggestion would be to re-establish the Baroque tradition (note: not 19th-century realism of the sort that we see on the ARC website) in the way that the Eastern Churches reestablished the iconographic tradition.

We start with something that is a replication of the past style. If we stopped there, it would not work, because these works I have shown are of their time and place – they really are Tridentine, of the period following the Council of Trent. Once we are able to replicate, we then begin a process of allowing contemporary influences to be absorbed,  carefully examining them to ensure that no detrimental influences come in, so that it becomes a tradition that speaks to today’s Catholics.

An example of someone who did this in the 20th century, and might be a model, at least in part, for today, is the Italian artist Annigoni, whose work I have featured on this site before.

St Benedict

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