Thursday, October 5, 2017

After the Reformation VI: the Baroque

Is the Baroque Simply Late (Very Late) Gothic?

St. Paul's, Antwerp, during High Mass

One of the more debated points in the reemergence of the traditional Latin Liturgy is whether the Baroque is the ideal artistic vehicle for the expression of the traditional Mass. I use "ideal" advisedly, because, while some may tolerate or even have a certain affection for the Gothic or the Classical Revival or even the arte moderne of the twentieth century, the exemplar sans pareil remains, for some, the Baroque. Contrariwise--I need hardly add on a blog that boasts a tongue-in-cheek Liturgical Boutique--some will tolerate the Baroque but prefer the Gothic, in all its manifestations, and lament that it has been so unjustly dethroned by the Baroque.

But, what if the whole controversy is really a lites vocum, a mere dispute about terms? What if the Baroque was simply the exotic flower that budded forth from the no less exotic rod of the Gothic? Granted, here we take "Gothic" to mean the Late Gothic, sometimes referred to as "Flamboyant" (or in England, the Perpendicular).

In other words--in the illustration above of St. Paul's, Antwerp, from the good ol' days--does the Baroque altar piece, with the elements it obviously borrowed from the so-called Renaissance, represent an awkward break with the soaring Gothic vaulting and arches surrounding it? Or rather, does it, like the Gothic before it, simply incorporate and transform elements of the classical tradition, so that the broken pediments and doubled columns are made to soar upward like those glorious Gothic arches?

The Argument from Architecture

If we turn briefly to architecture, we must keep in mind that no one is arguing that the Baroque and the Gothic (even the Late Gothic) are essentially the same style. They are, of course, decidedly distinct. What is being proposed--at least for your amused consideration--is the possibility that there was a seamless transition from the one to the other.

First, let's dispense with a somewhat shopworn idea about the Baroque, namely that the Gesù in Rome is the First Baroque Church.
Interior of the Gesù
There is no doubt that elements that would later be considered typically Baroque made their first appearance at the Gesù, but too much insistence on this aspect ignores the plain fact--so plain that it's literally the focus of the eye in the above perspective--that the basic style is Renaissance. The pediment, for example, that forms the altar piece is not especially Baroque-looking; it's more in the Palladian style, like many other Italian Renaissance buildings. In short, it would be a mistake to take this first essay into the Baroque as the standard of comparison when we try to make a case for the Baroque developing out of the Late Gothic.

But on to the matter at hand! Let us consider a very late example of the Gothic: St. Anne's in Vilnius, Lithuania (from 1500):

Abstracting from its, shall we say, Northern influences, one can say, without being too fanciful, that arches are being assimilated to pediments (over the three main doors and mid-way up the two flanking towers), while the pilasters and other architectural features of the towers more or less serve to frame the central, eye-catching façade of the nave.

A similar use of lines and focus is very typical of the Baroque as well:
San Telmo Palace, Seville
Perhaps the affinity of the one style for the other becomes even more obvious once we enter inside. The altar piece of the cathedral of Toledo is necessarily labeled "Gothic" because of the time period and the style of its constituent parts:
It nevertheless shares a certain esprit d'exubérance with another altar piece, one with a clearly Baroque pedigree:

One might argue that the characteristically Spanish idea of the grand retablo is here simply rendered in two different styles: the Late Gothic and the Baroque. We can concede the point, provided that we recognize that doing so confirms our argument that both styles are capable of similar expression; both are of the same lineage, as it were. One can hardly imagine a similarly monumental retable in the Classical Revival style.

The Argument from the Pictorial Arts

It's a commonplace of art history that Gothic sculpture and painting gradually relaxed--some would say developed--the rigid canons of the Romanesque into a more expressive and lifelike idiom. Even by the High Middle Ages, sculptors were portraying the Saints with human expressions, as though to elicit the viewer's affection and confidence.

Late Gothic (ca. 1471): even figuratively, the Gothic opens to a vista of perspective and classical elements that would soon move to the fore in the new Baroque style.
Although the characteristically Late Gothic S-curve is only subtly implied in the figure of Our Lady, the very human affection of the Child and His Mother--as well as the quiet devotion of the attending Angels--is beautifully represented. We might also note the use of flowing draperies to heighten the impressiveness and majesty of the figures, a technique the Baroque would use to full advantage. Simultaneously, with other subjects at any rate, the portrayal of emotion and humanity became quite prominent in the Late Gothic:

It seems reasonable to suggest that in the Baroque descendants of these types of artwork, there is a difference in degree but not in substance, albeit some stylistic details have certainly changed. Here is Our Lady of Victories, of seventeenth-century vintage, with impressive draperies and the S-curve very much in evidence; the tender affection of Mother and Child, though, is now replaced with the regal gravitas of the Queen and her Son, in warning, perhaps, to the new threat of the Protestant heresy:

In the most representative examples, everything in the Baroque is directed toward the intense emotion to be associated with the dogma depicted, as in this world-famous stucco sculpture in Bavaria of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin:

Form, movement, gesture, and expression:
all direct the spectator to rejoice in awe at the resurrection of the Most Blessed Virgin
It probably should be noted that one thing the two Baroque sculptures have in common with each other and many other Baroque artworks is the sense of triumph, something rarely encountered in the Gothic, even in imposing scenes of the Last Judgment over many a cathedral's west door. Whether this emphasis on the Church's defeat of error and darkness is an adaptation of the Gothic genius or a new departure altogether is but another facet of the question we began with.

The Argument from Music

Terminology is more problematic when it comes to music. Bach is considered "classical" music, but his output is more accurately categorized as Baroque. Handel seems, somehow, to be more commonly placed in the Classical category, and yet he was a contemporary of Bach's. At the other end of things, one rarely hears the term "Gothic" applied to the polyphony of the early sixteenth century, but the Gothic in other realms of art certainly extended into those years.

I would offer only a few thoughts for your consideration rather than, by trying to summarize too much, risk oversimplifying something as sui generis as music.
Josquin: Gothic, Renaissance, or sui generis?
The great bond of continuity between these epochs--whatever we call them--is the plain-chant. "Renaissance" polyphony (simultaneous with Late Gothic painting and architecture) often made use of the "parody": the independent voices (or melodic lines) that combine to form the polyphony derive from some familiar tune. Often enough (though not always--hence the reform at Trent) that tune was from the chant, as for example in the Mass "Pange, lingua" by Josquin des Prez ( 1521).

Similarly, the great J. S. Bach wrote several works on the chorale melody "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland," usually translated "O Saviour of the Nations, Come," which itself is derived from the plain-chant hymn "Veni, Redemptor gentium," still in use after Trent in some Latin rites. Bach's preludes and other works derived from "Nun komm" added a great deal of flourish and extravagance (in the original sense) to the old-style parodies of the Late Gothic (or Renaissance, if one prefer). As with architecture and the pictorial arts, the Baroque influence retained something of the original inspiration while greatly amplifying the more imposing aspects.

Even the great Handel (admired by Mozart and Beethoven alike), whose predilection for striking homophonic passages is well-known--e.g., "Wonderful, Counselor," etc.,  from Messiah--concluded that great oratorio with a sweeping melismatic fugue on "Amen."

Even the quintessentially Classical Mozart in his later (more mature) years, turned to the heritage handed on by Bach and others, and he thereby gave us his most memorable and deeply impressive work, the Requiem. He makes use of chant melodies and psalm tones in that great composition, but apparently only by way of other German composers in the Baroque tradition (as some have argued).


This little survey is obviously very summary, and the examples have been narrowly chosen. If a certain probability has been established for the continuity of the Late Gothic and the Baroque, nevertheless certain questions remain unanswered. For instance, which elements of the Late Gothic were left behind by the Baroque, joined as it was to the efforts of the so-called Counter-Reformation? Did, perhaps, the humanity and tenderness of Late Gothic devotion fall into obscurity because of the new emphasis on the triumph of the Faith? Did the renewed interest in purely classical forms sacrifice too much of the Gothic's unmistakably Catholic and otherworldly idiom? After all, when the Baroque is most independent of its Late Gothic roots--say, at a Mass in Vienna's Karlskirche, Mozart's "Sparrow" Mass chirping away in the choir loft--that is when it most seems a rupture rather than a development.

Nevertheless, it's still worth considering that the Baroque, perhaps a little indiscriminately at times, embodies essentially the same exuberance and sheer joy in the beauty of our Faith as the Late Gothic that preceded it.


  1. Thumbs up.

    As much as I visually prefer the Early Western Medieval artistic vehicle (the usual visual examples of the Baroque hurts my eyes), I think that the Baroque was the best vehicle for its time, though, as in all things, the style fell

    Anyway, I agree with your main point, since no style arises from a vacuum. I also think that ecclesiastical "propagandists" would make use of what they are familiar with or what they have been trained with to spread the official Counter-Reformation "party line" to the best that they can.

    What I don't agree is that the Baroque should be "the ideal artistic vehicle for the expression of the traditional Mass." I think it won't effectively convey what the traditional Mass is (various articles defending the fine vestments and liturgical vessels is a sign that TLM supporters are still vulnerable to charges of vanity), TLM supporters (especially clerics) might fall prey to some sort of Baroque-only mentality that might cause more trouble in the already troubled Traditionalist community, and that it hurts my eyes. A more restrained artistic vehicle might win more people for the cause, since it can psychologically ease the transition from the NO to the TLM setting.

    1. Mirai,
      Thanks for reading! I agree that, by definition, a Baroque-only (or Gothic-only, or Art Nouveau-only) attitude is not Catholic. I suppose that personally I am inclined to think of the Baroque--like the Gothic or some other styles--as truly Catholic, in that it can be suitably used for the entire gamut of Catholic life, from the little six-man Franciscan chapel in Greccio, to the austere life of the Carthusians in Parma, to a great metropolitan cathedral. Of course, the Baroque is not alone in being universal in this way.

      As for temptations to vanity, I suppose that's a possibility. Personally, when I see beautiful vestments or altar furnishings, I think: That's a beautiful thing for God. With all the emphasis on "pastoral simplicity" since the Council, I've always been a little wary of seeing plainness in vestments, etc., as a sign of humility. That attitude seems more like a subtle temptation against it.

  2. Off topic: I miss the time when I can see my comments immediately after publishing it. It gives me a sense of excitement and accomplishment. I live in fear that what I think is on point is dismissed, and dismissed without a written reason by an unseen hand. Parrhesia! Down with the moderated comments policy! Long live the discussion that branches out organically!

    1. Perhaps one day they will return, but comments need to cool off for a while first.

      Baroque can be beautiful, but as I have said elsewhere on this blog, it is very expensive and difficult to do well in a parish setting. Bernini is dead and the number of active sculptors (real ones, not modern artists) is so limited as to render quality statuary in an even an upper class American parish cost prohibitive. That's when we get stuck with painted plaster statues that belong in the gift shop. I think the Greek, Roman, and (artistic, not architectural) features of images and icons more approachable at the parish level without looking cheap or kitsch, which is a real problem at say FSSP type churches.

      This is a really illuminating article, especially in the points about sacred music. Many composers set the Office hymns in vernacular just as they had been sung folkishly in vernacular during the medieval period. Much to think about here.

  3. I would preface this comment that good ornamental church architecture, especially if we deal with huge altar superstructures, shouldn't be made out of wood.

    We, Croatians, have our best representative of baroque, Ivan Ranger OSPPE, and it is a "meh" at best.

    Spanish gothic and baroque in general are bad, mkay?
    Jokes aside, if an argument can be made that the readings in the Mass take away the attention from the Sacrifice (an absolutely silly argument which has been made in the now typical "novus ordo bad hurr durr" NLM fashion), couldn't even a stronger argument be made that something so unsubstantial to Christianity as is religious art can be a hurdle rather than a jumping board in spirituality? I know st. Bernard has made that argument and for a time i hated the fact that, in my experience, he was right. I can certainly remember my thoughts wander off many times when i was looking at frescoes of the history of salvation in Djakovo Cathedral...

  4. Musically speaking, I love the Spanish Baroque composer Juan Garcia de Salazar's rendition of Our Lady's Little Office, esp. his motet based on the (post-Urban VIII) Lauds hymn "O gloriosa virginum" - - and his version of Ps 112 (Laudate pueri Dominum), Gregorian plainchant mixed with organ verses:

  5. Marko,
    Thought-provoking argument! "Art" is very broad, and taken in its broadest sense, art would be difficult, I think, to untangle from Christianity. St. Bernard certainly employed a very beautiful, even exquisite, art in the form of rhetoric in his profoundly touching sermons (for instance, the seventh lesson at Matins for the feast tomorrow: the B.V.M. as a white and red rose). St. Paul's epistles are not only a font of revelation but revelation cloaked in wonderful rhetoric (e.g., 1 Cor. 4: 10 et seqq.).

    Still, as you suggest, anything fashioned by man will have limitations (sometimes severe ones!) and must eventually fall away in the "dark night of the senses."

    P.S. Good use of American slang!

  6. I should've probably been clearer when i've said art. Yes, art is such a broad concept. Thank you for reminding me.

    So let me reformulate.
    Something so inconsequential to Christianity as is religious art (and in this particular moment i mean architecture, painting and sculpture) which seeks to be more "artistic" or excessively beautiful with too lively colors and figurines and elements that jump out of the main body of the composition, art which (almost violently) seeks attention of the viewer (without prejudice to whether it attempts to divert that attention to God or not).

    I think that, churches shouldn't be ugly, but that they don't need to be extraordinary. They need to be ordinary but not in such a way so that the one who comes in is repelled by the ordinariness.

    Think of it as choosing a wife in terms of looks. A most prudent choice of a wife would be the one who is not ugly, so as to repel even in spite of reproductive needs, and who is not such a beauty as to entice lust.

    1. "Thank you for reminding me." No problem!

      I think we're back to "de gustibus non est disputandum." But surely there's room in the Church for both the austerity of Heiligen Kreuz and the splendor of Vierzehn Heiligen, don't you think?

    2. I'm a bit more closeminded on that question. Yes, "de gustibus", but again, only to a certain extent, since if gustus is everything, then Le Corbusier or Mattisse have a right to have their church architecture to be considered beautiful, which is a right i'm very wont to give them.