Baroque Works of Art
Rich in deep colour and intense contrast of shadows, 17th century Baroque paintings tend to show the most dramatic and culminating moments of a scene, with simplicity and clarity that appeal to the viewer’s senses rather than mind. Adhering to these characteristics, three paintings by different artists portray scenes in the life of Christ: Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602), Ruben’s Deposition ( ), and Rembrandt’s The Descent from the Cross (1633).
Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602) depicts the dramatic capture of Christ and Judas’ treacherous kiss. In this painting, the artist employs what is typically known during the Baroque period as chiaroscuro or the use of light and shadow to show contrast between structural and thematic elements. Basically, Caravaggio used sharp contrast to distinguish between major and minor characters in the scene. His work highlights Jesus as the main figure in red robe against the background of men in darker shades of colour. The contrast also isolates the facial gestures and bodily movements of the figures, thus evoking a dramatic portrayal of the scene.
Thematically, the use of light and shadow intensifies the contrast between the emotions of the characters. Light abound in the faces of the defenseless Christ, the treacherous disciple, and the horrified St. Mark whose horrified expression adds to the emotional intensity being emphasized (Lubbock, 2007). Similarly, lighter shade is employed to emphasise hand gestures, with Christ’s hands clasped to signify willful surrender, Judas left hand grabbing Christ’s shoulder to show intimacy, and the waving hand of Mark possibly to depict his imprudent denial of Christ. Darker shade is employed dramatically to intensify the formidable armour and determination of the guards, and even to suggest their animosity, thus giving more impact to the main figures present in the scene.
Similarly, Ruben’s Deposition (Lille version) illustrates the color contrast eminent during the Baroque period. The painting which depicts the lowering of Christ’s body from the cross demonstrates the artist’s unique style and perception of real-life subjects. Similar to Caravaggio, Rubens used light to emphasise facial and bodily gestures. However, he used it more sparingly to illustrate different aspects of the scene. In Deposition, he spreads light to show the awe in the faces of the women, and the power in the outstretched arms of the men. Although focus is not given on a specific figure, he successfully achieves a unified theme. The facial and bodily gestures illustrate the impact of Christ’s death to his followers. In addition, the severity of Christ’s struggle reflected by his wounds and skin color elicit remorseful response from the viewers.
Likewise, Rembrandt’s The Descent from the Cross (1633) represents Jesus’ dead body being lowered from the cross and surrounded by His lamenting followers. In this painting, Rembrandt uses a similar contrast between light and dark, although to a different extent, to intensify a dramatic moment (Jones, 2004; Lussier, n.d.). Similar to Caravaggio’s, he maintained focus in the use of light to distinguish the main scene from the background. However, the light he employed was more lucid than those of the other two artists to provide contrast between the main scene and the minor ones, as Rembrandt’s minor scenes considerably illustrate moving actions that complete the drama. Unlike the minor scenes in Caravaggio which serve as additional details to complete the scene, or Rubens’s unification strategy, Rembrandt’s background figures depict underlying emotions, as if each character has a story to tell, or an emotion to express. This style makes the scene more dramatic and reverberant of reality; for in truth, bystanders each have their own impression or perception of a scene.
Overall, the three works of art help promote the ideals taught by the Roman Catholic Church. The three artists produced their masterpieces during the time of the Counter Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church was fighting against the spreading Protestant Reformation in Europe. In its effort to strengthen its position and authority, the Church encouraged paintings that represented religious scenes which, along with preaching, helped inspire devotion and promote the official doctrine. Although various biblical scenes proliferated in art at that time, most artists used their own style to contribute to the growth of the movement. Overall, the three works of art help promote the ideals taught by the Roman Catholic Church, and enhance the authority of biblical figures.For instance, Caravaggio used models to depict Christ and other biblical figures, often introducing dirty reality in his works (Lubbock, 2007). In The Taking of Christ, he vividly captures the arrest of Christ with figures that appeal to the viewers’ eyes like a fraction of reality. He purposely used half-body figures to give emphasis on the sorrow in Christ’s face and the ridicule in Judas’s. Particularly, the facial expressions portray the silent drama between the two main figures, and intend to move the audience with pity towards Christ and hatred towards His traitor.
Famous for his religious and mythological subjects, Rubens’s work is a fusion of the traditions of Flemish realism and the classical tendencies of the Italian Renaissance (Kren & Marx, n.d.). He painted dramatic scenes depicting naked flesh of both living and dead human subjects. Notably, death was one of his favourite themes (Jones, 2004). Unlike Caravaggio who dealt more with facial expression, Rubens seemed more interested in movements. In Deposition, Rubens shows full body figures of characters in the scene, with arms outstretched to illustrate the dramatic act of retrieving Christ. Thus, the realistic drama lies in the powerful gestures of the arms and hands, which contribute to the lucid movement in space.
Following the footsteps of Rubens and Caravaggio, Rembrandt dealt with religious subjects. Although he is well-known for painting portraits of his friends, Rembrandt similarly dealt with religious themes, as these were predominant during his time. In The Descent from the Cross, he depicts the retrieval of Christ from the cross with similar use of chiaroscuro and true-to-life figures which create realistic impression that fills the viewer with sadness and compassion (Lussier, n.d.). Different from the other two artists, Rembrandt successfully gives emphasis on the melancholy of the situation, the outpouring of grief by each character as reflected in their facial expressions, and the seeming lameness in their movements. Considering these, we can note that Rembrandt attains successful combination of what his predecessors have achieved—Caravaggio’s appeal to the emotions through facial gestures and Rubens’s emphasis on artistic movements. Moreover, the use of soft shadows and dull contrast results in authenticity and oldness of the scene. It is also what sets Rembrandt apart from the two masters, for the latter used sharp contrast between light and dark, which is very descriptive of earlier Baroque artists.
Notably, while the masterpieces bear simple subject matter, they produce immediate emotional impact, and provide a way for viewers to participate emotionally in the sacred experience. They also reflect the Church’s call to repent and return to the Catholic faith. It should be noted that whilst earlier Protestants appealed to the people to repent and prepare for God’s wrath, the Reformists invite people to repent considering the sacrifice and mercy of Christ as shown in the three paintings.
First, the humble submission in Caravaggio’s Christ appeals to viewers to relate with the pain of betrayal. Similarly, it implies the practice humility and faith as exemplified by the Church. Second, the realistic depiction of Christ’s dead body by Rubens compels audience to feel the sorrow and awe expressed by the female figures in the painting. As Campbell (2004) notes, it fills the viewers with compassion and makes them bow their heads in worship. Moreover, the power in the arms that hold Christ’s dead body invites viewers to similarly share in the sacrifice. Finally, Rembrandt’s figures demonstrate total submission to the will of God. The beaten and dead body of Christ informs viewers of Christ’s profound obedience to the will of his Father, which could move the viewers afterward to a similar submission to the will of the Church. Also, as Lussier (n.d.) comments, it arouses compassion and inspiring devotion among viewers (regardless of religion). Furthermore, the stillness of the figures in the background implores people to believe without doubt the holy sacrifice.
Baroque (1600-1750). Retrieved February 7, 2009, from http://www.huntfor.com/arthistory/c17th-mid19th/baroque.htm
Campbell, P. (2004). In lille. Retrieved January 30, 2009, from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n07/print/camp01_.html
Caravaggio’s the taking of Christ. Retrieved January 30, 2009, from http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/caravbr-2.htm
Jones, J. (2004). Flesh of genius. Retrieved January 30,
2009, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/apr/03/art
Kren, Emil & Daniel Marx. (n.d.) Rubens, Pieter Pauwel. Retrieved February 7, 2009, from http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/bio/r/rubens/biograph.html
Lubbock, T. (2007). Caravaggio: The taking of Christ (1602-3). Retrieved January 30, 2009, from http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/great-works/caravaggio-the-taking-of-christ-16023-744398.html
Lussier, L. (n.d.) The descent from the cross: Two paintings once assumed to be painted by
Rembrandt. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from the World Wide Web: http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Bungalow/2201/cross/rembrandt.html
Pioc, Nicholas. (2002). Rembrandt. Retrieved February 8, 2009, from http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/rembrandt/
 See other works of Rembrandt, ie. Night Watch (1642), Artemis (1634), and Descent from the Cross (1634).