Movements. In order to understand the stylistic qualities associated with the two movements, the historical background of each must be considered. To do so, three typical questions asked by art historians must be applied to any given work of art. These three questions are: How old is it? Who made it? What style does it exhibit? The last question refers not only to the movement or period style of a work, but the personal style of the artist who created it as well.
For example, the painter Giotto is an important artist in the Late Medieval period and his works establish as much of a personal as period style. In 1305 Giotto, who had been a student of Cimabue, was commissioned to paint a series of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel. One of the panels that he created is the famous “Lamentation.” (1305) An art historian’s examination of this painting would begin with asking questions such as those above and build toward a formal understanding of the work’s historical and stylistic context. Answering the first question “How old is it?” is easy because we know when Giotto received the commission. We can also readily answer the second question because we know who Giotto was, where he studied, and the breadth of his career. The last question is where the task of the art historian becomes a bit more complicated. To answer this question, considerations of the formal characteristics of art must be made.
Four important considerations for establishing not only the artist’s personal style, but the style of the movement that the artist represents are: subject, iconography, content, and material. These words are used by art historians to communicate the political, cultural, and religious ideas of art works and art movements. Giotto’s “Lamentation” takes the subject of Christ’s crucifixion, and establishes a set of religious symbols as an iconography. Its content is devotional and its material is plaster and paint – a fresco. These simple facts tell the art historian very important things about the work’s cultural and political significance. One of the stylistic traits of Giotto’s work is its depth of perspective and the rendering of realistic, but emotive figures.
In the book Medieval Art, Stokstad remarks that one of Giotto’ stylistic attributes was his ability to fuse narrative with symbol. This is a form of abbreviation through the use of well-known religious iconographies. Stokstad writes: “Giotto’s strength as an artist comes from his ability to distill a complex narrative into a single telling moment.” (Stokstad, 1986, p. 362). One of the ways that Giotto achieved so much resonance was through his creation of sculpturally rendered figures. His work was a bridge to the Renaissance and a revolution against the flat figures of the Early Medieval period. This shows a political and religious connotation because Giotto is suggesting the personal, subjective emotional response to religious themes is not only permissible but unstoppable. He is encouraging a personal vision of religion.
Giotto’s use of line, color, texture and perspective were no less revolutionary than his themes. As Stokstad points out, Giotto’s rebelliousness was present “in art through the technique as well as the content of his paintings” which began a new style of defining “space almost entirely by means of his figures” (Stokstad, 1986, p. 362). Again, this carries political, cultural, and religious significance because it initiates a human-centered iconography for religious themes. In historical context, this iconography will later evolve into the humanist works of the Renaissance. The seed of these later developments is already present in Giotto’s “Lamentation.” As the preceding, brief discussion clearly shows, the questions and theories applied by art historians allow for a profound and immediate interpretation of an artist, a movement, and a cultural and historical context merely from investigating a single work of art.
Similarly, an artist like Caravaggio shows the bridge from one movement to another, in this case, a movement from the Renaissance to the Baroque Movement. His famous painting “Bacchus” (1595) was painted as a work of oil on canvas and takes as its subject, the Roman God of wine and festivals. A few assumptions can be made by any art historian given just these few details. The first and most important is, of course, the obvious shift in subject, from a work that shows a Christian theme to one that portrays a pagan theme. The second most important and obvious change in style is the representation of rich, detailed color and motion in the painting that is a shift from the aesthetic of the Renaissance. The kind of change that is initiated by the Baroque movement is one that rebels against the “stationary” quality of traditional art. This aesthetic evolution carries cultural, political, and religious significance. It is a continuation of the inward, “humanist” impulse that was associated with the Late Medieval period, but it differs from the articulation of that impulse as shown in the Renaissance.
In The Social History of Art (Vol. 2) (1957), Hauser mentions that Caravaggio’s rebelliousness of style conflicted so much with the opinions and tastes of his contemporaries that his work was devalued despite its technical mastery. Hauser asserts that “They objected to his paintings … and repeatedly turned them down, as they saw in them merely the unconventional form.” He goes on to mention that due to this reaction to Caravaggio’s work and other works of the Baroque movement, the movement itself became a turning point in the history of Western art. He writes that the Baroque movement was “the end of the “aesthetic culture” which begins with the Renaissance and the beginning of that more rigid distinction between content and form in which formal perfection no longer serves as an excuse for any ideological lapse. (Hauser, 1957, p. 184). This is an important observation about the nature of the cultural and religious evolution that accompanied the birth of the Baroque movement.
As evidenced by “Bacchus,” one of Caravaggio’s elements of style was to use color in a way that almost diminished the importance of line. This is a step away from the anatomical majesty of the Renaissance and it carries a thematic as well as aesthetic significance. Its thematic significance is that Caravaggio’s use of color is celebrating emotion, sensuous response and even sexual response, rather than a purely pious religious contemplation. The theme and subject of the painting are in complete unison with vibrant color and the use of perspective which invites the viewer “into” the scene. The painting is still based on a religious topic but it suggests that the human religious response is one that flows outside of the expected, traditional roles.
If Caravaggio’s style is on that works to “free” the use of color for emotional and symbolic purposes, it is still based on representing “classical” line and figures. That it is to say, it has not yet crossed over to abstract expressionism, but the first glimmerings of expressionism as an impulse in painting are present in the use of color in this work. Another important cultural inference of the painting, and the Baroque movement as a whole, is that it begins to suggest that emotion and passion are the primary energies of art, rather than the rational mastery of the Renaissance. This impulse leads of course to a more personal style of art, as well as a changing idea about why art is needed in the first plays and what role it plays in society. The Baroque movement was a movement that sought to bring observers into personal contact with great art and profound themes in order to undercut the “elitism” that had accompanied both art and knowledge throughout much of the medieval and renaissance periods.
Hauser, A. (1957). The Social History of Art (Vol. 2). New York: Vintage Books. Retrieved from
Stokstad, M. (1986). Medieval Art. New York: Harper & Row.