I’ve been asked more than once, and I have encountered various people who have expressed confusion regarding Baroque vs. Renaissance art. In fact, despite my several courses in art history and appreciation, it still took me several hours of individual study to really get a grasp of the difference. Most people understand that if a painting or sculpture is made in Europe between 1300 and 1600, it’s likely a Renaissance work. And, if it’s a European work made between 1600 and 1750, then it’s Baroque. But if you don’t know the dates of a work, or if you don’t know the artist or when the artist lived, how can you tell if it’s Baroque or Renaissance?
Well, before we discuss what differentiates the two, let’s look at some similarities between the Baroque and Renaissance art so that we can clearly understand why there is confusion: Both terms (“Renaissance” and “Baroque”) are used to identify two different things regarding pictorial art: the historical era and the artistic style. Both terms refer to decidedly European eras and styles. Both styles are known to excel in portraying realism. Both styles use vivid, evocative pigments, and, what is perhaps most vexing is that, where subject matter is concerned, both eras have strong emphases on topics from the Judeo-Christian Bible or from Greco-Roman mythology. It’s really no wonder that there is confusion of the eras and styles. If you’re one of them, be encouraged; you are far from alone.
As a foundation for learning the difference between these two eras and these two styles, it might be helpful to begin with two key words. A good word for Renaissance art is “stabilize,” while a good one for the Baroque is “dramatize.” One fine way to demonstrate the importance of these two words is to look at art in the 21st-century world of science fiction. Artists who work in the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises also have to be able to demonstrate drama and stability separately.
PART I: THE LINE STRATEGY
In the realm of Star Trek, when artists and directors want to show the Enterprise (when not at warp speed), or a space station—K7 or DS9—as stationary and stable, they show the subject as horizontal from the viewer’s perspective. Alternatively, to demonstrate stability for something that needs to be narrow and standing, a perfect vertical perspective achieves the same effect. It is a simple device, whether horizontal or vertical, but most effective for demonstrating that nothing is amiss. Now, let’s understand something on this: We’re talking about space. For those within a ship or station, there is a clear up and down, but for the station itself or for the ship itself, out in space, there is no up nor down. If you and I are approaching a space station in a space ship we could be entirely on one side or even upside down in relation to the station and no one would really feel a difference. But for the sake of the movies or TV, showing both from the same angle in space suggests to viewers that all is stable.
Renaissance art uses the same device and for the same purpose, even though you’ll seldom (if ever) find a Renaissance spacescape. But when you see a representation of The Madonna and Child or of the Crucifixion, the use of distinctly horizontal or vertical lines is clearly emphasized. Sometimes the artist will go so far as to compose a painting to be visually similar to a pyramid so that the widest part of the subject is toward the bottom and the narrowest part at the top, because the pyramid is the most stable 3-D shape. Look below at “The Madonna of the Goldfinch,” which is presented twice to demonstrate the horizontal and the pyramid shape in an edited version.
The pyramid-shape composition also applies to sculpture during the renaissance. Consider the famous “Pietà” by Michelangelo. As seen from the front, the pedestal and Mary’s legs comprise the bottom with Christ, who is markedly smaller that Mary, on her lap in the middle of the sculpture, and Mary’s shoulders and head marking the peak. It, like so many Renaissance works of art, conforms to the horizontal stability factor.
However, as I mentioned earlier, there is another way to create the sense of stability in Renaissance art: the vertical line. In most cases, with the vertical line, there is still some form of horizontal line that accompanies it, which is one reason that the cross for a crucifixion painting his always so prominent. Also, this is not to say that there won’t be diagonal lines. What we’re discussing with the idea of stability in Renaissance art is the majority and the more prominent focus of the composition. In “Crucifixion” by Andrea Mantegna the vertical lines are emphasized in the poles of the three crosses, but the three horizontal lines are crated, at the top, by the three cross beams, in the mid section by the feet of the condemned with the tops of the heads of the spectators, and at the bottom with the lateral lines in the steps at the base. Below is Mantegna’s “Crucifixion” first without, then with editing. After that are four other crucifixion scenes for you to find the horizontal and vertical lines for yourself.
As I mentioned before, while the key word for the Renaissance is “stabilize,” the key word for the Baroque is “dramatize,” but with the concept of drama also comes a noted instability or intense energy, and the artists of Star Trek employ some tactics that were well known in Baroque Europe. When they need to show that a ship or station is in trouble or adrift, they place the Enterprise or their station at an intense angle from the viewer’s perspective, usually with something else in the image to emphasize the off-kilter orientation—another larger or closer object, perhaps.
Another effect of depicting a subject at an angle is to demonstrate great energy, such as in the picture of the Klingon Cruiser below. In this picture, the ship is supposed to be travelling at great “warp” speeds. The angle of the ship helps to capture that feeling of speed and energy.
The Baroque artists of Europe also understood this principle: build a composition on an angle to give energy or to create instability or to add drama. In the Baroque, however, the lines that are there are still less emphasized visually than they are in the Renaissance. It seems that often in the Renaissance, items are placed in the composition in order to emphasize the horizontal and Vertical lines, even including the horizon itself. In the Baroque, the lines might start with one part of the composition and continue with another, seemingly unrelated part of the composition. In fact, sometimes the blackness of the background functions as a diagonal line. In order to make the distinction between the two eras as clear as possible, I’ll continue with the same painted topics as before, so that you can more easily compare and contrast.
Consider first the painting “Madonna with Child and St. John the Baptist.” There is no emphasis on the horizontal except in the base of the window, but even that covers less than a third of the canvas, and seems entirely incidental. However, there is a strong diagonal line marked, in part, by the edge of red curtains, and by Mary’s head and hand, Christ’s head and back. There are also two parallel diagonal lines: one extends from Mary’s head and down her arm, the other follows the left arm of John the Baptist and goes up toward the arm of Jesus. Notice also that both Mary’s and Christ’s eyes are fixed on John producing an implied “V” in the centre of the canvas. This painting is presented below, once without and once with editorial markings.
In the “Madonna and Child” by an unknown Baroque Belgian artist, there is a distinct line that runs from the eyes of John the Baptist to the eyes of Christ and up to the eyes of Joseph. Notice that Mary’s eyes are not included, but are placed well above the line made by the other three to emphasize her place in heaven. It is made even more prominent by the angel, centred above her, but who is looking down on Mary, and this creates a second line almost vertical, but not quite. A third line is created by the angle of the angel’s body that creates a line that extends to the top of Joseph’s head. These three lines create an almost invisible triangle. Also note that there is nearly nothing horizontal in the painting. Instead, as if in defiance of the horizon, the artists has used Mary’s dress to create a semi-circle along the bottom. Once again, this painting is placed below twice.
The same use of diagonals is used in the topic of the Crucifixion as well, but with even greater drama. In the “Crucifixion” by Pedro Orrente there is the obvious diagonal of the ladder, which is doubled by the two people on that ladder. Another line begins with Christ’s left hand, past his eye and straight down to the top of the accusation that is to be nailed to the cross just above him. Another line begins with the toe of the person on the upper right of the canvas, past the eyes of the three witnesses and follows down the line of their bodies. I have also indicated a line that is not at all visible, obscured by the witnesses, but implied by the bases of the three cross poles in the ground, and this line would contrast directly with the Christ’s cross beam above it.
Interestingly, there is a horizontal line in this painting made by moving across the feet of the three condemned men and to the boy’s head and shoulders on the left. This may have religious connotations, perhaps suggesting the stability brought by Christ’s sacrifice, but when you consider the absolute necessity of perspective from one man to the next, and the impressive quality of the art, one must consider that this line across the feet is absolutely intentional, and therefore has some meaning.
PART II: THE TEMPORAL STATEMENT
There is a lot more to the stability of Renaissance art besides its use of horizontal and vertical lines; the time frame must also be considered. There is a reason that the composition of the Renaissance Madonna and Child motif is often pyramidical and stable: There is an implied length of time—from a number of seconds to, perhaps minutes—in Renaissance art. I’m not talking about “timelessness,” in which the content of the piece could take place in virtually any era, I’m talking about a duration of time in the piece itself.
It goes without saying that the Crucifixion scenes would suggest a duration, even several, separate events illustrated at a time. But in the case of the Madonna and Child we can look at both Da Vinci’s and Ghirlandaio’s executions of this motif. In the latter of the two, there is a delightful ambiguity of the exchange between mother and child. In once sense, it appears that Mary is looking at baby Jesus, who returns her gaze as any baby would look back to his mother. His stance, as he leans on his mother for . . . stability . . . could be a purely childlike attempt of an unproficient stand. Even his right hand gesture could be one of an infant unsure of whether he’s about to fall or not.
At the same time, however, looking closer at their gazes, you can see that Jesus doesn’t really look at Mary in her eyes, but is looking off in the distance a bit. His stance could be seen as one of someone in deep but casual discussion, and the gesture of his right hand could be seen as indicating a future in heaven or as a counterpoint argument—almost as though Christ as an infant, still has all the capabilities for intelligent discourse of a mature adult. Mary, on closer inspection, is also not really looking to baby Jesus, but is looking down to the left (from her perspective) of Jesus, and her expression is sadness, perhaps considering the horror of her eldest son’s impending demise on the cross. However you look at the painting, though, there is time consumed within the composition. Mary could continue to stand as she is for hours as could the Baby Jesus.
This principal stands true in Renaissance sculpture as well. Consider Michelangelo’s famous statue of David. Here we have a 20-foot tall young man in a very stable stance. His right leg is engaged and is entirely vertical as a result, as is his right arm and torso. The statue portrays David as he is just about to take the giant, Goliath, in battle, and David is either engaged in contemplating his strategy or waiting for Goliath to complete his wonted taunts. Either way, this sculpture consumes time. David can maintain that posture for a long period.
There is also Donatello’s David, which portrays David after his battle with Goliath. His foot rests on the giant’s head while his engaged leg is placed solidly beside his sword. There is a distinct attitude that comes across from the sculpture, but, once again, there is no immediacy to the sculpture.
In the same vein, consider the facial expressions of these two representations. There is emotion with both; there is distinct understanding of thought translated to the viewer, but there is no distinct muscular intensity with either subject. Again, there is no reason that these expressions cannot last for great lengths of time.
In sharp contrast with these expressions, below is the face of David by Giovanni Bernini, an Italian Baroque sculptor whose depiction of David puts him smack in the middle of whipping the stone at Goliath. In his face is the fleeting expression of exertion, determination and the distinct concentration of someone employing a well practiced skill. The point is, it’s a portrait of the briefest of instances—a snapshot of motion.
Because it’s a sculpture rather than a painting, we are dealing more with curvatures than we are with lines, but the same angles still apply to Baroque sculpture as it does with painting; the intersecting arcs give Baroque sculpture the same dynamism as the painting, but in both cases, we are in the dramatic throes of an instant of time. The David of Bernini’s sculpture would not be able to maintain his pose for more than a frozen fleeting fragment of a moment in time.
PART III: THE BACKDROPS
The final section of this article deals more with the key word of the Baroque than it does with the key word of the Renaissance, because it deals with the backgrounds of the paintings, which do more for drama in the Baroque than they do to add stability in the Renaissance. Even so, there is a stark contrast between the two, and so it can be explored.
In the Renaissance, the back grounds are always fully developed parts of the paintings. The may be scenes of the horizon or scenes of the back of a room, but the backdrops are there in surprising detail. As such, they don’t do a lot for stability, but they do add a dimension of completion. Consider, for example, Leonardo’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting: a portrait of a young woman sitting on a balcony with a purely fictitious background in the distance. You still have the vertical and horizontal lines in the visible parts of the balcony, and in the horizon, as well. You have the distinct time component. After all, how long is a person able to sit comfortably on a beautiful balcony? And you have a complete background replete with that typical da Vinci-esque sfumato effect (giving an area a hazy effect by causing colours to blend gradually together). The “Mona Lisa” is everything that a great Renaissance painting should be.
In the Baroque, however, the backdrops are considered so unimportant that they are often simply blackened out. Mind you, sometimes—with portraits—Renaissance artist would use this approach, but far less frequently. But the Baroque artists use this concept to their advantage to dramatize their painting. But again, to fully understand the effect, let’s look at a modern example: Bev Doolittle’s extraordinary work called “Unknown Presence.” The canvas itself is strikingly horizontal with more than half of it entirely shrouded in darkness. The subject of the painting, a lone, 19th-century traveller and his horse at alert near their fire. Their attention drawn dramatically into the darkness. Their expressions show surprise, caution, vigilance and, perhaps, a bit of fear, as the traveller reaches for his rifle.
The darkness of this painting is not unimportant. What is unimportant is precisely what has alerted the traveller and his horse to rouse them so. The darkness, however, serves to dramatize for viewers exactly what the traveller is feeling. We see him looking into the darkness and so, we do too. We squint and try to focus at the black paint, just as the traveller is or will be doing into the dark, trying to find some faint hint as to what’s there. It is NOT “nothing.”
This is a prime example of great use of what is called “tenebrism,” which, depending on how you want to focus is either the dark itself, or it’s the contrast of the lighted area against the darkness. It is also known as “dramatic illumination,” and is brought about by the use of very dark pigments, not necessarily just black, and highly pronounced “chiaroscuro,” which is the name given to the effect of light falling from a single direction or source. The artists of the Baroque used this device, “tenebrism,” to great effect for 150 years.
Consider Peter Paul Rubens version of “Prometheus Bound,” where the tenebrism carries the back of the eagle into the depths of doom. Consider his “Raising of the Cross” and the tenebrism right behind the head of Christ. There the dark is so rich that one man appears behind Jesus from nowhere to help raise the cross. Nearly all of Rembrandt’s background is darkness in his own version of “Raising of the Cross.” The tenebrism can be used to bring about a sense of the bleak or desolate, or it can be used to emphasize the drama of the momentary action that appears to be lighted.
Yes, I do suppose there is more that I could talk about: the differing uses of the artists’ brush strokes, the wider field of topics in the Baroque, the maddening abundance of Greco-Roman allusions in the Renaissance, but you have enough now to begin your own exploration of the two styles/eras. The key words “stabilize” and “dramatize” for the Renaissance and Baroque, respectively, and how they draw those ideas out in their art remain consistent with other things to be discovered, but they are clearly outlined in the horizontal and vertical orientations in the Renaissance, and the highly angular orientations in the Baroque. The stability of time in the Renaissance in contrast with the fleeting moment in the Baroque. Now, examine the styles for yourself and discover new differences of your own.
Below is a brief quiz with 10 paintings, some are Baroque and some are Renaissance. (There may or may not be five of each.) They are all numbered, and I challenge you to quiz yourself with it to see, not just how much you picked up in this article, but how clearly the article is written. Yes, some of them are tricky. Let us know how you scored and what you think I can make more clear in the article.
Renaissance vs Baroque Art Quiz:
Directions: Number a spare sheet of paper from 1-10. Carefully examine the paintings one at a time, and beside each number on your page, indicate the era of the painting by writing an “R” if the work is from the Renaissance, and a “B” if the work is from the Baroque. The answers are shown at the end of this page.
Quiz Answers further below
About the Writer:
A. J. Mittendorf is an avid art lover who has studied art history, art appreciation and art interpretation, for more than two decades. His Master’s degree is in Literature and his undergraduate degree is in English Education. As an educator, he enjoys writing for an online, international art magazine, Art, Artists, Artwork so he can use his educational background and skills in the field of art to help promote artists and help buyers select the art that is best for them.
Renaissance vs Baroque Art Quiz Answers
1. Baroque: “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” (1633) by Rembrandt (1606-1669)
2. Baroque: “Crucifixion of St. Peter” (1600) by Caravaggio (1571-1610)
3. Renaissance: “Pieta Bandini” (1547) Michelangelo (1475-1564)
4. Renaissance: “La Belle Jardinière” (1507) by Raphael (1483-1520)
5. Renaissance: “Portrait of a Cardinal” (1510) by Raphael (1483 -1520)
6. Baroque: “The Calling of St Matthew” (1600) by Caravaggio (1571-1610)
7. Baroque: “The Man With the Golden Helmet” (c. 1650) by Rembrandt (1606-1669)
8. Baroque: “The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini” (1598-1680)
9. Renaissance: “The School of Athens” (1509-1511) Raphael (1483-1520)
10. Renaissance: “Venus and Mars” (1483) by Boticelli (1445-1510)