An Art of Gilt and Pathos

Article excerpt

An art of gilt and pathos

IT should be said at the outset that religion played a fundamental role in the development of Spanish Baroque. We shall not go into the question of the meaning of the term baroque, still less consider whether, as the Spanish critic Eugenio d'Ors has claimed, it is a cultural constant, recurring throughout the history of art in different periods and forms, in alternation with classicism.

In his book Principles of Art History, the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin broadly defined "classical' and "baroque' as static and changing forms of art respectively. In another influential book, Baroque, the Art of the Counter-Reformation, by Werner Weisbach, the Baroque is seen as a passionate reaction against Renaissance paganism.

Some specialists have recently suggested that there is an intermediate style known as Mannerism, which did not commit the rhythmic and decorative excesses of the Baroque but did reject the balance of the Renaissance in an endeavour to achieve heightened emotional effects (the most renowned example of this style is perhaps Michelangelo's Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel, Rome). Some scholars consider that Mannerism is the true art of the Counter-Reformation, and the Spanish critic Jose Camon Aznar has suggested that the term "mannerist' should be replaced by "trentine' (after the Council of Trent, which codified the principles of the Counter-Reformation).

The monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, one of the outstanding monuments of Spanish architecture, is an example of this style. It was built near Madrid between 1563 and 1584 on the orders of Philip II. Its architects were Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, the latter of whom gave his name to the "herreran style'. Characterized by austerity, clarity of line and volume, and an attachment to regular, geometrical forms, the style of the Escorial was to influence the development of Spanish architecture throughout most of the seventeenth century, and remained a model until it was supplanted in the eighteenth century by the highly ornamental "churrigueresque' style, which took its name from that of a family of architects, the Churrigueras.

Most ecclesiastical buildings in the Spanish baroque style were built to rectilinear plans until well into the eighteenth century, and innovations were confined to ornamentation. Many churches were built to a plan derived from that of Il Gesu in Rome, the mother church of the Society of Jesus, which had been founded by the Spaniard Ignatius Loyola. The plan of Il Gesu is cruciform, and there is a dome above the crossing of the transepts and the nave. On each side of the nave there is a row of chapels. There are also examples of vast oblong churches, whose architectural sobriety contrasts with their abundant, showy decoration, in wood and plaster, sometimes stone and metal. Ironwork is rich and abundant, and the chapels usually have wrought-iron gates. The decoration of the upper part of the church may take the form of stalactite-like shapes and other ornamental relief carvings of the type described technically as "Grotesque'. In some cases these are vestiges of the mudejar style of Muslim Spain (al-Andalus) which lasted from the eighth century until the end of the fifteenth century.

The lower part of the walls is often covered with altarpieces in the form of a triumphal arch with richly decorated columns and pediments. The largest altarpiece, in the apse, is a monumental structure which reaches to the vaults and is usually entirely covered with gilt and polychrome painting. In the church of San Esteban in Salamanca is a massive altarpiece designed by Jose de Churriguera (1668-1725). It has siz huge twisted "Solomonic' columns, modelled on a column in Rome which was supposed to have been part of Solmon's temple; this form became famous when Bernini used it for the baldacchino, or ornamental canopy, over St. Peter's tomb (see photo page 5). …