The Art of Persuasion

Article excerpt

The art of persuasion

DURING the eighteenth century, the landscape of Catholic Central Europe became saturated with religious monuments: roadside crucifixes, statues of the "bridge saint' John Nepomuk, calvaries (mostly in combination with a via crucis), pilgrimage churches, and a multitude of new monasteries. The architecture of the epoch was thus closely related to the environment, which it sought to transform into a "sacred landscape' which everywhere should remind man of the "true faith'.

In accordance with this aim, the works of art and architecture in question have an exuberant and persuasive character. The manifest religious ecstasy of the figures is echoed in the flame-like towers of the churches, in the interior of which heaven becomes visible in the illusionary paintings of the vaults. Even the palaces of the aristocracy have a similar expression. Being rulers "by God's grace', princes also had to present the basic axioms of faith.

In general, we may say that baroque art and architecture is a product of the Counter-Reformation, the basis of which was the esprit de systeme of the seventeenth century, that is, the belief that the world may be understood as a system deducible from a few immutable a priori dogmas. According to counter-reformatory policy, these dogmas ought to be presented as vividly as possibly. At the Council of Trent it was decided that "The Bishops shall carefully teach this: that, by means of the Stories of the Mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people are instructed and confirmed in the habit of remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith'.

Persuasion thus became the basic means of achieving the participation needed by the system. The most famous example of this approach can be found in the "Spiritual Exercises' of St. Ignatius Loyola, which aimed at an imitation of Christ by means of imagination and empathy. And the Jesuits in fact made an essential contribution to the diffusion of baroque art.

Imagination as a means implies that the world is transformed into a "theatre' and that the church is intended as a teatrum sacrum where the articles of faith are enacted. Hence the expressive and illusionary character of baroque art. Following the principles laid down at the Council of Trent, baroque art and architecture were born in Rome, the centre of the Catholic Church. In architecture we may distinguish between two currents: the truly theatrical one, developed by Bernini, where architecture serves as a splendid but conventionally ordered background to the "stories' told by illusionary painting and sculpture, and the "architectural' one, invented by Borromini, where space itself is set into motion and becomes a means of emotional expression. Borromini's more original treatment of architecture as such was further developed by Guarini, who in numerous projects for Theatine churches defined space as a system of interdependent cells which seem to be subject to a movement of pulsation. In fact, Guarini considered the pulsating, undulating movement a basic property of nature.

As a manifestation of the Counter-Reformation, Central European Baroque has a double face. Firstly, it aims at persuading the people, and from the very beginning it therefore assimilated local traditions and beliefs to become part of the world of daily life. It also had to express the power of those who were the guardians of faith, that is, the bishop and the prince, who in Central Europe were often one and the same person. Therefore, the Central European Baroque is popular as well as grandiose, and aims at communicating with "everybody'.

The architecture of the Counter-Reformation was introduced into Central Europe by the Jesuits before the end of the sixteenth century. It was only after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), however, that building activity gained full momentum, and the main works of Central European Baroque stem from the eighteenth century. …