Comparing and Contrasting Baroque Art from Northern and Southern Europe

In Portuguese the word “Baroque” translates as “deformed pearl”. The Baroque period occurred between the late 1500s and early 1700s. During the 16th century, the Reformation occurred in Western Europe that divided Christianity between Catholics and Protestants. Most of the Northern countries of Europe (Britain, north and west Germany, Switzerland, Holland) became Protestant while Southern countries (Italy, Spain) remained Catholic. This divide led to different styles of art. Protestant churches no longer commissioned large-scale biblical pieces as they were thought to be idolatry and so replaced these with art that showed plainer and more personal Christianity. Catholic art remained dramatic and dark and varied from theatrical sculptures (Gianlorenzo Bernini) to fully painted ceilings (Michelangelo) designed to look like heaven, the aim being to teach people about the Bible and Catholicism. Two paintings, I believe, strongly depict the effect of the Reformation on Baroque art; Samson and Delilah (1609-1610) by Rubens and The Art of Painting (1665-1668) by Vermeer, also known as The Artist’s Studio, The Allegory of Painting or Painter in his Studio.

Peter Paul Rubens; Samson and Delilah; c.1609; 185 x 205cm (73 x 80½ in); oil on wood; National Gallery, London

Peter Paul Rubens; Samson and Delilah; c.1609; 185 x 205cm (73 x 80½ in); oil on wood; National Gallery, London

This piece, Samson and Delilah was painted when Rubens was just 31 years old. It tells the Old Testament story in which Samson reveals the secret to his strength – his uncut hair, to Philistine Delilah whom he had fallen in love with. It portrays the moment when having fallen asleep in Delilah’s lap, a servant cuts his hair, as Philistine soldiers enter through the doorway holding sharpened stakes to gouge out Samson the Israelite’s eyes. Once his hair grew back, Samson destroyed the Philistines temple using his returned strength in order to take revenge whilst sacrificing his own life.

Jan Vermeer, The Artist’s Studio; c.1665; 120 x 100cm (47 x 39½ in); oil on canvas; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Jan Vermeer, The Artist’s Studio; c.1665; 120 x 100cm (47 x 39½ in); oil on canvas; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Art of Painting is a great example of a genre scene – a small scale depiction of a domestic interior, which usually spelled out a moral or political message. The piece shows an artist in his studio painting a female model standing in front of a large map of the Low Countries. The objective of Samson and Delilah is to tell a scene from a story, while Vermeer focuses on a moment itself and allows the viewer to create the story themselves.

There is a difference between the two female figures in both paintings. Delilah the Philistine is painted with smooth, plump skin and flushing cheeks that contrast with the old woman behind her. Although the old woman is not mentioned in the Bible, it is believed that Rubens included her to intensify Delilah’s youth and beauty and her malevolent appearance resembles Delilah’s ignorance toward the impending fate of Samson. She is not posing but reposes as the tilt of her head imitates that of the Venus statue above. The rich, bright red colour of her dress symbolizes not only intense passion and lust, but also danger and blood that will proceed in this scene.

The woman in The Art of Painting represents Clio, muse of history. The wreath of laurel that she is wearing on her head stands for glory and eternal life. In her left hand she carries a trumpet, which stands for fame. In her right, a large book, perhaps in which she records all her heroic deeds or it may be a volume by Thucydides or Herodotus. Unlike Delilah, she is posing with meaning, her whole demeanour is less natural and the way her eyes are pointing down makes her look modest.

What strikes me most about these two paintings is that they have both exaggerated the use of shadows and highlights but there is also a great variation of colour palette and use of lighting. Chiaroscuro in art is Italian for the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. For Rubens, this style was strongly influenced by the Italian artist Caravaggio. The lighting is extremely theatrical as if using spotlights to illuminate the scene. The old woman’s candle emits a soft, pale glow of light on Delilah that carries over to Samson enlivening the curves of his back and arm, during which the Philistine soldiers emerge from a dark corner, their faces lightened by the flaming torch. A quote from Guido Reni of Peter Paul Rubens said, “The fellow mixes blood with his colours”.

Vermeer had a meticulous observation of light and precise handling of colour. For The Art of Painting, there appears to be a much more natural source of light although this is hidden behind a heavy, woven curtain, drawn to the side to reveal the scene. Many of the highlights in this piece are painted in dots, delicate, small beads of light that appear on the curtain, studs on the chair and the chandelier. It is said that to create light and shadow, he used a camera obscura – a box painted white inside with a hole and with a lenses and mirrors in it to reflect the outside image inside. It allowed him to see more detail and depth in his work as the shadows and highlights would be more exaggerated. “Vermeer’s most remarkable quality…is the quality of his light” – Theophille Thore.

Both paintings include symbolism – items or people included to have hidden meanings. For example, the addition of a statue of Venus and Cupid in Samson and Delilah is designed to complement the erotic nature of the scene. The main characters’ hands are gestured in such a way that reveals their mental and physical state. The man cutting the hair has delicate and intricate hands as if performing surgery that reflects the cunning and elaborate plot for the subject’s downfall. The luxurious fabrics such as red and gold silks and satins and heavily embroidered materials set the scene for the sensual treatment of Samson. While these symbols are a visual addition to the telling of a story, Vermeer often used symbolism to represent things outside of the scene.

At the top of the beautiful chandelier is the two-headed eagle of Hapsburgs (the Spanish royal family). There are no candles as this reminds the viewer of the Hapsburgs’ power deteriorating. On the table you can see a plaster mask – an imitation of a face which perhaps represents art as being an imitation. Due to its position it may be identified as a death mask and so may represent the death of painting in southern regions still under Spanish rule. The easel points towards the new republic of Holland on the map. Even the vertical crease in the map directly marks the division of Protestant Holland and Catholic Flanders (which was still under political control and cultural influence of Spain). Vermeer deliberately decided to paint the artist in clothes before his time (15th century) as an attempt to connect with an era of other great artists such as van Eyck and van der Weyden.

A similarity between the paintings is their placement of the scene to draw attention to particular features. The curve of Samson’s back draws the eye to the faces of the main characters during the tense and anticipated moment. It is also noteworthy that Rubens studied Michelangelo’s work in Italy which probably inspired the large, muscular frame of Samson’s body.

In The Art of Painting there is a strong use of horizontal and vertical features which frame the piece and give it a sense of peace and stability, i.e. the roof beams are strong and vertical, as well as the map rollers, table, floor and chair. The floor tiles add dimension and you can follow them either side of the painting, left or right. The artist sits directly on a cross shape that three or four tiles diagonally left follow a line directly towards the model. The draperies on the table top allow light to come in from the window and cascade down them to create a waterfall effect. The prominent position of the chair almost invites the viewer to take a seat at this setting adding to the personal ambience. However, as both the artist and model are absorbed in their task at hand there the feeling of not wanting to intrude on such an intimate scene.

To conclude, these pieces have been an example of how Protestants experienced their faith internally as their art was always more understated and modest whilst Catholics used paintings and sculptures to dramatically tell a Biblical story to draw in the mass crowds and teach Christianity. There are many similarities in both their styles due to the fact that most of the artistic techniques originated in Italy (the use of chiaroscuro). The signature differences between the two are the messages or stories being portrayed through the pieces. The Catholics vivid and theatrical approach provokes the viewers’ emotion. Protestant paintings would convey the emotion of the artist and so resulted in a more sympathetic experience from the viewer.

Despite the fact that very little is known about Vermeer’s life, and only about 35 surviving works can be attributed to him, the work is full of insignia and statements relating to his achievements and status as a 17th century painter in Holland. Rubens can be described as one of the most influential artists of the Baroque era. Although Flemish, he lived in Italy from 1600-08. In 1629, he was knighted by Charles I of England and was a big contributor to bridging the gap between Northern and Southern Europe.



Robert Cumming, Art (Annotated Guides), London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. 1995


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