Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The Baroque Exemplified: Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conception

Liturgical Art At It’s Best

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy that in his opinion, there are three authentic liturgical styles of Catholic art: the iconographic, the Gothic and the Baroque (at its best!) The Varoque tradition was developed as part of the cultural renewal that took place after the Council of Trent and as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In the late 16th century, Frederico Barocci and the more powerful Caravaggio became the pioneers of a style of sacred art that dominated the 17th century and the first part of the 18th. By the middle of the 18th century, artistic fashion was tending more towards the non-Christian influences of the self-indulgence of Rococo, and then the sterile idealism of Neo-Classicism.

The Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) was one of the last great painters of sacred art who worked in the Baroque tradition; when he died, in Spain, he was swimming against the Neo-Classical current. Tiepolo is a master who added his own developments to the form of 17th-century Baroque, but without compromising on the principles of the tradition. This makes him worthy of attention today.

The Immaculate Conception by Tiepolo
The mark of a living tradition is that it able to reapply its principles without compromising on those aspects that define it; when it does this it, always speaks to and of its time. This is different from pastiche, which is a rigid copying of style. (Although frankly I think pastiche is underrated – I’d take decent pastiche of the 17th-century Baroque over modernism every time.)

The iconography of the Immaculate Conception was developed in Spain. Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), who was the teacher of Spanish Baroque masters Alonso Cano and Velazquez (and the father-in-law of the latter), described the composition of the Immaculate Conception in his influential book, The Art of Painting (Arte de la Pintura), published posthumously in 1649. (Frustratingly, I have only ever seen small excerpts of this book in English, and have not been able to get hold of a translation of the full document.)

Pacheco wrote: “The version that I follow is the one that is closest to the holy revelation of the Evangelist [John, writing in the Apocalypse] and approved by the Catholic Church on the authority of the sacred and holy interpreters... In this loveliest of mysteries, Our Lady should be painted as a beautiful young girl, 12 or 13 years old, in the flower of her youth...And thus she is praised by the husband: tota pulchra es amica mea, a text that is always written in this painting. She should be painted wearing a white tunic and a blue mantle... She is surrounded by the sun, an oval sun of white and ochre, which sweetly blends into the sky. Rays of light emanate from her head, around which is a ring of twelve stars. An imperial crown adorns her head, without, however, hiding the stars. Under her feet is the moon.”

by Murillo
He also specified that her hands are to be folded on her bosom or joined in prayer. The sun is to be expressed by a flood of light around her. The moon under her feet is to have the horns pointing downwards, because illuminated from above. Around her are to hover cherubim bearing roses, palms, and lilies; the head of the bruised and vanquished dragon is to be under her feet. She ought to have the cord of St. Francis as a girdle, “because in this guise she appeared to Beatriz de Silva, a noble Franciscan nun, who was favored by a celestial vision of the Madonna in her beatitude.”

All these accessories are not absolutely and rigidly required, and the 17th century Spanish artist Murillo, who is perhaps the painter most known for the Conception, strayed from Pacheco without being considered the less orthodox for it. An example is shown right. His moon, for example, is sometimes full, or when a crescent, the horns point upwards instead of downwards. I prefer Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conception to this or any of Murillo’s that I have seen.

The rose symbolizes Our Lady, and the white colour, as with that of the lily, symbolizes Her purity. Palms, deriving from Palm Sunday, symbolize spiritual victory and triumph over death (often used with martyrs.) In this case it is emphasizing Mary’s crucial role in the victory achieved by her Son. The dove, of course, symbolizes the Holy Ghost.

In this example, Tiepolo varies the focus; where he mutes the color, he uses tonal variation to describe form, in characteristic Baroque mode. Look, for example, at the mantle. This is intended to be seen in our mind’s eye as uniformly blue, in accordance with Pacheco’s specifications. However, only part of it in his painting of it is actually blue. Much is rendered tonally in brown ochre and sepia. 

Tiepolo is noted for giving his paintings a lightness and airiness that did not exist in works of the previous century. He has achieved this by using colours in a higher register than many of his 17th-century counterparts would have done – more pale blue, bright yellow and orange for example. He also he deftly varied the colours that he used for the purely tonal description. As mentioned in connection with the mantle, he uses sepia and brown ochre; elsewhere he uses yellow ochre. Contrast this with, for example, Rembrandt’s St Bartholomew:
All his tonal description is in a dark sepia, which creates a sense of heavy shadow wherever it is used. Tiepolo used quite a range of colours as well. For example, in John the Baptist Preaching, we see him modelling tonal areas in blue-greys and green-greys. All this helps to lend a mood in a Tiepolo that is more joyful and less somber than a Rembrandt.

Finally, Guido Reni’s: Saint Sebastian, and example of classic 17th-century Baroque liturgical art with the deep contrast of light and dark. This light symbolises the Light of the World overcoming the darkness, the presence of evil and suffering in a fallen world.

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