Spanish Baroque


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Spain enjoyed a long and productive Baroque period, full of important artistic figures and interesting regional schools whose influence lasted until well into the 18th century. During the 17th century there was a deep economic crisis in the Peninsula. However, despite the difficult situation it was a Golden Age for religion, culture, art and literature. The Catholic Reformation's main theologians were from Spain and their postulates governed the country's artistic codification to a greater extent than in any other European Catholic nation. The fact that monarchical absolutism, predominant in the rest of Europe, was weakened in Spain as a result of ecclesiastical power contributed to this situation. This state of affairs had a determining influence over the Arts, as the Church commissioned nine tenths of all paintings, meaning that religious themes outweighed mythological, battle and secular themes. The oil paintings commissioned were usually large in size. Bright, varied colours were used, highlighted by various light sources that came from all angles, contrasting each other and creating great shadows and illuminated zones. Figures appeared in dynamic postures, with very expressive gestures and faces because the Baroque was the period of sentiment. Magnificent compositions, with sumptuously dressed figures, in religious or mythological allegories, great court or battle scenes were some of the most obvious examples of Baroque art. On the battle theme Velasquez's painting The Surrender of Breda is very well known. The main artistic production centres were Seville and Madrid due to economic and administrative reasons. Subject matter, as we have mentioned, was on the whole religious. However, the typology within this theme was very varied. The most significant was the altarpiece, of Gothic origin, maintained during the Renaissance. The difference between these earlier styles and the Baroque altarpiece was that it had fewer scenes and was larger, which helped the faithful to "read" the scenes. A further difference was that the saints they were dedicated to were less well known, often because they corresponded with the name of the client. Also the compositions were different, they were more complicated and followed the rules laid down by the Counter-Reformation: colour, naturalism, and identifiable with the faithful so as to facilitate their access to Catholic dogmas. After the altarpiece, the most popular commission was the monastic cycle, ranging from a dozen to a hundred-odd canvases that were hung in the monastery that contracted the work. The theme of course was the saints, the Order's founders and other important figures connected to it. Formats were sometimes combined, depending on the room that was to be decorated. Complete convent series are hard to come by nowadays, more often than not they have been split up, such as Zurbaran's cycle for the Mercedarian monks that can be contemplated in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. The Schools of Madrid and Seville were notable for the quality of the work their artists produced, and the still life paintings done during this period alos stood out. The divine portrait (nobles, the wealthy, and kings who had their portrait painted in the style of the saint of their devotion) and the small devotional paintings commissioned by private individuals were the other religious commissions of the period. Mythological paintings or battle and secular themes were quite scarce, and those that existed were often by Italian artists and were always the result of a direct commission by the court to decorate palaces. The Baroque had a number of obvious influences. One was Flemish painting, which had a deep-rooted tradition in Spain due to the Peninsula's political links with the Low Countries. The style in the region for this period, the Flemish Baroque, provided the Spanish Baroque with models to copy, and possibly was a greater influence than the Italian version. There was an enormous influx of Italian artists and works by Italian painters during the second half of the 17th century. The arrival of Rubens at the Spanish Court in Madrid, made a big impact and his artistic innovations extended throughout the territory. As was indicated at the beginning, the Golden Age was illustrated by some of the most important names in art. Its generation of painters, most of whom were born in the 1590s and therefore were working until around 1650 or 1660, included artists such as Zurbarán, Velázquez, Alonso Cano, Ribera and Murillo (who was younger than the others). These painters were preceded and followed by a distinguished group of artists who were overshadowed by the genius of the first group, but by no means lacked quality themselves. These artists are representative of the Schools mentioned, and illustrate the spirit of an epoch that lasted until the next century and that has inspired painters all over the world to this day.

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