Giving life to the Canvas
The sense of awe, peculiar to baroque art, resulted from a revolution in the style and manner of representing space. The artists of the seventeenth century inherited from the Renaissance the idea, perhaps best expressed by Leonardo da Vinci, that "the first object of the painter is to make a flat plane appear as a body in relief and projecting from that plane"; or, in other words, to give the painted object a three-dimensional reality. Baroque artists extended the idea of giving life to the canvas still further. The object was meant not simply to exist in three dimensions but to move. Just as seventeenth-century science introduced motion into our understanding of the physical universe , artists introduced motion into their work, so that space extends into the fourth dimension of time.
Baroque art produces an illusion not only of presence but of motion in the sense that a physicist would understand it: the displacement of a body with mass through three-dimensional space over time. In this sense, baroque art is theatrical: the illusion of motion produces an effect that is both figuratively and literally dramatic. The theater, too, is a visual art. At the same time as painters were experimenting with novel effects that suggested movement on canvas, the use of perspectival scenery became common in Europe. Both art forms rely on trompe l'oeil devices, on illusion, tricks of light and the clever placement of drapery, for example, to heighten the viewer's sense of the reality of what is depicted.
The space of baroque art is projective. Within the picture, everything recedes toward a vanishing point, plunging into the depths of the pictorial space with exaggerated velocity. The represented objects simultaneously invade the space of the onlooker. Baroque art unites the painting and the viewer in a single space, creating the illusion that the image is as real as its beholder and that the pictorial space extends infinitely.
By the second half of the seventeenth century, most people knew that the universe was infinite, containing a multitude of suns around which revolved countless planets, and stars. The concept of infinite space generated great excitement and equally great anxiety. Art historian John Rupert Martin suggests that this sense of pictorial space is analogous to the broader, cosmologic concept of infinity that was gaining hold during the seventeenth century .
A world of light and shadow, and in baroque art more generally, the effect of movement and action was more important than the effect of symmetry and balance that had dominated the art of the Renaissance. Baroque artists aimed to undo the classical unity of form and function, to unbalance the composition and achieve the impression of movement and space that the new age demanded.
Contrast is the primary tool through which baroque art prompts a sensation of the infinite in the mind of the beholder. The infinite cannot of course be shown. It must be suggested or implied. What baroque art conveys is an impression, an illusion of infinite space, of movement into boundless depths, by suggesting the existence of what finally remains unseen. Contrast of light and dark, or chiaroscuro, gives space particular qualities. It accentuates the illusion of depth, giving the objects depicted a greater sense of mass and weight while simultaneously heightening their three-dimensionality, making them appear to jump out of the picture frame, or in the case of sculpture or decoration, out of the immediate space that "contains" them. It gives the image dramatic possibilities that steady, even illumination precludes. Like the lighting in films, chiaroscuro in painting works directly upon the spectators' emotions.
It is possible to look at theater in the seventeenth century, particularly its embodiment on the stage, as a branch of the visual arts. The scene was framed and the actors were often described as "painting" their characters.And yet the success of the depiction depends in some sense on our believing in that being's presence. It hinges upon a painting's ability to get us to believe, not in the reality, but in the presence of what it depicts--the presence, for example, of a three-dimensional body within the surface of the painting, or of the infinite extensibility of the illusory pictorial space--if only in ghostly form.
At this, the baroque excels.