Baroque: Theatrum Mundi, The World as Work of Art
text by Barbara Borngässer, photos by Achim Bednorz
It doesn't seem that long ago that Baroque art was treated with something approaching disparagement. In a critical environment that favored the cleaner and simpler lines of Classicism, it seemed cluttered. It was overly ornate. It was pretentious.
In recent years that view has changed and the art of the Baroque has undergone something of a renaissance. What had been seen as bombast is now looked on as a kind of visual rhetoric aimed at fostering a set of values about the nature of the world.
Beginning in Italy in the late 16th century as part of the Counter Reformation, Baroque art had its roots in the church and religion. Religious art was asked to reach into the viewer's deepest soul and evoke a sense of the divinity. The glorious churches, architectural wonders without and within were monuments to the glory of the creator, and if in the process they shed a bit of that glory on the nobles and churchmen who commissioned them, and even the artists who built them, well that was simply a little gravy.
Over the course of the next century and into the 18th, Baroque art spread through Europe and over those areas of the world the Europeans colonized. The Baroque aesthetic spread from the church to the secular world. The elaborate cathedrals begat gorgeous palaces. If art could inspire awe in the Creator, it could certainly do as much for his secular regents, the kings and nobles, and if the kings and nobles, why not the merchant kings and in the end whoever had enough money or clout to commission the artist. For good or ill, the idea of Baroque was to shape the 17th century.
Baroque: Theatrum Mundi, The World as Work of Art, one of the first two volumes now available in publisher H. F. Ullman's new series The Collection of Art Epochs, is a massive attempt to illustrate and explain the scope and variety of the Baroque in all of its many iterations. Architecture, sculpture, painting, decorative art, it looks at it all. If the attempt is massive, the book is no less massive. Its hand-bound 568 pages in a 15 x 11-inch format is not the kind of book you will want to hold on your lap. It is the kind of book that belongs on an ornate table in a Baroque library. In many respects it is itself a work of art.
The series editor, Rolf Toman, explains that the aim of the new volumes is to look at broader contexts than the intensive encyclopedic studies of specialized bits typical of past studies. The intention is to cut a wide swath through the whole period, to look at representative examples from many countries. It is not meant to be a comprehensive history of everything Baroque; it is a selection. "It was important," he tells readers in a brochure that comes with the book, "for us not only to present the objects particularly esteemed as significant by art historians, but also to show in depth such artworks whose special aesthetic quality makes them worthy of rediscovery."
While the book doesn't ignore the established Baroque icons -- St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London, the Palace at Versailles, the Winter Palace in St. Petersberg, it makes an effort to take the reader on an intensive tour, three or four pages of text and photos a variety of lesser known artwork as well. For example, there are four pages and seven photos -- exterior, interior, and details -- of the Palácio Fonteira in Lisbon, emphasizing the "perfect harmony of palace and gardens, the bravura of the staircase and the complex and self-glorifying, cosmological pictorial program." It explains the historical context of the Portuguese espousal of the Baroque as an attempt by nobles to demonstrate their new power when Portugal managed to get out from under Spanish domination. It gives a technical explanation of the use of azulagos, the decorative tiles used in Portugal instead of the usual frescoes because to the dampness of its Atlantic climate.
On the other hand after a short outline of the characteristics of Baroque sculpture, it looks at a view of Bernini's "Pluto and Proserpina" and a full page detail and posits that he is the "epitome" of Roman Baroque sculpture. Indeed the whole discussion of sculpture outside of its appearances in architectural settings is quite limited. Painting is treated more extensively, but it is architecture that gets the most emphasis. Justly so, one would expect.
The photography which is the glory of the book is by Achim Bednorz. There are fantastic photos of church exteriors and interiors often complete with full or double page details of ceiling frescoes, pulpit carvings, or decorative alters. There are even a couple of four panel fold outs. Color, due in part to the technical opportunities provided by digital photography, is stunning.
The text by Barbara Borngässer is fine, but not quite as impressive. At times it seemed a bit too technical for the lay reader, using specialized terminology that wasn't always defined. Although there is a glossary provided for the novice. On the other hand, sometimes it spent a lot of time calling attention to things that would have more than likely common knowledge for the initiated. I'm not sure that given the series' stated intention, the text shouldn't be focused more precisely on a target audience.
On the other hand, text aside, the photography alone is worth the price of the book. A companion volume, Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages is also currently available, and books on the Romanesque and Art Nouveau are in preparation: truly something to look forward to.
By Blogcritics syndicated review
"this hand bound treasure demonstrates publisher H.F. Ullmann's prowess in the art world."
Book Review: Baroque: Theatrum Mundi. The World as a Work of Art
This magnificent companion volume to Gothic exhibits the same precise, lovingly reproduced photography of Achim Bednorz along with the knowledgeable text by art historian Barbara Borngasser. Long discounted, the Baroque period extended over the two hundred fifty years between the Counter-Reformation and the French Revolution at a time when the Catholic Church was widening their powerbase over the known world and the world itself was seen as an exquisite piece of artwork, indeed a stage.
From the stunning ceiling frescos of S. Ignazio and Gran Salone to the massive Dome des Invalides and the amazing pulpit altar housed within Germany's St. Pankratius, it is clear the church was a vital driving force behind the art movement. Cutting edge digital photographic technology has allowed Bednorz to bring to the printed page a sense of the grandeur of these works as never before. Fountains, furniture, paintings, sculptures and indeed entire city blocks are presented in all their glory in this sixteen pound, five hundred sixty eight page book that is certain to provide many happy hours of browsing. Whether you are an art student or historian, an armchair traveler or just have an appreciation for the arts, this hand bound treasure demonstrates publisher H.F. Ullmann's prowess in the art world.
Book review by Sandy Amazeen, Nov 20, 2012, Monsters and Critics, www.monstersandcritics.com
"Rolf Toman is the editor of both volumes, and succeeds with his team in presenting not only some superlative works of art, but in presenting the vision -- an emphatically Christian vision -- that animated works of such surpassing ambition that they would be impossible to conceive of today, in a world of technological genius but narrow horizons... The history of art can be spiritual reading, and Ullmann's bold project achieves something of that.
Art and the beauty of faith
One of my favourite insights from Joseph Ratzinger's long life in theology is that the Church does not convincingly propose the faith by the work of theology alone. Before his election as Pope he wrote that in the end the Church only has two compelling "arguments" for her faith being true. The first is the saints who have lived the Gospel fully and who the Church proposes as models of Christian witness. The second is the art that she has nurtured in her midst, her faith expressed in beauty, whether in painting, sculpture, architecture or music. Theology is necessary, but it is holiness and beauty that persuades.
The Church's faith provides to the world this gift, the gift of beauty. We do not live in a very beautiful world. To our world the Church continues to offer from her patrimony the service of beauty. The Church offers to our common life that which is beautiful. Not just art, but beautiful lives, lives of saintly people from every time and place. The role of faith in our common life is to give our contemporaries reasons to look up, to raise the eyes of a disenchanted culture above the daily grime to that which is beautiful. That is the role of the Christian in ugly time, to make present that which is beautiful. Like the biblical steward we bring out our treasures old and new, beauty from our history and from our current circumstance.
I discovered recently a marvelous publishing project which does precisely that, brings out the treasures of art from Christian history. A few years back the German publisher, h.f. Ullmann, which specializes in high-end art books, the lavishly illustrated tomes about cars, homes, couture, geography, architecture and the like that you might find on the coffee tables of great mansions, decided on a bold experiment. They would produce a mammoth book -- 800 pages, 1,100 photographs, 11 kilograms -- on the entire history of Christian art. Entitled Ars Sacra, it was not a coffee-table book, but a kitchen table book.
It was a most pleasant publishing surprise, that it the age of the Internet a book heavier than a set of twins could sell, and sell well. So last fall, h.f. Ullmann launched an even more ambitious project, a series on the different epochs of art. The first two volumes deal with major periods in Christian art history: Gothic: Visual Art of the Middle Ages 1150-1500 and Baroque: Theatrum Mundi. The World as a Work of Art.
Compared to Ars Sacra, and only relative to that behemoth, are these volumes smaller: 600 illustrations on 600 pages, seven kilograms. These two are to be read at the desk. The publisher sells them for $150, but they can also be ordered online at two-thirds of that price. And, remarkably, both in terms of cost and heft, they are more than good value.
Rolf Toman is the editor of both volumes, and succeeds with his team in presenting not only some superlative works of art, but in presenting the vision -- an emphatically Christian vision -- that animated works of such surpassing ambition that they would be impossible to conceive of today, in a world of technological genius but narrow horizons.
The Gothic volume highlights the magnificent French cathedrals -- Chartres taking pride of place -- whose influence is seen in so many places in Canada. The Baroque volume offers one sacred exemplar -- St. Peter's Basilica -- and one profane -- the Palace of Versailles. In all cases, we see the marvels of what human ingenuity can achieve when it is unconstrained. And the great works of the gothic and the baroque -- even the secular ones -- required a spirit sustained by the transcendent. Otherwise, why build a cathedral or palace that you would never live to see finished, or why decorate exquisitely an obscure part of a ceiling that no one, save for God, would ever see?
We read the lives of the saints so that their holiness might attract us. The Ullmann books are analogous to that, works that move us by presenting the beauty that is born from the faith. Spiritual reading for Lent usually emphasizes the ascetical life. A lavish art book may therefore seem incongruous in Lent, but many of the pages in these books are worthy of meditation on the love of God that can make this sinful world beautiful. The history of art can be spiritual reading, and Ullmann's bold project achieves something of that.
The Catholic Register coverageWednesday, 06 February 2013 16:20 Written by Fr. Raymond J. de Souza