17th cent. was the culmination of Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) that began in the 1500s. By that time Spanish statehood had clearly shaped. The colonial empire of Spanish Habsburgs reached such tremendous sizes, that it was called and “the empire on which sun never sets”. The Counterreformation, announced by Trent Council, made it a flagman of catholic part of Europe. Cultural peculiarities of this country, with its inclination to deep religiosity (that sometimes verged on fanaticism), gave its baroque art distinctive mysterious flavor. Church and aristocracy, like in other royal countries (like France) were the main investors of art. Having occupied the city of Naples, Spaniards established connection with local art: many artists studied and worked in Apennines and assimilated Italian innovations.
Italian baroque on the Pyrenees transformed in totally original style. Its love to lavish decoration was largely caused by historical connection with eastern, Moorish tradition. At the same time, as well as in Rome, it mission was to manifest the power and might of Catholic church, that had to root itself on the territories, retaken from Islam during Reconquista. Bright features of vernacular baroque interpretation can be seen in Granada Cathedral.
Deriving from Plateresque style of Renaissance period, Spanish baroque architecture continued emphasizing the trimming of a building’s surface, not its structure: broken pediments and moldings over the windows, over-the-top decorations, overloaded with stucco facades, pinnacles on the roof, twisting pillars (so-called Solomonic columns) – all these were typical elements for religious and public constructions. However, they were not merely imposed, but bound up with the conception of the buildings, that allows making some parallels with Gothic Art. Apart from southern influence, northern baroque distinctive traits – like carved scrollwork and cartouches – found their way into Spanish architecture.
By the end of the 17th cent. all mentioned elements became the framebase of a sub-style, invented by architect and sculptor José Benito de Churriguera and called Churrigueresque. Its main aesthetical principle lied in creating effect of illusionism and motion through enriching the facades with thousands of small ornamental details. They can’t be made out and blend, giving a rich light and shadow play on the texture. The central part of decoration in this style was estipite column in the shape of an inverted cone or obelisk. The city of Salamanca on the north of Spain is full of the samples of this capricious style. Churrigueresque was adopted all over the country and in Spanish colonies in Latin America, especially in Mexica.
An important role in formation of Spanish painting was ideology. At this period a huge number of monastic orders that had significant spiritual and financial power were functioning in the country. They made the major part of commissions. Besides this, in the first half of the 17th cent. the art of frescos was poorly developed, so easel painting was used instead in decorating temples.
The period of the end of the 16th – beginning of the 17th cent. was marked by active onset of local schools in Seville, Valencia etc. Representatives of this artistic centers absorbed and adapted the methods of Caravaggism. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in his religious works demonstrated unique fusion of materialistic and spiritual, achieved by applying the tenebrism technique.
One of the characteristic traits of the Spanish baroque painting is the predominance of the acute observation of nature over artistic imagination. On the other hand, this realistic manner often served for creating rather obscure biblical scenes and exaggerated their emotional tension. Jusepe Ribera was famous for his exalted images of the martyrs. Naturalism encouraged virtuosity in reproduction of factures, details etc., but still artists preferred rather dark, close to monochromic, palette, adding expressiveness to it using tonal gradations, shades and light.
Human depiction was most common in religious scenes and, of course, in portraits – one of a few spread secular genres. The prominent master of portrait was Diego Velazquez. His legacy includes not only images of royal family and noblesse, but the court servants (like jesters and dwarfs) as well. Concentration of the attention on a human being that, in many cases, supplanted other layers of reality. This explains comparatively low status of landscapes and peculiar, plotless, development of genre scenes. The latter developed a special type of bodegon (from Spanish “tavern” or “wine cellar”) – a still-life or genre painting with the accent on pantry items. It was first introduced by Velazquez under the influence of the Low Countries’ tradition. Francisco de Zurbaran also contributed in the development of bodegon.
Unlike in Italy or France, Spanish sculptors preferred continuing medieval tradition of woodcutting. They mainly refused producing mythological characters, concentrating on the biblical themes and personages. That’s quit expectable in the country, where Counterreformation evinced itself in the most profound way. So, personages of Christ, the Virgin and martyrs were predominant. Their statues were of cult purposes (votive statues), as a part of altarpieces. People also used to carry them during the religious festive processions. Eastern parades – the Parade Paso, were especially solemn. So, images had to provoke deep emotional reaction. That’s why, analogically to painting, in sculpture strong feelings like pain, ecstasy, compassion were rendered so often. To underline their lifelikeness, figures were gilded, polychrome and even sometimes dressed in real clothing. The tendency towards hyperrealism was brought to extreme as masters sometimes even used natural hair or animal skin (for depicting open injures) for a greater tangibility and theatricality.
Initially Spanish sculpture rather slowly reacted on changes in artistic world and remained closely connected to Renaissance and Mannerism until the middle of the 17th century. Innovations were imported through the royal court and then rapidly stroke roots. Two main sculpture regions are singled out. The first one, Castilian, is known for is expressionism, dramatic gestures. Such artists like Gregorio Fernandez, preferred plain colors to the vividness of gilding. The second school, Andalusian, quite the contrary, regularly employed gold in their pieces, to underline the mysticism and idea of divinity. Juan Martinez Montanes and Alonso Cano created delicate spiritual characters.
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