The Renaissance and Baroque are two European art movements that came after the Middle Ages. Both styles spread across the arts and architecture, shaping the nature of culture across much of Europe. Meanwhile both styles focused heavily on Judeo-Christian or Greco-Roman topics. However, there are distinct differences between the two styles that make them easier to distinguish from one another. The Renaissance came first, lasting roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, and the Baroque grew out of advancements made during the Renaissance, lasting roughly from the 17th to the mid-18th century. But there are also some key stylistic differences between them which we will go into in more detail below, as well as examining their historical contexts.
The Renaissance Came First
The Renaissance emerged out of the Middle Ages, marking a momentous historical period of transition towards modernity. The rebirth of classical art, along with new understandings about science, nature and human anatomy profoundly shaped the nature of Renaissance art. It’s birthplace was in Florence, but Renaissance ideas quickly gathered pace across much of Europe, with different nations evolving their own stylistic approaches. Meanwhile, the Baroque period grew out of Mannerism, or the late Renaissance period, in which artists began experimenting with greater theatricality and emotional impact. began in Rome during the 17th century and again spread throughout Europe.
The Renaissance Was Naturalistic
Renaissance art shows naturalistic depictions of the human body, which artists achieved through the close study of human anatomy. In painting, a series of technical and stylistic breakthroughs allowed artists to achieve startlingly lifelike results. These include elements of foreshortening, sfumato (hazy light effects) and chiaroscuro (dramatic light and shadow) allowed artists to create believable qualities of volume. Meanwhile the discovery of linear perspective in drawing, painting and printing meant artists could create the effects of deep visual space, as seen in Raphael’s masterful School of Athens, 1511.
Renaissance Art and Design Was Ordered and Stable
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Renaissance art and architecture relied on mathematically precise compositions and designs which explored ideal harmony and the golden ratio. Artists and designers arranged elements of height, width, symmetry and proportion carefully against one another to create calm order and stability. Horizontal and vertical lines were key in helping them achieve these visual effects. Architects used ordered arches, domes, pediments and columns in close accordance with one another, building on the examples set out by classical design.
The Baroque Was Heightened and Dramatic
By contrast, the Baroque took the naturalistic achievements of the Renaissance and ramped them up for heightened theatricality and dramatic effect. In art, key features are high contrast, stark lighting, elongated bodies, and exaggerated elements of motion. Strong diagonal compositions allowed them to create dynamic sensations of tension, disruption and unease. These off-kilter effects create excitement and danger, pulling us into the theatricality of the moment.
One key feature of Baroque art was Tenebrism, or the creation of suspense through stark, high-contrast lighting, as seen in most of Caravaggio’s paintings. Giovanni Bernini’s David, 1623-24, is another prime example of Baroque art, showing the Biblical hero caught in the middle of throwing stone, in contrast with the more placid Renaissance depictions of the same character.
The Baroque Was More Ornate
Today, the word Baroque usually implies that which is highly detailed and elaborate. In Baroque art and architecture, ostentatious details like flapping drapes, overlapping bodies, jutting out foreshortened arms and legs, and wildly contrasting textures of fabric, skin and scenery create sensations of turmoil in stark contrast with the rational order of the Renaissance. In Rubens’s Raising of the Cross we see multiple figures all caught mid-motion in this terrifying moment of brutality. Baroque sculpture is equally as complex, often featuring figures grouped into dynamic, energized moments like actors in a play, with many different ideal viewing angles. Meanwhile Baroque architecture is, perhaps unsurprisingly, bigger and more grandiose than that of the Renaissance, featuring large masses and vast domes pointing towards the sky.