An Emotional Stimulus to Piety


By the time St. Peter's Basilica was completed — during the reign of Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) — the Catholic Counter-Reformation had inspired a new architectural expression which, while grounded in the Classicism of the Renaissance, was rightly understood as revolutionary in many respects.

St. Peter's Basilica

Carlo Maderno was one of the first architects to break with the prevailing taste for refined Classicism, replacing it with a dynamic architecture that appeared as monumental sculpture. In fact, this sculptural quality is one of the defining characteristics of the "Baroque," a term first used in a derogatory sense by 19th-century historians to refer to the arts of the 17th and early 18th centuries. The word owes its origins to the Spanish barucca, meaning an unusual pearl of irregular shape.

The churches built during this era, in marked contrast with their Renaissance predecessors, were often irregular in shape. Instead of using the simple geometric forms of Classicism, architects such as Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) used a complex geometry that yielded undulating walls and irregularly shaped spaces.

Going for Baroque

The source of this new "expressive" style is the Catholic Counter-Reformation inspired by the Council of Trent. In the last session of the Council, in December 1563, the Church reaffirmed the decision made by the Second Council of Nicea regarding the Iconoclasm heresy. The Church proclaimed: "Moreover, let the bishops diligently teach that by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in paintings . . . the people are instructed and confirmed in faith." This was particularly significant since the Protestants at the time aimed to destroy religious paintings, statues, and other objects of Catholic devotion.

In the two decades following the close of the Council, churchmen such as Milan's Carlo Borromeo recommended that artists and architects respond to the religious concerns expressed by the Council by means of an "emotional stimulus to piety." The net results of this call were churches that integrated architectural elements, sculpture, and painting in order to appeal to the emotions of the faithful and reassert the dogmas of the faith in a clear and direct way. The subjects of artwork — sculpture, painting, and fresco — included realistic interpretations of biblical scenes as well as dynamic depictions of ecstasies, apparitions, and martyrdoms. Possevino, a lesser known contemporary of Borromeo, encouraged an "unveiled display of truth," writing that even Christ must be portrayed "afflicted, bleeding, spat upon, with His skin torn, wounded, deformed, pale, and unsightly."

Many Baroque churches were erected in order to accommodate the burgeoning new Counter-Reformation religious orders such as the Jesuits and St. Philip Neri's Oratorians. The first of these churches was Il Gesù, built in Rome as the mother church of the Jesuits. Its basilican plan reasserted this traditional form as the appropriate one on which a Counter-Reformation architecture should be built. In fact, just a few years later, Borromeo would write, "[The main church in a city] should be a Latin cross plan as, in general, all churches should be."

Seeing Is Believing

St. Ignatius, founder of the society known as the "defender of the Papacy," in his famous Spiritual Exercises, stresses the importance of visualizing the subjects of meditation in order to reinforce Christian themes such as the four "last things." The first week of Ignatius' 40-day Spiritual Exercises is devoted to the contemplation of sin. To this end, he requires the retreatant to see the flames of hell, to smell the sulfur and stench, and to hear the shrieks of the demons. During the last two weeks the retreatant must "live out" through all the senses the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. The art of many Baroque painters reflects Ignatius' concern with the visual as an aid to contemplation of religious truths. Baroque churches such as Il Gesù sought to do this literally through its building forms and artistic expressions.

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), a deeply devout Italian who practiced Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, was undoubtedly the most prolific and influential sculptor of the Baroque period. In addition to his many figural sculptures (e.g., the famous Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila), he is credited with the monumental sculptural baldacchino erected beneath the great dome of the new St. Peter's Basilica as well as its Cathedra Petri, the Chair of Peter located in the apse.

Innovative Elements

Despite Bernini's acclaim and numerous accomplishments, it was his contemporary, Borromini, who was the greatest of the Baroque architects. He, as few others could, drew both upon his knowledge of Classicism and his technical understanding of Gothic construction in order to create such innovative sculptural churches as San Carlo Alle Quatro Fontane, designed for an austere Spanish religious order called the Discalced Trinitarians. The oval plan surmounted by an oval dome is an interesting interpretation of the basilican layout. Instead of perpendicular angles, the convex and concave walls of the church create an illusion of movement, which is designed to draw the faithful from the outside in and toward the apse and its altar.

Borromini was also adept at using an integrated iconography — painting and sculpture — to express the function and purpose of his churches. He also employed architectural elements such as lanterns placed atop his domes to symbolize the search for wisdom. He sculpted torches to represent the "light of learning," and he used stars, crossed palm leaves, and winged cherub heads to refer to eternal life.

Although centered in Rome, where all Borromini's great works can be found, the Baroque architecture of Italy influenced the design of churches throughout much of Catholic Europe and even as far as the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of South America. In Germany and Austria during the late 18th century, the Baroque style developed in its own peculiar way. Known as Rococo, the churches designed in this brief era are characterized by an overblown flamboyance that most people today would consider gaudy or even ugly. Nevertheless, the Baroque era produced some of the finest churches of Christendom, which continue to be popular pilgrimage sites.


Michael S. Rose. "An Emotional Stimulus to Piety." Lay Witness (Jan/Feb. 2003).

This series explores the epochs of church architecture. This is the seventh installment.

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Michael S. Rose is the author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces — and How We Can Change Them Back Again, published by Sophia Institute Press. It may be ordered by calling Benedictus Books toll-free at (888) 316-2640.

Copyright © 2003 LayWitness

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