In this lesson, we’ll explore the sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the paintings of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. We’ll pay special attention to the passionate Baroque elements in these works of art.
Baroque art is passionate art. With its dramatic contrasts of light and dark, its complex lines and angles, and its grand appeal to emotions, Baroque art is rich and sensual. Sometimes its passion crosses the line into eroticism, either openly or more subtly. In this lesson, we’re going to explore the passionate and even erotic elements of the works of two Baroque artists: sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini and painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini lived a dramatic life, so it’s no surprise that his art is passionate and dramatic. Despite his early artistic successes and the patronage of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Bernini took a violent turn after discovering that his mistress (who was married) and his brother were having an affair. In a fit of rage, the artist tried to murder his brother and attacked his mistress, slashing her face. That kind of passion was bound to materialize in Bernini’s art, and indeed it did. Let’s take look at two of Bernini’s sculptures that exhibit strong erotic elements.The first is The Rape of Persephone, which narrates in marble the kidnapping of the Greek goddess Persephone by Pluto, the powerful god of the underworld. First, notice the figures’ facial expressions.
Pluto seems expectant, lustful, and even gleeful. He knows exactly what he wants, and he will stop at nothing to get it. Poor Persephone, on the other hand, exhibits a mix of terror and despair.
Notice, too, the provocative positions of the two figures. Pluto grasps Persephone firmly, his hands digging into her flesh, as he draws her towards him.
She resists, trying to pull away, her body turning back as her hand strikes Pluto on the side of the head. The two figures are positioned in a strong contrapposto, with their heads, shoulders, and lower bodies twisting in different directions. The technique creates major drama and, as Bernini certainly intended, an erotic component.The sculptor again captured the drama and passion of a Greek myth when he created Apollo and Daphne in 1625. According to the tale, the god Apollo took one look at the nymph Daphne and fell in love with her, or at least fell into a strong lustful desire for her. Daphne wanted nothing to do with him and fled.
He pursued her frantically, and just as he was about to catch her, she called to her father, a river god, for help. He turned his daughter into a laurel tree, and Bernini captures that very moment when the panicked nymph begins sprouting leaves.
As if the story itself isn’t erotic enough, Bernini depicts an expression of pure lust on Apollo’s face and his forceful movement as he grasps Daphne around the waist and strains to draw her towards him. Again, Bernini’s Baroque passion edges into the erotic.
If Bernini’s life and art seem dramatic and erotic, they’re nothing compared to the life and art of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
While Caravaggio was in demand as an artist and recognized as a master in his craft, both his life and work were often controversial and downright scandalous. Caravaggio, for instance, didn’t just attempt murder – he actually committed one, along with several assaults. He had a nasty temper, bragged a lot, got into countless fights, and carried on numerous affairs.All that drama carried over into Caravaggio’s art. His paintings tend to be dark, grim, and extremely realistic in detail, right down to the dirt under his subjects’ fingernails.
The artist’s works also have strongly erotic elements. Just look at his painting Bacchus (circa 1595). The Greek god of wine and debauchery, who is supposedly modeled after the artist himself, gazes at the viewer with a provocative, sidelong expression. His garment hangs suggestively off one shoulder as he offers the viewer a goblet of wine. Is he really offering something else along with? Caravaggio leaves that up to the viewer to decide.
Caravaggio’s circa 1593 painting Boy with a Basket of Fruit contains similar provocative elements. Notice the boy’s expression, which is hardly innocent, and the drape of his garment, which is hardly on.
The painting Portrait of a Courtesan also exhibits alluring elements. The woman’s glance and slight smirk suggest an invitation, and the flower she holds is jasmine, which is a symbol of eroticism.
Finally, in Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All), a naked Cupid is celebrating his conquests, which are definitely not examples of chaste love. By his flirtatious expression and seductive position, Cupid also seems to be inviting viewers to take part in further forays into erotic love.
Let’s review. Baroque art is passionate art, and sometimes artists like sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini and painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio turned passion into eroticism. We saw how Bernini included erotic elements in sculptures like The Rape of Persephone and Apollo and Daphne.
The artist used mythological stories; facial expressions; the positions of figures, including strong contrapposto; and a sense of movement to create erotic overtones.Caravaggio was, perhaps, even more dramatic and erotic in his paintings. His works tend to be dark, grim, and extremely realistic in detail, and they exhibit strongly erotic elements. We noted these elements in the expressions and positions of the figures in Bacchus, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Portrait of a Courtesan, and Amor Vincit Omnia. Indeed, Baroque artists didn’t shy away from the passionate, even when it crossed the border into the erotic.
Once you are finished, you should be able to:
- Describe Baroque art
- Discuss Bernini’s life and how he captures passion in his sculptures using examples
- Explain how Caravaggio includes a sense of eroticism in his paintings using examples and recall some of the drama from his own life