From the late nineteenth century on, the term “baroque” was used to describe a new era of art and culture, occurring between the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Acknowledged as the last all-European style covering not only architecture, stucco work, paintings, sculpture, etc., but also music, theater, and literature and an overarching philosophy, style, and vision, it was not at all a consistent period but was rather characterized by its manifold antagonisms such as worldly joys and spirituality, wide formal diversity and strict regulation, illusion and reality, light and dark, and movement, time, and space. As a style the baroque includes “a complex and dynamic variety of form and stark contrast” (Bauer et al., 2006, p. 6).

The beginning of the baroque époque is not easy to determine because it is not a critical reaction to a preceding style but a continuation and enhancement of Renaissance and Mannerist art. The principle of illusion is just one example, which emerged in the early Renaissance and was taken to its full artistic and theoretical flowering in baroque art (see Bauer et al., 2006, p. 7). Other proto-baroque tendencies can be found in the Italian art and architecture of the early cinquecento (short for millecinquecento, or 1500, referring to the Italian Renaissance of the sixteenth century). Works by Raphael, Correggio, Titian, and Michelangelo were often referred to and had a large influence.

The imitation of former works of art (imitatio) is, however, only one aspect of the visual art of the baroque époque. At the same time artists wished to compete with and outdo what already existed (aemulatio). Some new aspects of this style included the discovery of rhetoric (the art of persuasion attributed to images), the use of chiaroscuro (strong contrasts between light and dark), and concetto (conceit, also concept, an extended metaphor that may be literary or visual). In addition, the subjects of many paintings were scenes from everyday life of those at the bottom of society.

The baroque époque was often seen as the art of Counter-Reformation and absolutism. Picture theory as well as the politics of pictures was at that time doubtlessly shaped by the different denominations. For Roman Catholic artists, the Council of Trent (1545–1563) established specifications in terms of form and content of religious art. In its 25th and final session, the Council promulgated the decree on the “legitimate use of images” stressing the pedagogical purpose of Christian images. The discussion of whether an image is in accordance with the biblical text was much debated toward the end of the sixteenth century. However, the definition of baroque as the art of the Counter-Reformation falls short. There was an important art production center in the Protestant region—especially in the Netherlands—as well. In the seventeenth century, Dutch art was among the most acclaimed in the world, which is why we speak of the Dutch Golden Age. Meanwhile, the discussion that had begun during the Reformation concerning the acceptance of religious images and especially their function was still going on. John Calvin tolerated paintings with specific biblical topics as well as landscape paintings, still lifes, etc., in other words, paintings of things or events that are real, not imagined. Martin Luther allowed the illustration of biblical stories in churches and houses, while others advocated for the abolition of images (e.g., Andreas Carlstadt) or forbade them from worship and life (e.g., Huldrych Zwingli). This led not only to iconoclasm in the early sixteenth century but also to several attacks in the Netherlands between 1566 and 1581 and to destruction during the English Civil War (1642–1649).

The baroque époque was geographically a pan-European style that was also taken up in the New World. We can date it roughly to the late sixteenth century. Its final stage—rococo (late baroque)—was eventually displaced by Classicism in the middle of the eighteenth century. The rococo style was a continuation of the baroque but also had elements that were anti-baroque, including a considerable reaction against extravagance.

The Hermeneutic of Images in the Baroque Era.

With the Reformation, a new way of reading and interpreting biblical texts began. Although an allegorical and typological interpretation of biblical text was still in use until the eighteenth century, at the same time new ways of exegesis were explored and historical-critical methods developed. Theologians and philosophers such as the Catholic priest Richard Simon (Histoire critique du Vieux Testament, 1678), the remonstrant theologian Jean le Clerc (Sentiments de quelques théologiens de Hollande sur l’Histoire critique du Vieux Testament composée par le P. Richard Simon, 1686), the Jewish Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670), the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1650), and others started to doubt Moses’s authorship of the Pentateuch.

Last but not least, from the late sixteenth century onward, a large amount of literature was published to aid in the study of biblical text including polyglots, grammars, commentaries, and hermeneutical works. The Philologia Sacra (see the work of Salomon Glassius with this title published between 1623 and 1636) as a hermeneutic of description, translation, and interpretation of the biblical text was particularly important. These philological interests went hand in hand with new facilities of explicating the biblical text such as the geography, archaeology, and history of the Holy Land, which was concerned with the development of a biblical chronology. Consequently, maps of the Holy Land and chronicles were published. Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593–1650), together with Johann Ludwig Gottfried (1584–1633), published an influential chronicle of world history, Gottfrieds Historische Chronick oder Beschreibung der merckwürdigsten Geschichte (1629).

These new types of information were ultimately collected in large encyclopedias and dictionaries (e.g., Louis Moréri, Le grand Dictionarie Historique, Paris, 1682; Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique, Rotterdam, 1697). Cabinets of curiosities (Kunstkammern) contained collections of objects such as coins, sculptures, reliefs, and archaeological remains and were regarded as a microcosm of the world. They not only served a propagandistic purpose and the patron’s desire for prestige and pomp, they also had a larger scientific influence. Expeditions to the Orient, especially to Egypt, and economic exchange with the Ottomans, the adversaries of Europe at that time, offered a new perspective. This had a large influence on the visual representation of biblical texts. Artists such as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669) used the details of everyday objects, such as clothes and arms, to compose an idealistic view of the Orient. The interest in Orientalism, however, often produced not much more than a change in iconographic stereotypes, which had little to do with historical reality.

This hermeneutical shift in how to understand the biblical texts in a philological and historical-critical way went hand in hand with a new understanding of images. The invention of central perspective in the Renaissance period and the development of novel visual representation in the Italian Renaissance with a more realistic style led to a mimetic understanding. The image was not to be understood as a symbol but as a realistic reproduction of reality.

Thus, images served to a large extent to transfer knowledge. The concept of ars memorativa (art of memory) provided that knowledge in general can be visualized in images. Engravings of biblical texts in particular demonstrate that images not only had an illustrative function but also served to help interpret the text and impart knowledge. Illustrations often tend to explain in a scientific way how the biblical texts should be understood. This is especially true for illustrations of the Ark or Temple. See, for example, the engravings in the Biblia Regia, also called the Biblia Polyglotta, published by Christopher Plantin in Antwerp between 1568 and 1573.

Apart from instructing (docere), images should also delight (delectare) and move (movere) the beholder. Illustrations illuminating the biblical text were assigned—as the texts themselves—a meditative function. Illuminatio (enlightenment) and irradiatio (radiation) should shift the viewer and the reader. Images—whether in the form of a decoration in a book or as a ceiling fresco in a palace—therefore provided visual pleasure.

In a prepsychological understanding, images should express emotion and the observation of feelings visually. The same images enabled the observer to find the truth within and to get in touch with his or her spiritual side. The effect of an engraving, a fresco, or a painting on its beholder played a major role in the baroque époque. Visual art was used as an instrument of persuasion and an argument for faith. In this respect rhetoric was an important instrument of visual expression (see Hundemer, 1997). Different “modes of eloquence” were used for different occasions to persuade the viewer. In doing so, visual art had not only a religious but also an ethical message. Topics taken from biblical stories illustrate the moral significance behind the scenes and thus should stimulate the beholder’s actions.

To sum it up, images with biblical and/or sacred themes had several functions in early modern times: not only were they used to illustrate “historical facts,” impart knowledge, and symbolize universal truth, they also served religious and propagandistic purposes. They had a moral didactic but at the same time a meditative function.

Drawings, Woodcuts, and Engravings.

Before work begins on a piece of art, it is drafted, occasionally colored, and sometimes only sketched. Although many of these drawings have been lost, we know of them through engravings and woodcuts. The craftsman who made the preparatory drawing is mentioned with the abbreviation “inv.” (“invenit,” he invented; sometimes also “figur.” for figuravit), while the artist who engraved it is mentioned with “sc.” (Lat “sculpsit,” he engraved). The serial character of the medium, the close relation between image and scripture, and its dispersion are some of the most important characteristics of prints in early modern times (see Telesko, 2005, pp. 9–13).

With regard to illuminated Bibles, there is no clear development of style from Renaissance to baroque. There was, however, a technical development: although woodcuts were still in use, they were gradually replaced by copper engravings, and the repertoire of motifs was enlarged during this time. For the Vulgate and for most Bible translations in Italian, French, German, etc., illuminated editions existed, but not for the Dutch Statenbijbel (States Bible, first published in 1637) or for the King James Bible (first published in 1611). In Germany the illuminated Bible of Matthäus Merian (first published in 1630), with approximately 232 images using illustrations from the Luther Bible, became one of the most influential.

The Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574), the Flemish artist Maarten de Vos (1532–1603), and the French artist Bernard Salomon (1506–1561?), who are only some of the most important drawers, produced a large number of “illustrations” of the biblical text on the basis of their systematic or encyclopedic approach. Many series of illustrations concerning a specific topic taken from the Bible were created, such as the story of Amnon and Tamar (2 Sam 13) by Philips Galle after Maarten van Heemskerck. But large parts of the Bible or even the whole Bible were also reproduced in prints and published without the entire biblical text. A famous and very early example is Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt’s Imagines et figurae Bibliorum (first published in 1581, republished several times between 1592 and 1654, with 100 etched illustrations by Peeter van der Borcht). The book from Conrad Rotenburger with the title Biblischen Summarien published in 1630 is especially rich and contains an etching and a short rhyme for each chapter of the Old and the New Testament, altogether more than 1,400 illustrations. Likewise, the Biblia ectypa with 666 engravings by Christoph Weigel (1695) and the Historische Bilder-Bibel by Johann Ulrich Krauss (1705) consisted of images and rhymes (for more details see “Emblem” below).

This encyclopedic exploitation of the Bible had a huge influence on the further development of biblical art. Very often etchings were used as models for historical paintings, as well as in tapestries, furniture, vessels, and in gold- and ironwork. Prints were used as visual sources and reproduced by artists and craftsmen. Thus there was always a tension between tradition and innovation, convention and invention, reproduction—the accurate rendering of the original with almost no artistic interpretation—and production. Sometimes even the same engravings were used in Catholic and Protestant books. For example, a series of 16 engravings by Aegidius Sadeler after drawings by Maarten de Vos in Penitentiæ Davidis Regis et Prophetæ were first printed in Antwerp, afterward they were used in 1597 in a book called David, Virtvtis Exercitatissimæ probatum Deo spectaculum with annotations from the Calvinist Matthias Bergius, and finally they were used again in the so-called Sixto-Clementina, a revision of the Vulgate by Clemens VIII in 1609 (see Kipfer, 2015).

In contemporary research, engravings and woodcuts play a major role, because sometimes it is only with their help that one can assign an image to a specific biblical text. The application of an image to a biblical text is generally a challenging undertaking. The influence for a specific work is not always obvious, and it is necessary to compare text and images very carefully.


Emblem played a major role in baroque art. Johann Gottfried Herder, a critic of the emblematics, called the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a “beinahe emblematisches Zeitalter” (almost emblematic era).

An emblem consists of an inscriptio, also called lemma (a short motto no longer than five words containing an ethic demand or a maxim), a picture (pictura, also called icon), and a subscriptio, also called an epigram (an explanation referring to the sometimes cryptic combination of lemma and icon). In this multimedia genre, texts and images are closely combined to represent an abstract concept.

The close connection between text and image was characteristic for the époque, and emblematical motives were used not only in prints but also in paintings and architectural decorations. Biblical stories or single motifs (e.g., onus meum leve, Matt 11:30) played an important role. Sometimes even the Bible itself is part of an emblem.

The complex cosmos of the baroque compositions is almost incomprehensible without the explanatory emblems (Telesko, 2005, p. 21). Many illustrated books referring to the Bible included the triad of lemma, icon, and epigram. Different kinds of Emblemata Sacra were published with biblical figures to personify vice and virtue. Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt’s Imagines et figurae Bibliorum is of that type. Bernardus Sellius later gave it the title Emblemata sacra (1593). With this title it circulated in Protestant milieus and was reprinted in revised versions several times until the mid-seventeenth century. One of the most influential emblem books in a Catholic setting is Cesare Ripa’s (ca. 1560–1645) Iconologia, which emphasizes subjects such as virtues, vices, arts, and sciences.


Biblical stories were represented in different genres, especially in so-called history paintings, but also in landscape paintings and even portraits. In this medium, too, confessional boundaries were blurred.

Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) defined in his treatise De pictura (On Painting) that a history painting should be a visual rendering of a narrative. The painting should be arranged in such a way that the biblical story or the narrative in general is visualized through setting, gesture, expression, and placement of figures.

While a story presents the events linearly and successively, paintings render the complexity of one single moment simultaneously. This fact provoked huge debates about the visual rendering of time flow in art theory of the seventeenth century. Giovanni Pietro Bellori (ca. 1636–1700), one of the main Italian art historical theorists of the seventeenth century, considered the difference between language and image. He explained that language is not able to describe the beauty of the painting and that it was therefore impossible for him to describe a painting. Rather he was simplice traduttore (simply translating; for more details, see Bätschmann, 2009).

Andor Pigler in his book Barockthemen (1974) gives a very helpful overview of the biblical topics depicted in this époque. What does not follow or only insufficiently follows from this overview is that two important contrasting elements in biblical, as well as mythological, historical, or legendary subjects, must be considered: variety and singular topic. On the one hand, a specific topic was applied several times with only little change. Following the art historical theory of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the inventio of the ingenious and learned artist appeared in the manner in which he took up traditional topics and used them in a novel and extraordinary way (Tümpel et al., 1994, pp. 156–167). On the other hand, new topics were visualized independently from a long history of interpretation and visual tradition. One example of such a painting taking up a rare topic is Rembrandt’s David and Uriah (or The Fall of Haman, 1665, oil on canvas, ca. 117 × 127 cm, Hermitage, St. Petersburg). Its iconographic concept was foreign, and therefore the topic was considered controversial for a long time (see Tümpel, 1968, pp. 106–112).

Concerning the understanding of a biblical painting, Nicolas Poussin’s (1594–1665) painting The Gathering of Manna (ca. 1637–1639, oil on canvas, 149 × 200 cm, Louvre, Paris) is very important. Poussin himself described in a letter to his patron how to “read” his painting. Most important is the visualization of emotions such as the expressions of exhaustion, admiration, pity, charity, and, last but not least, the need for consolation of the seven first figures on the left side. These emotions are not mentioned in the biblical text but are the invention of the artist. They have to be understood as the “text” of the painting, which should be read similarly to the biblical text of Exodus 16, as became evident in 1667 in a lecture by Charles Le Brun at the Académie Française. On the one hand there was the claim of adherence to the text, and on the other hand there were differences between the narrated and the visualized story postulating artistic freedom.

Baroque Visual Art

David and Uriah by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1665).

Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia/Bridgeman Images

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For the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), naturalism was revolutionary. He was famous not only for his popularizing movements but also for his dramatic and direct interpretation of biblical topics as in The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1602–1603, oil on canvas, 107 × 146 cm, Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam). This painting celebrated the artist’s power of illusion, on the one hand, and indicated the limits of painting as a vehicle of “true” representation, on the other (see Pericolo, 2011, p. 451). Very often biblical topics such as horror, rape, and violence were chosen as subject matter. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652/3), for example, painted a very cruel picture of Judith Slaying Holofernes. Other images showing Amnon and Tamar, which were sometimes opposed by Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (e.g., by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, aka Guercino, 1649, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), connected gender and violence in a terrifying and provocative manner, too.

Perhaps the most famous baroque painter outside Italy was Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). He not only painted altarpieces in Flanders (e.g., The Raising of the Cross, 1610, Antwerp Cathedral), he also worked for many royal courts across Europe. Rubens was very learned, a polyglot and widely traveled with remarkable skills as a courtier and diplomat. His paintings (also true for other painters) were influenced not only by the biblical text but also by other sources. For example, his painting The Defeat of Sennacherib (ca. 1612–1614, oil on panel, 98 × 123 cm, Munich, Alte Pinakothek) has more in common with the text described in Flavius Josephus’s Jewish Antiquitates (X, 1, 5), which also quotes Herodotus II, 141, than with the narrative in 2 Kings 19//Isaiah 37 or 2 Chronicles 32. The Bible mentions only one angel, while Rubens painted many angels. According to the biblical texts, Sennacherib himself was not near Jerusalem and his army was not waiting ready to attack Jerusalem. In contrast, one could assume that the warriors were sleeping in their tents when the angel of destruction came. This is very different in Josephus’s text, which omits the mention of the survivors observing the dead bodies in the morning and claims that Sennacherib came to Jerusalem; this more accurately reflects Rubens’s painting showing horses and warriors on the move. Rubens depicted the moment of horror described in Josephus in the following way: “Reduced to fear and in a terrible agony at this calamity, and frightened for his whole army, [Sennacherib] fled with the rest of his forces to his own kingdom” (author’s translation).

Rembrandt never left the Netherlands. Without an Italian influence he turned the dramatic pathos typical for Italian paintings to an expression of the interiority of biblical figures. By painting a biblical story he was able to visualize a universal truth. This is what Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) noticed in Rembrandt’s painting, Judas Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver (1629, 79 × 102.3 cm, private collection, England): Rembrandt used individual elements from the biblical story and expressed what is universal (“uno in homine collegit singular, et universa expressit,” Constantijn Huygen’s Opinion of Rembrandt, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Ms. KA. 48).

From the Renaissance onward landscape became something of a stage for the depiction of biblical or historical scenes and became more of a central theme in paintings. In some paintings the biblical scene is very small and almost imperceptible in the large landscape. In his treatise of art (Trattato dell’arte de la pittura, 1584), Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo mentions different kinds of landscapes, both real and fantastic. Poussin had classicizing tendencies. He painted a “classical landscape”—also called an “ideal landscape,” or paysage composé (composed landscape)—which is a depiction of nature “in which culture, represented by the presence of human structures, dominates and controls” (Minor, 1999, p. 267). Nature is carefully balanced with architecture arranged according to the rules of symmetry; the paintings are divided into foreground, middle distance, and far distance segments of countryside.

Claude Gellée, also called Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), Poussin’s countryman and one of the most distinguished landscape painters, used the Roman countryside as a source of inspiration and concentrated on light and the elusive qualities of mood based on his very precise observation. He embedded many biblical topics in this beautiful style of Italian landscape.

Landscape painting was the most popular of all genres in the seventeenth-century northern Netherlands. In Haarlem from 1615 to 1630, a group of artists—among them Claes Jansz. Visscher (1587–1652), Esaias van de Velde (1590–1630), Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), and Salomon van Ruysdael (1600/03–1670)—developed a new manner of landscape painting. Some of them (e.g., van de Velde) painted several landscapes with religious scenes, while others (e.g., van Goyen) considered landscape painting as a new and autonomous genre and abandoned the biblical or allegorical topics (see Falkenburg, 1999).

Biblical stories were also seen as an exemplum, a paradigm from which moralistic action can be derived. It is in light of this tropological interpretation that the phenomenon of identification portraits (also called portrait historié) must be understood. In these portraits a figure or a whole narrative from the Bible was represented by the features of a contemporary person. In genuine identification portraits, and especially in state portraits, the significance of the relationship between the type and antetype played a leading role (see Polleross, 1991).

It is therefore noteworthy that Frederik Henrik was painted as David with the head of Goliath standing in front of the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch (see painting by Jacob Gerristz. Cuyp, Stadhouder Frederik Hendrik as David Standing in Front of Den Bosch ’s-Hertogenbosch, 1630, oil on panel, 138 × 216 cm, signed and dated: J. G. Cuyp 1630, Noordbrabants Museum). This city was captured by Hendrik, whose victory over Spain was compared to the victory of David over Goliath in many hymns. Seven women singing and playing music in front of Hendrik as David represent the seven united provinces, each one having the emblem of the province in her hair. Gelderland, the first province, is represented by an old woman singing from the Psalter.

In Caravaggio’s painting, David with the Head of Goliath (1609–1610, Galleria Borghese, Rome), of the same biblical scene, the severed head of Goliath is a self-portrait. Another example of an identification portrait is Lambert Doomer, Portrait of François Wijnants and d’Alida Essingle as Elkanah and Hanna (1668, Musée des beaux-arts Orléans). Thus, rulers, patrons, and even painters themselves were depicted as biblical figures.


Ancient art and sculpture (e.g., Laocoön and His Sons) played an important role and was seen as a sovereign example. Only during the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns was the referential power of ancient art questioned. Rubens, for example, who himself was in possession of a collection of antiquities, expressed some reservations about the reception of antique art in his essay De imitatione statuarum (1630–1632).

Ideas were taken from ancient art, but the motif was very often taken from the Bible. Statues of biblical figures were produced for churches (e.g., Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculptures Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Habakkuk and the Angel, 1655–1661, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome). Others were made for fountains (e.g., Leonardo Sormani and Prospero Bresciano, statue of Moses, 1585–1588, marble, over life size, Acqua Felice, Rome). Reliefs referring to biblical stories were represented on pestilence columns. One example is the Holy Trinity statue in Budapest, which in 1706 replaced an obelisk at Holy Trinity Square in front of the Matthias Church in memory of the pestilence and in thanksgiving for its end. The three reliefs set in baroque frames on the pedestal of this statue represent the story of 2 Samuel 24. Finally, sculptures were made for private collections (e.g., Bernini’s David, 1623–1624, white marble, 170 cm, Galleria Borghese). These are only a few of the many examples of the rich and manifold plastic representations of biblical stories and figures.

Baroque Visual Art

Daniel in the Lions’ Den by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, c. 1650, was produced for the Chigi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome/Bridgeman Images

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Monumental Decoration and Sacred Interiors.

Typical for this time is the fusion of architecture, sculpture, painting, and ornamentation in churches and palaces into a uniform overall visual concept. This concept was mostly defined by the patron but was sometimes also elaborated on in close collaboration with the painter, architect, and academic. The invention of such a concept demanded knowledge not only of the Bible but also of both ancient and contemporary literature about symbols. The conceptus pingendi in churches differs only slightly from other rhetoric categories such as sermons (see Bauer, 2000, pp. 20–21). Visual art was—as were sermons—considered an instrument of awareness. Frescoes visualizing the Eucharist and the offering of the Sacrament represented the real liturgy in the church.

Quadratura, the painting of illusionistic architecture, and di sotto in su, the technique of painting something with the perspective from below, had a large impact on the beholder by creating a sense of spatial expansion. Examples include the ceiling fresco with elaborate illusionistic devices by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (1639–1709) in the Jesuit church Il Gesù and the one by Andrea Pozzo (1642–1709) in the Sant’Ignazio Church in Rome (see Minor, 1999, pp. 79–82). St. Peter’s (Rome), the Church of Saint-Louis-des-Invalides (Paris), St. Paul’s Cathedral (London), and the church of San Francisco (Lima) are other typical baroque churches.

Although some of the above-mentioned churches are missing large fresco paintings, the architectural message remains constant, not only in Europe, but also in the New World and for many religious denominations (St. Paul’s Cathedral is Anglican). As expressed by Vernon Hyde Minor, “The Baroque church appeals to passionate emotions through spiritual discipline manifested in sophisticated designs of theatrical and dramatic intent” (1999, p. 117).

At the culmination point of baroque religious ceiling fresco painting stand some very elaborate and richly decorated churches in Austria (e.g., Karlskirche, Vienna; Melk Abbey), Bavaria (e.g., Wieskirche/Pilgrimage Church of the Wies), and Switzerland (e.g., Einsiedeln Abbey). Some of them served the interests of pilgrims, as the Pilgrimage Church of Wies does. This oval rococo church was designed in the late 1740s by Johann Baptist Zimmermann (1680–1758) and his brother Domenikus (1685–1766). It is impressive through its use of harmonic architecture, the arrangement of the paired columns (some of them made from scagliola) separated by arches, the large lancet-styled windows in the ambulatory alternating with the substantially higher oval windows, the white plaster with gold highlights, the stucco figures, the dark pulpit again full of symbols, and, last but not least, its frescoes. The large main fresco presents the Last Judgment. In the aisle above the organ the story of Nathan admonishing David is featured (2 Sam 12:1–14) typologically contrasted with the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1–11).

Concerning iconographic construction profane and sacral concepts are not very different. While ceiling frescos in churches were used to visualize divine providence and grace, paintings in palaces legitimized the sovereign power established by God’s grace on earth and emperor worship (see Bauer, 2000, p. 24). It was the promise of a golden age and a just and righteous reign. Mythological as well as biblical, historical, and legendary monumental decoration was widespread and very often combined, as, for example, in the Renaissance palace Ricci-Sacchetti in Rome, as well as in the baroque Eggenberg Palace near Graz, Austria, and the palatial residence Weissenstein in Pommersfelden, Germany. The pictorial program as well as the architecture aims at combining microcosms and macrocosms with two time levels, a mythic and a chronological time, revolving four cosmic levels to the time-space unit of the hermeneutic universe. The detailed and complex concept behind this baroque spectaculum, however, is not always obvious.

Representative buildings of baroque architecture are found not only in Catholic but also in Protestant territories, for example, in the residences in Berlin and Potsdam in Germany or at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. Finally, it is important to mention that not only monarchs erected magnificent palaces, but also citizens. The most often cited example is the Town Hall of Amsterdam, with a mixture of biblical, metaphorical, and historical ceiling frescoes.


Considering the wealth and wide range of visual interpretation of biblical texts in the baroque era, it is obvious that it differs not only in genre, material, etc., but also in function and intention. Sometimes the pictorial retelling of a biblical text is in the foreground, while other visualizations prioritize a rather theological interpretation.

Baroque art is inextricably linked with academic theory and debate, and there was a mutual influence between art theory and art, between artist and theologian, and, last but not least, between print and painting. The function of text and images was largely considered to be identical. The sentence from Ut pictura poesis (Ars poetica I. 361) played an important role. In emblem literature in particular, texts and images were taken as corresponding mediums and bore witness to a profound belief in the fundamental kinship of word and image. The way of persuasion was different, however, for each medium. Visual art referring to the Bible has to be understood as a repetition of visual tradition, copying and varying it, and denoting to the other extreme a new innovative visual rendering of the biblical text. Therefore the work of art representing a biblical text has to be considered foremost as a work of art itself and analyzed in its social, theological, historical, and art historical (bildhistorisch) context.



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Sara Kipfer