The Cultural movement of Baroque has often been identified with the that of Absolutism and the Counter Reformation, though the existence of important Baroque art and architecture in non-absolutist and Protestant states undercuts this unity.
The Council of Trent (1545-63), in which the Roman Catholic Church answered many questions of internal reform raised by Protestants and those who remained inside the Catholic Church, addressed the representational arts by demanding that paintings and sculptures in church contexts should speak to the illiterate rather than to the well-informed. This turn toward a populist conception of the function of ecclesiastical art is seen by many art historians as driving the innovations of Caravaggio and the Carracci brothers, all of whom were working (and competing for commissions) in Rome around 1600.
The most important sculptor of the Baroque period is undoubtedly Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), who approached Michelangelo in his omnicompetence. Bernini sculpted, worked as an architect, painted, wrote plays, and staged spectacles. In the late 20th century Bernini was most valued for his sculpture, both for his virtuosity in carving marble and his ability to create figures that combine the physical and the spiritual. He was also a fine portraitist in high demand among the powerful for bust-length likenesses.
- the total work of art
A good example Bernini's work that helps us understand the Baroque is his St. Theresa in Ecstasy, 1645-52, for the Cornaro Chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. Bernini designed the entire chapel, a subsidiary space along the side of the church, for the Cornaro family. He had, in essence, a brick box shaped something like a proscenium stage space with which to work. He created a main statue as the focal point of the chapel, surrounded the monochromatic marble statue (a soft white) with a polychromatic marble architectural framing concealing a window to light the statue from above, and placed shallow relief sculpture figure-groups of the Cornaro family in opera boxes along the two side walls of the chapel. The setting places the viewer as a spectator in front of the statue with the Cornaro family leaning out of their box seats and craning forward to see the mystical ecstasy of the saint. The statue of St. Theresa of Avila is highly idealized in detail and in an imaginary setting. St. Theresa of Avila, one of the most popular saints of the Counter Reformation, wrote narratives of her mystical experiences aimed at the nuns of her Carmelite Order; these writings had become popular reading among lay people interested in pursuing spirituality. She described once the love of God piercing her heart like a burning arrow. Bernini literalizes this image by placing St. Theresa in a reclining pose on a cloud with what can only be described as a Cupid figure holding a golden arrow (the arrow is made of metal) and smiling down at her. The angelic figure is not preparing to plunge the arrow into her heart - he has withdrawn it; St. Theresa's face reflects not an anticipation of ecstasy, but her current fulfillment, which can only be described as orgasmic.
The blending of religious and erotic was intensely offensive to neoclassical restraint and Victorianism; it is part of the genius of the Baroque. Bernini, who shows every sign in his writings of being a convinced and conventionally devout Catholic, is not attempting to satirize the experience of a virgin who lived a life of chastity, but reflecting a complex truth about religious experience - that it is an experience that takes places in a body. Theresa described her bodily reaction to spiritual enlightenment in a language of ecstasy used by many mystics, and Bernini did her the favor to take her seriously.
The Cornaro family practices a delicate kind of self-promotion in this chapel. They appear, but on the sides; they are privileged over the spectator by being closer to the saint, but we realize that we have a better view from the front. They attach their name to the chapel, but St. Theresa is the focus. It is a private chapel in the sense that no one could say mass on the altar beneath the statue (in the 17th century and probably through the 19th) without permission from the family, but all that divides the viewer from the image is the altar rail. The spectacle works both as a demonstration of mysticism and as a piece of family pride.