Barocci at the National Gallery

The Council of Trent went on in multiple sessions from 1545 to 1563. It shaped the Catholic Church’s response to the Lutheran reformation which was tearing the church apart, and initiated the counter-reformation. For artists, the Council of Trent changed the ground rules of what was acceptable in art, rapidly closing down the Renaissance focus on classical mythology and images, and the sexually charged nature of much Renaissance art.

In his book, Renaissance, Andrew Graham-Dixon quotes Gabriele Paleotti on the counter-reformation requirements of art. Writing in 1582, Paleotti said:

If we see the martyrdom of a saint rendered in lively colours without being shattered by it, if we see Christ being fastened to the cross with dreadful nails, we must be of marble or wood if we do not feel deeply moved, if our piety is not stimulated afresh and our dinner being is not deeply affected by remorse and devotion.

The meaning cold not be more clear. The purpose of art is to stimulate piety and devotion, to move the viewer to great religious feelings. Art which fails to do that, fails as art.

Paleotti might well have had Barocci in mind as a role model for a counter-reformation artist. Born in 1535 in Urbino, birthplace of Raphael, Barocci grew up in the shadow of the Council of Trent, and spent his adult life as a painter during the counter-reformation. He was clearly a naturally devote man, and his natural inclinations fitted well with the counter-reformation orthodoxy. Here is a artist who is clearly capable of moving the faithful to tears with beautifully rendered devotional images, large and small.

The National Gallery now has a very substantial show of his work in their major exhibition, Barocci, Brilliance and Grace. The exhibition brings together a large number of his major devotional works, together many of the supporting drawings and cartoons made in preparation. There are also a small number of portraits and landscape drawings.

The exhibition demonstrates beyond any doubt that Barocci was a superb master of drawing. The sensitivity and touch of many of the drawings is superb and the exhibition would be worth a visit for those alone. There is a wonderful drawing in the first room a nude study of a girl which was prepared as a preparatory study for a picture of Mary in Rest on the Return from Egypt. The drawing brings the girl beautifully alive, and you can almost see the naked form under the clothing in the completed picture.

As to the major devotional works, I confess I found them rather over-sweet and a little too ‘pretty’. They move in the direction of excessive sentimentality that I personally find rather off-putting. That said they are compositionally brilliant and wonderfully executed. There is no doubt that Barocci is a wonderful artist but I could have wished that he was a little less devout.

I think this is an exhibition worth seeing because Barocci is clearly a highly accomplished artist. But when you compare this son of Urbino to Raphael, born in the same city some 100 years earlier, you can clearly see how the counter-reformation has sucked the excitement, the life and the eroticism out of renaissance art. I suspect most viewers will be awestruck by the technical brilliance, but I doubt they will be stirred.