Following the Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther in 1517 and the advances in science made in the sixteenth century, the papacy and the absolute monarchies of Europe desperately needed to restore their prestige and authority. What could the Catholic Church do to meet the Protestant challenge?

The answer was the Counter-Reformation, which was an attempt to address and tackle the issues raised by the Protestant reformers. In an era when some Protestants were destroying images of saints and whitewashing the walls of churches, Catholic reformers reaffirmed the importance of art.

The Council of Trent (1545–63) decreed that the arts should communicate religious themes to the illiterate population in direct and emotional language. Painting should be simple, obvious, dramatic and exciting. And that is exactly what they got when a new artist, Caravaggio, burst onto the scene in 1600.

Caravaggio’s violent contrasts of light and dark brought high drama to his subjects, while his acute realism endowed the characters with the believable attributes of ordinary people. This was the preferred style of painting in the seventeenth century and became known as the Baroque.

The sources of this style lay in the natural reaction of such sixteenth-century artists as Titian and Tintoretto against the stability and perfection of Renaissance art. The word comes from the Portuguese barroco, meaning an imperfect or irregularly shaped pearl, i.e. something deviating from the usual, regular forms.

In both Catholic and Protestant countries, Baroque art shared three common characteristics. This was a strong theatrical or dramatic element, a rejection of Renaissance idealism in favour of a more naturalistic approach, and the use of a dynamic composition with a strong diagonal movement.

One of the fundamental differences between the two schools was the financial rewards. While such Protestant Baroque masters as Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer often struggled and died in poverty, the leading Catholic Baroque artists led a much more comfortable existence in the service of European monarchs.

As the home of the Inquisition and the Jesuits, Spain was the main force behind the Counter-Reformation. So it is not surprising to find that three of the most famous Catholic Baroque artists – Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck – came from lands ruled by King Philip IV of Spain.

Unlike the Roman Catholics, Protestant churches disapproved of images and did not commission religious art. Painters worked instead for the newly rich middle-classes, who wanted images of themselves, their possessions and their country. This led to another important change in the art world.

In the past, the artist had often been a painter, sculptor, architect, poet, stage designer – whatever his patron wanted him to be. But in the new Protestant countries like the Dutch Republic, the artist found himself on the open market, dealing with the public and catering for the public taste.

Because the market was so competitive, painters found that it was best to specialise in one particular area, rather than try to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. The main areas of expertise were portraits, still-lifes, landscapes and genre scenes (paintings of scenes from everyday life).

Baroque was the dominant style of the seventeenth century, when Russian art was still overwhelmingly religious and largely immune to the changes taking place in Europe. But the influence of Western culture was slowly growing, particularly following the improvement of Russo-Polish relations in the 1680s.

In the 1680s, Western architectural devices combined with Russian national traditions to form a unique style known as Muscovite or Naryshkin Baroque. This was the last original movement in Old Russian architecture before the reforms of Peter the Great opened up the country to the European school.

Muscovite Baroque was essentially a fusion of traditional Russian architecture and elements of European Baroque. The movement is also known as Naryshkin Baroque, because the first churches in this style were built on the estates of the Naryshkin family of Moscow boyars, before spreading across the country.

The most important member of this family was Natalia Naryshkina, second wife of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich and mother of Peter the Great. After he succeeded to the throne, Peter invited many West European painters, sculptors and architects to Russia to create the new capital of St Petersburg, which he founded in 1703.

Each master worked in the traditions of his own country and the result was a bewildering mixture of Italian Baroque, early French Rococo and Neoclassicism and Dutch civilian architecture. This was given the collective name of Petrine Baroque – a nominal term for a style which was not even strictly Baroque at all.

Muscovite (Naryshkin) Baroque and Petrine Baroque both lasted into the reign of Anna Ioannovna in the 1730s. After the accession of Peter’s younger daughter Elizabeth Petrovna in 1741, these movements gave way to the High Baroque style cultivated by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli.

Rastrelli’s talent flourished in Russia in the 1740s and 1750s, when he was the court architect of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. During this period, he designed the Grand Palace at Peterhof (1747–55), the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo (1752–56) and the fourth Winter Palace in St Petersburg (1754–62).

Rastrelli masterly combined European style and elegance with Russian national traditions. The Cathedral of the Resurrection at the Smolny Convent in St Petersburg, for example, echoes the composition of the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. The belfry pays tribute to the Belltower of Ivan the Great.

The Baroque was the perfect style for the reign of Elizabeth Petrovna, reflecting the empress’s flamboyant lifestyle and notions of beauty. Rastrelli transferred and incorporated these notions into all his creations, taking the concept of the Baroque to new heights unseen in any other country in Europe.

Although Elizabeth Petrovna could be a capricious customer, Rastrelli had a subtle knowledge of the tastes, whims and desires of the empress, who placed the vast wealth of the Russian state at his disposal. Nowhere else in the world were works of Baroque created on such a vast scale as they were in Russia.

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