Agostino di Duccio’s Saint Bridget of Sweden Receives the Rule of Her Order and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa offer a clear contrast between the early Renaissance and Baroque styles. Both are marble altarpieces carved for churches, but they differ sharply in terms of scale, mood, and intended purpose.
While Agostino’s work is a relief sculpture with somewhat stilted figures, a more subdued style and mood, and a fairly straightforward depiction of a key event in a locally revered saint’s life, Bernini’s is a more realistic three-dimensional work that epitomizes the vivid, dramatic Baroque style and fits into a context of renewed Catholic fervor and spiritual urgency. Saint Bridget of Sweden Receives the Rule of Her Order is clearly the more modest of these two works, fitting its artistic and religious contexts.
This white marble sculpture, commissioned in 1459 for a church in Perugia, Italy, was part of a large altarpiece and depicts five figures. At the center, a diminutive Jesus (second from left) grasps the hand of Saint Bridget (who is conspicuously larger than the other figures) and hands her a scroll, delineating the rules for the monks and nuns in her order to follow (Metropolitan Museum). They are flanked by two angels, each holding what appears to be a large garland, while a small sphinx sits by Saint Bridget’s side.
While the figures’ proportions are anatomically correct, their postures are somewhat rigid and stilted, looking somewhat static and unnatural; their faces are somewhat blank and convey no emotion. Also, there is no discernable background other than the textured plane itself. Agostino lived and worked in Florence and Perugia during the High Renaissance period, which owed a considerable amount to classical models, which many of its artists emulated.
Indeed, the Renaissance witnessed a revived interest in antiquity, and art historians John Paoletti and Gary Radke note that “Agostino, like most of his contemporaries, preferred to apply classical vocabulary around Gothic structure” (Paoletti and Radke 256). Accordingly, the era’s sculptors frequently created figures which looked somewhat static and stiff, imitating ancient Greek and Roman statues. For example, Ghiberti’s sculptures of Saints John the Baptist and Matthew strike similar poses based on ancient models, with weight shifted to one foot but still looking posed and immobile; movement is at best implied but not made obvious.
Also, their faces look passive and inexpressive, much like those in St. Bridget. Furthermore, Renaissance relief sculptures often implied three-dimensionality but seldom made its human figures dynamic; Agostino studied under Donatello, whose Saint George and the Dragon (1417) features a moment laden with dramatic motion but freezes its figures, thus muting the action. Backgrounds in this period’s relief sculptures were frequently neutral.
Hartt and Wilkins note that Renaissance sculptors “had conceived of the background of a relief sculpture as a plane in front of which the figures were placed or from which they seemed to emerge” (Hartt and Wilkins 211). Indeed, in St. Bridget, the figures do not break radically from the background, blending subtly with it. Also, the background itself is largely inert, save for a slightly rough surface that seems to imply clouds. According to art scholar Bruce Cole, this may result more from sculptors’ customary use of abrasives rather than any effort at creating a discernable, detailed background (Cole 116).
Sculpture during this period was generally not considered as important as other art forms, such as painting, which may explain Saint Bridget’s understated appearance. Art historians Frederick Hartt and David Wilkins note that Leonardo da Vinci, the period’s dominant artistic figure, “was bent on excluding from the Liberal Arts, or at least on maintaining a in a rank below that of painting” (Hartt and Wilkins 479-480). Thus, they claim, sculpture lacked the drama and innovation seen in the Baroque period.
However, they also note that the era’s sculptors “were creating a remarkable group of works that expressed the new concepts of the dignity and autonomy of the individual” (Hartt and Wilkins 199). As the sculpture’s principal subject, St. Bridget is clearly exalted here, being the largest figure in the work – even larger than Jesus, who delivers the divine orders. As an altarpiece, Agostino’s work is not grandiose or awe-inspiring, but that is not its mission; therefore, it fits its artistic and religious context.
According to Cole, while altarpieces were extremely common in Renaissance churches and occasionally grand in scale, “Their subjects were manifold, but usually, like the panel itself, simple, straightforward, and uncomplicated” (Cole 138). Most depicted locally revered, often less widely-known saints, Cole continues: “Often the saint . . . was surrounded by scenes from his or her life and legend. These were narrated in a series of ancillary pictures flanking the figure” (Cole 138). Indeed, St. Bridget fits this paradigm, as it depicts the moment in which her monastic order receives divine orders and sanction.
Also, St. Bridget fits very well into the context of its time because its subject matter appealed to worshippers who revered specific saints, whose importance is not widely understood by modern viewers. Says Cole: “The large body of common knowledge about the saints’ particular miracles, and their protection of certain groups, made their images . . . much more immediate and compelling than today. . . . Renaissance life was permeated by these saints and their stories to a degree we find hard to imagine (Cole 146).
Accordingly, St. Bridget depicts a key moment in its subject’s life in the subtle manner common to its historical context. In comparison, Bernini’s work, completed two centuries later in 1652, is radically different in terms of style and emotion. Also created from marble, it occupies a much grander and more ornate setting – a chapel within the Santa Maria della Vittoria church in Rome, which belonged to the Carmelite order but was taken over by a Venetian cardinal from a prominent, wealthy family (Avery 146).
A free-standing sculpture, it is surrounded by dark-colored marble columns and backed by vivid gilded rays, which symbolize divine light from the heavens and are accentuated by sunlight let in from a window above. Only two figures appear – at the left, an angel with a billowing robe and flowing, curly hair stands above Saint Teresa, who sits at the right, clad in a long, somewhat wrinkled robe and bearing a look of ecstatic, overwhelming emotion on her face. The angel also holds a small golden spear with a delicate grip, aiming it at a writhing Teresa’s torso.
Both sit upon a cloud, implying an otherworldly event. Where Agostino’s work (older by two centuries) is a relief sculpture and thus somewhat flat, Bernini’s is three-dimensional and well-lit, showing its contours and details very clearly; in particular, the lighting from above creates shadows on the figures and their garments that make the sculpture seem almost lifelike. (No similar realism appears in Agostino’s relief, and the light’s play on its figures is less pronounced.
Also, while the anatomical proportions are more or less correct in both, Bernini’s work appears far more lifelike because the figures strike more dynamic poses; the angel is poised with the spear (though its benign smile implies no menace), while Teresa recoils, her face wearing an ecstatic, deeply emotional look, her open mouth seeming to moan and her eyes closed as if in submission. Also, their limbs, being more fully visible, reveal more detail and appear delicate despite being carved of stone, as the digits on Saint Teresa’s hands and feet are remarkably realistic.
The clothing is also dynamic, because it appears light and flowing and its folds and billows imply movement. The work’s apparent delicacy is actually somewhat deceptive, particularly regarding the angel. Here, a key difference emerges in how Baroque artists depicted angels. While Agostino’s two angels are merely attendants with no apparent character or readily visible power, Bernini’s lone angel is a powerful force, perhaps echoing the Church’s revived sense of mission in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and its desire to project its spiritual power and enhance its message.
Art scholar Robert Wallace writes of St. Teresa that the angel’s seemingly light grip on the spear (using only thumb and forefinger): This is by no means an affectation on Bernini’s part; it has a great deal of meaning. . . . Bernini is expressing in these works the mystical idea that angels are hovering all around us. Sometimes they actually penetrate the world of men, performing acts that, for men, would require great strength. But angels, as agents of God, have no need of strength as men conceive it.
Their strength is faith, and it is exerted through contacts as gentle as a breath of air. Wallace 143) Wallace also dismisses the notion that St. Teresa’s ecstasy is orgasmic or at all sexual, as some scholars have claimed. He claims “that great work, which is permeated by mysticism, has been so often disparaged for having a sexual sensationalism which it really does not possess” (Wallace 143). Instead, Bernini drew from the saint’s autobiography (which appeared less than century before the sculpture was created), in which she describes her powerful visions, thus taking Teresa basically at her own word.
In the vision that inspired the work, an angel appeared before her, taking to an unearthly place (hence the clouds on which Teresa rests) and thrusting a golden spear into her chest, infusing her with love for God. Bernini’s work also fits well into the overall context of Baroque sculpture, particularly regarding the Catholic Church’s revived sense of mission in the wake of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation (which, when St Bridget was created, was still a half-century away).
According to Wallace, “, most assuredly including Bernini, were conscious of their mission as teachers, and it is worth repeating that they spoke in terms understandable to ordinary men” (Wallace 145). Indeed, the vivid depiction of the saint’s vision can hardly be ignored, since its scale, use of lavish materials, and prominent placement within the church itself enhance the Church’s newly-urgent message of divine power. Also, Wallace writes, “In comparison with the art of the High Renaissance, Baroque art is a good deal more colorful, higher-pitched, and ‘theatrical.
Baroque art makes a direct appeal to the emotions of the viewer . . . expressions of rage, pain, piety, or ecstasy, are so explicitly rendered that they verge on caricature” (Wallace 11). In addition, having been created well after Luther’s emergence and during the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Baroque art was part of the Church’s urgent campaign to revive its spiritual mission and convey its new fervor, energy, and grandeur; a subtle, understated style like Agostino’s would simply have been insufficient to instill such feelings in the faithful.
Wallace states that “these artists saw their mission as one of religious persuasion as well as beautification. It was their goal above all else to convince viewers of the true teaching of the Church” (Wallace 12). In conclusion, these two sculptures attest not only to aesthetic differences between the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but also to marked cultural and religious changes in Italy. Agostino’s relief piece is less sophisticated and dramatic, reflecting a Church in which local saints were revered and no sense of spiritual urgency guided clerics or artists.
Its message could thus afford to be more subtle, since its uses were more limited. In contrast, Bernini’s massive altarpiece reflects the visual drama and grandeur of the Baroque style, which relied on visual effects to strike a deeply emotional chord in its viewers – which aptly served the aims of a shaken but reinvigorated Catholic Church, which used the Baroque style to appeal to its flocks and make the Catholic religious experience more dramatic, visually stirring, and spiritually meaningful.
Each work fits well into its context, which was mandated not merely by artistic convention but also by the needs and character of the Church, which changed in the two centuries between these sculptures and called for not only different styles but different methods of appealing to viewers’ faith.