March 2013 Print

Art, Architecture, and the Baroque: Stairway to Heaven

by John Rao, Ph.D.

My students regularly accuse me of inventing stories regarding things that happen to me in order to startle and shock them out of their normal state of intellectual and spiritual slumber. Actually, I encounter the same “stuff of life” every day that they do, but somehow manage to get something out of it that eludes them. The difference is due to a complex of factors, among which exposure to the message of Baroque art and architecture plays a significant role. And in fairness to my students, that message only became “real” to me when I was twenty-two years old and saw and experienced in person what it had to say.

This happened during the first of what were to prove to be over one hundred glorious trips to Rome. It was late summer, I was at the beginning of my graduate studies, and I needed to clarify some initial questions regarding a possible dissertation topic at the office of La Civiltà Cattolica, which was not that far from the Spanish Steps. Since there was no particular holiday in the offing, the city was uncharacteristically empty—although all too characteristically hot and humid. With the library shut from lunchtime until quite late in the day, I developed the habit of wandering at random after having had a bite to eat. Since I did not yet know Rome at all well, that meant that I often found myself utterly lost.

Lift up the Spirit

Trapped one particularly sultry afternoon in a welter of medieval streets, and eager to locate some cover from the sun and quench my ripening thirst, I was rapidly losing all my interest in tourism. No café offered shelter and grog. As narrow lanes led to tinier passageways and then through what appeared to be nothing more than escape-tunnel size cracks between the walls of citadel-like palaces, my frustration grew apace. Finally, when all hope seemed lost, lo and behold, there I was—luxuriating in a magnificent Baroque piazza, equipped with refreshing fountains, watering holes, and stunning architecture, sculpture, and painting, both religious and secular.

What dawned on me, and was then confirmed and sharpened by reading the commentaries of art historians, was that the architects and artists who had conceived that piazza, whose whole complex lifted up the spirit while nevertheless offering all that the body could wish, were extraordinary psychologists as well as builders. Having taken stock of the area surrounding their project, and having rightly judged that those caught in its mesh of little lanes might indeed feel miserably confined by them—its regular inhabitants perhaps even more than the passing tourist—they decided to teach all these myopic grumblers an eye-opening lesson. They resolved to show them that just beyond yet another “dead end,” a seemingly meaningless, frustrating, convoluted path to nowhere could suddenly and surprisingly open up onto the splendor of a Piazza Navona. And perhaps they hoped that such a pleasurable surprise would then lead these frustrated but now bedazzled souls to realize that “much more than meets the eye” might lie in store for them elsewhere; that there might well be “surprises” to be found everywhere in this earthly valley of tears; maybe even inside the drab alleys giving way to the piazza themselves.

In any case, I spent the rest of my free time, both in Rome as well as in those parts of Europe that I visited on my way up to Oxford for the start of the university year, looking for other examples of Baroque encouragement of the hunt for “more than meets the eye” and the “surprises” hiding behind the drab or frustrating surface of ordinary daily experiences. This did not prove to be a difficult task at all.

Explore the Baroque Message

Such encouragement could be found on the façades and ceilings of many palaces and churches, whose bare construction materials were shown to be mere springboards for whimsical artistic elaborations giving the impression that even the simplest functional building block might be transformed into a sugar cake with icing on top. It was visible at the incomparably beautiful Borromeo Palace on the Isola Bella near Stresa in northern Italy, where rooms of spectacular fancy and brilliance emerged from the stones and grottos of Lago Maggiore, revealing the true vitality that could be drawn from their unnaturally frozen “natural” exteriors. And it was palpable at Oxford, my home for the next four years, which was replete with dark little lanes “headed nowhere” that unceasingly guided the pilgrim who gave himself up to their secrets from one enchanted courtyard or piazza to another.

Such exploration of the Baroque message made it clear that the call to expect and discover “more than meets the eye” in the “stuff” of daily existence was also a summons to an awareness of life’s constant movement and dramatic character. This explains why visitors praying before an altar at a Baroque side chapel and glancing upward to their right or left can often find themselves face to face with a gallery populated by sculpted figures—probably the patrons of this sacred niche—several of them plunging their arms into the walls to embrace invisible guests arriving from somewhere outside to swell their number, and others leaning over the balcony’s edge, gesticulating enthusiastically and urging passersby to join them in their urgent and fervent worship. Visiting faithful may thus well be given the impression that they must all “get on with the dramatic action” and make sure that their beginning act of worship, now in full swing, be brought to a successful conclusion. What were the inhabitants of the gallery praying for, they might ask? Whatever it could be, it would seem to be important to them, perhaps deadly important, and so crucial as to require enlistment of the aid of others in their supplications to obtain.

Finally, investigation of this effort to awaken those “with eyes to see” to the “surprises” to be found everywhere around them indicated just how much Baroque success in illuminating all the nooks and crannies of a movement and drama-filled nature was tied to commitment to the supernatural message coming from the Father of Lights and grasp of the goal of His glorious Creation. This commitment, associated with the work of the Catholic Reformation in general and the Society of Jesus in particular, allowed Baroque artists and artisans to mobilize all natural tools with full respect for the proper “hierarchy of values,” and use them to create an entire world dedicated ad majorem Dei gloriam.

Aesthetic Genius

Sometimes the aesthetic geniuses engaged in this enterprise showed their respect for the primary role of the supernatural in understanding nature’s real character and capabilities by playing with the camera image of persons and objects, twisting, turning, and exaggerating their physical aspects for the purpose of revealing the vital spiritual energy giving ultimate meaningful direction to their action. Sometimes, as with Bernini in his depiction of the mystical experiences of St. Theresa of Avila, they can leave the physical aspects of nature startlingly untouched, while driving home the teaching that one can only understand what the senses tell us all too strongly by interpreting what earthly experiences really mean with our eyes focused upwards, on just exactly how God sees them. But whatever their approach, Baroque painters, sculptures, architects, and city planners, working under the twin impulses of Revelation and Grace, brought together all the tools of nature to construct of it one magnificent stairway to heaven.

The Baroque spirit did not appear ex nihilo. Its love of nature and its depiction of movement in nature were stirred, to a large degree, by the preceding work of the classicizing Renaissance. At its best, however, it developed classical achievements still further through its own passionate insights, reintroducing elements into the construction of the stairway to heaven that would also have been familiar to Byzantine and Romanesque and Gothic artists.

Reaction to Despair

But Baroque art was also very much a reaction to the despair of the late Middle Ages regarding the real possibility of “transformation in Christ.” This despair, growing since the 1200’s under the impact of Church-State battles, the Avignon Papacy, the Plague, the Great Western Schism, the collapse of the Crusading Movement, and the crimes of Renaissance churchmen, was given voice, theologically, by Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and Jean Calvin in the supposedly Bible-based doctrine of the total depravity of man and the universe after Adam’s sin. The logic of this doctrine, as Joseph de Maistre later lamented, was to kill the transforming strength of the Word in the name of bare and badly interpreted words. But Baroque art and architecture, along with the Catholic Reformation and the Society of Jesus working in union with them, raised their mighty swords in the defense of Grace and Nature, giving the project of constructing the stairway to heaven the long-term contract that it needed.

In practice, most Protestants could not bring themselves to draw all of the drab conclusions their fundamental principle clearly dictated. They could not destroy within them entirely the longing for beauty. Nevertheless, their attacks on the very concept of Holy Church and their fear of doctrinal disputes revealing their inner contradictions forced them to give control over the guidance of art and architecture (and everything else as well) to State and secular forces. These then enlisted the tempting Baroque spirit in the task of adulating princes and potentates on the one hand, and playful earthly passions on the other.

Even under such circumstances, that spirit’s innate strength allowed for the creation of some fine works of art. But as the proper fuel propelling Baroque vitality ran out, and political authorities and private patrons lost any feel for where to go to mine it, this degenerated into productions of grandiose pomposity and pretentious or precious silliness. Corruptio optimae pessima! Hence, blessed Italy got the Via della Conciliazione, with its destruction of the narrow streets leading to the “grand surprise” of St. Peter’s Square, and the hideous “wedding cake” of the Altar of the Fatherland at the Piazza Venezia. And the United States got Baroque banqueting halls for the churning out of overly expensive and tasteless marriage feasts.

Still, there were all too many logically minded men and women influenced by the Protestant doctrine of total depravity determined to reveal nature for what it “truly” was—namely, a wretched jungle dominated by the war of all against all. Its naturalist and functionalist offspring, through all their aesthetic forms, literature included, have relentlessly sought to produce painting, sculpture, architecture, and whole cities that present no “surprises,” nothing “more than meets the eye,” and definitely no illumination coming down from the Father of Lights concerning Creation’s ultimate meaning and destiny. Not only do they do this directly, but also indirectly, seeking to “destroy what other men cherish” by placing their specific interpretations of nature as a sinful, meaningless jungle in immediate proximity to great Catholic works of art and architecture in order to mock and undermine their influence on people. If there is any holistic meaning to their project at all, it is to make of our entire environment a trapdoor to Hell.

Stairway to Heaven

Yes, the truly productive Catholic Baroque spirit fought mightily on behalf of construction of an alternative stairway to heaven in the City of Man. Nevertheless, individual Catholic princes and rich private individuals with passionate whimsies admittedly did their part to cheapening its vital energy alongside their Protestant brethren. Worse still, Jansenists and their ever increasing number of allies in the eighteenth century so successfully fought against the concept of transformation of all things in Christ in a world that they deemed much too steeped in sin to be saved that they practically crushed its influence within the Church herself by the time of the Revolution. In the name of fighting a “Baroque Catholicism” that was actually Catholicism pure and simple, and in the cause of producing a cultural climate shaped by what they called “noble simplicity,” all they did was hasten the victory of that naturalism and functionalism that equates Creation with Hell—inside the Church as well as without.

All this brings me full circle. The Baroque first revealed its deeper meaning to me in Rome while I was trying to determine what it is that I should work on for my doctoral dissertation. The dissertation that I chose involved the Catholic Revival Movement of the nineteenth century. It was that Revival Movement that rediscovered the pre-revolutionary, pre-naturalist world in which Catholics were building out of their environment a stairway to heaven based upon the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ and transformation of all things under His Kingship. It was that Revival Movement that showed me just how correct the Baroque spirit was in looking for the surprising hand of God in everything in life, small and insignificant as it first might seem. It was that Revival Movement that told me that if I did not seek to make of my environment a stairway to heaven with every single tool at my disposal—with what could be seen and experienced by people at the top of the list—then those who wished it to be a trapdoor to hell would do with it what they wished. And this makes my stories to my students an aesthetic and artistic act in their own right—one designed as an act of worship to my God and a weapon in my defense and the defense of my fellow Catholics.


John Rao, Ph.D., is a professor of history at St. John’s University in New York, New York. He is the author of Removing the Blindfold, and, most recently, Black Legends and the Light of the World: The War of Words with the Word Incarnate (Remnant Press, 2011). He has written articles for The Angelus, The Remnant, and other periodicals.