Gerrit van Honthorst & the Art of Baroque Propaganda
As a response to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church unleashed an arsenal in the Counter Reformation movement to correct the corruption in the church and convert heretics in the areas of Catholic rule. The Italian Baroque style, characterized by theatrical, dramatic, complex, and asymmetrical elements, served as a means of ecclesiastical propaganda while the French Baroque style emphasized the wealth and power of the aristocracy, especially in sculpture and architecture (Grun and Werner 278-281). The Catholic Church encouraged the Italian Baroque style in hopes of attracting more parishioners away from Protestants and back to Catholicism by appealing to feelings of redemption, forgiveness, and empathy as seen in Gerrit van Honthorst’s Christ Crowned with Thorns (Adams 588). Beginning in the early 17th century, this theatrically driven, ornate, and uncontained style would nearly dominate Europe up to the next 150 years. Though known as a Caravaggisti, Honthorst’s passion and body of work was not only due to the inspiration of Caravaggio’s techniques, but was also a culmination of the religious and political atmosphere surrounding the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque movement.
Born in Utrecht, Netherlands on November 4th, 1590, Gerard van Honthorst, also known by Gerrit van Honthorst, began his young artistic life by apprenticing under the Dutch painter Abraham Bloemaert. At a time when the Counter Reformation was in full sway, Honthorst became such an avid follower of the revolutionary Italian painter Caravaggio that he moved to Italy in the early 1600’s to observe the painter’s works at the height of their popularity in Rome. In Italy, he found a successful career with “leading nobles as patrons and assimilated Caravaggio's realism and dramatic use of artificial light into a personal idiom” (“Honthorst, Gerard van”). Honthorst was so largely influenced by Caravaggio’s unique technique in chiaroscuro and realism that he, along with other Dutch painters Hendrick Terbrugghen and Dirck van Baburen, returned to the Dutch city of Utrecht in the 1620 to create a school that taught the “Caravaggisti” style, more famously known as Utrecht School (“Utrecht School”). Honthorst painted so many scenes illuminated by artificial light, such as candlelight and torchlight, that he became known as Gherardo delle Notti, translated from Italian as Gerrit of the Nights (Honthorst, Christ Crowned with Thorns). He remained there for the next seven years and served as the Utrecht Guild of St. Luke. He eventually moved on to other influences and in 1628, “he worked at the court of Charles I in London,” then lived moved between The Hague, the compound of the Dutch government and court, and Utrecht until his death on April 27, 1656 (“Honthorst, Gerard van”).
Honthorst’s early style of using naturalism and tenebrism in such dramatic and abrupt ways was due in major part to his appreciation and specified study of Michelangelo de Caravaggio’s work. Caravaggio led an extremely tumultuous life that mirrors the drama and theatrics seen in the Baroque period itself. His immense claim to fame came when the Church wanted more focus on bringing parishioners back to the Church and Caravaggio’s naturalist style caught their eye, naturally (“Caravaggio”). It created an emotional depth that the previous Mannerism style had lacked and the church, seeing this as an advantage to the Counter Reformation movement, embraced the change (“Western Painting”). As the father of tenebrism, dramatic raking light, Caravaggio led the Roman Catholic Empire into the new Italian Baroque period where the main emphasis was placed on the emotional connection within a theatrical composition, rather than on the intellectual connections within a composed composition (Grun and Werner 278-281). According to the Art Across Time author Laurie Adams, this style is seen as derision from the classical style and comes from the Portuguese “barroco” which means “irregular, imperfect pearl” (628). It is an imperfect application of strong diagonals, high contrast chiaroscuro, with hurried brush strokes and uncontained composition (Adams 648-649). Though Honthorst’s amour of Caravaggio’s techniques lead to the Utrecht school, he eventually moved on toward other influences like the Flemish painter Van Dyck after 1628 (“Honthorst, Gerard van”).
Though Honthorst painted in the Italian Baroque style, the patrons’ political or religious agenda determined the interpretation of what the Baroque style represented. Within the Baroque movement, the diverging Italian Baroque style and the French Baroque style were the results of religious and political conflict from the 16th through the 17th century (Adams 628). According to Adams, during the mid 1500’s, the Catholics responded to the Protestant Reformation with the Council of Trent:
The council established an Inquisition in Rome to identify heretics and bring them to trial... The Council of Trent restated that the Roman Church’s view of art should be didactic, ethically correct, decent, and accurate… art should appeal to emotion rather than reason. The Roman Inquisition was granted the power to censor works of art that failed to meet the requirements of the council. (588)
The Church used the Italian Baroque style of appealing to the emotions up to the mid 17th century as propaganda of understanding and redemption. The messages were meant to convert the public, Protestant or otherwise, back to the Church with open forgiving arms. This dramatic response from the Catholic Church was the catalyst for the beginning of the Thirty Years War between the northern and southern Netherlands. The war lasted from 1618 to 1648 “although none of the religious differences had been settled” (Adams 626).
While the Catholic Church used the Baroque style to further their agenda, France largely repudiated the emotionality of the Italian Baroque style, instead opting for a more classically decorative and rationally aesthetic style (Adams 635). In the Thirty Years War, France offered assistance to the Northern Netherlands, also known as the Dutch Republic, against Catholicized Spanish rule for its independence and met with success. However, this significant blow to the power of the Holy Roman Empire gave rise to the age of the Absolutism where “according to the principal of divine right of kings, rulers derived their authority directly from God” (Adams 626). Consequently, absolute rulers such as Louis XIV of France and Charles I of England favored this more classical style of Baroque because it focused on showing their power and magnificence. For example, Louis XIV of France commissioned grandiose sculptures and architecture showcasing his wealth and divinity as seen in his lavish palace at Versailles. He also established the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in France where students were taught in a stricter, more classical manner than that of the Italian Baroque style. Eventually, with the celebrated death of Louis XIV, the French Baroque style evolved to the Rococo style, emphasizing the frivolity of the ruling class (Grun and Werner 280-285).
So, it was around 1622 that Gerrit van Honthorst completed the oil on canvas painting Christ Crowned with Thorns, currently on display at The Getty Museum in Santa Monica, CA. In the Italian Baroque style, he creates a somber, dramatic atmosphere through dark tones and muted colors. The reds, yellows, and blues are muted with a brownish red wash from the light the torch gives off while the darkness is so dense in the background that the two men on the right look like ghosts in shadows. As he is known for, he offers only one point of intense illumination coming from torchlight. In the light, there are two harsh opposing views of the unresisting Jesus and a soldier mocking him. The limbs of Christ and the men are mostly on diagonals, pointing towards Christ’s face which seems to be fighting the torch for the focal point. There is an oppressive crowding on the top of the scene that pushes the eye down toward the light. There is also a possibility that “the painting may have been made as an altarpiece” (Honthorst, Christ Crowned with Thorns).
The painting has captured “one of the last of the series of events comprising the trial of Christ… [A] soldier places the crown of thorns on Christ’s head, using a cane to protect his own hands” and “at the left… perhaps Pontius Pilate and an advisor” (Honthorst, Christ Crowned with Thorns). The Getty Museum plaque describing Honthorst’s work reads that Christ “humbly accepts the soldier’s derision” This suggests a visual connection to the message of the Luke 23:34 passage found in the NIV Bible: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is an example of the message the Catholic Church was trying to give to the public. As despicable as your sins may be, even the lowliest of men can be forgiven.
For a great period, Honthorst was at “the foremost northern centre of Caravaggism” (“Caravaggio”). With this recently ascertained piece, Gerrit van Honthorst is in the company of other Caravaggio followers such as Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia Gentileschi, Jose de Ribera, and Valentin de Boulogne. Even though the impact of popularity of that style started to die out after the 1620’s, its remnants is still seen in the later works of Rembrandt van Rijn and Diego Velazquez (“Caravaggio”). The Baroque period is contributed with providing a large amount of the world’s most popular art seen in Europe today, especially the grandeur of the French and English Baroque architecture (Versailles, la visite).
1. Adams, Laurie Schneider. Art across Time: Volume II The Fourteenth Century to the Present. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Print.
2. "Caravaggio." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 6 June 2010 .
3. Grun, Bernard, and Werner Stein. The Timetables of History: a Historical Linkage of People and Events. 4th ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.
4. "Honthorst, Gerard van." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 6 June 2010 .
5. Honthorst, Gerrit Van. Christ Crowned with Thorns (Getty Museum). 1622. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Santa Monica, CA. The Getty. Web. 29 May 2010. .
6. NIV Bible. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997. Print.
7. "Utrecht school." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 6 June 2010 .
8. Versailles, la Visite. Dir. Gérard Corbiau. Organa, 2006. 10 Dec. 2007. Web. 1 June 2010.
9. "Western Painting." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 6 June 2010 .