Baroque Culture in Latin America

Baroque Culture in Latin America
Baroque Culture in Latin America

The term baroque—originally a pejorative label meaning “absurd” or “grotesque”—is used to designate the artistic style that flourished in Europe and abroad in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

The baroque influence reached Latin America in the mid-17th century and continued to make its presence felt long after 1750, the year conventionally given as the end of the baroque movement in Europe. The artistic movement, which originated in Rome in tandem with the Catholic Counter-Reformation, emphasized vigorous movement and emotional intensity.

Baroque works were typically characterized by a highly ornamental style and extensive use of decorative detail. Given the movement’s roots in the Counter-Reformation, it comes as little surprise that most (though certainly not all) baroque art served a religious purpose.

Life-sized images aimed to capture the emotional states of their subjects (typically biblical figures), so that viewers could connect with the subject on an emotional level. On major holy days, religious statues, often dressed in ornamental garments, were paraded through the streets of Latin American cities.

While Latin American culture was clearly influenced by European styles and aesthetic ideals, Latin American baroque was by no means a mere duplicate of European artistic forms. Baroque music was generally more lively and less technically complex in a Latin American context than it was in Europe.

European innovations in the visual arts were selectively appropriated and transformed to suit a very different context. The result was a hybridization of European, Indian, and African cultural influences. Many baroque churches in Latin America, for example, include detailed carvings and other ornamentation that incorporate elements of indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices.

Similarly, paintings and sculptures from the baroque era often portray their subjects clad in the native garments or situated in surroundings suggestive of the local climate and geography. The biblical scenes found in the interior of the San Francisco Church in Santa Fé de Bogotá, Colombia, for example, depict biblical figures in a rich tropical environment.

Some of the finest examples of Latin American baroque art and architecture can be seen in the work of Antônio Francisco Lisboa, known more popularly as O Aleijadinho (the “Little Cripple”).

This Brazilian sculptor and architect’s masterpieces include baroque churches in São João del Rei and Ouro Preto, as well as the statuary (most famously the Twelve Prophets carved out of soapstone) at the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Matozinho in Congonhas do Campo.

Aleijadinho’s work, some of which he produced in the early years of the 19th century, serves as a reminder of the inapplicability of rigid periodization of artistic styles in the Latin American context.

The decades following independence witnessed a backlash against baroque culture among educated elites in Latin America. The movement for political independence had been inspired in large part by European Enlightenment ideals, and it was to European—and particularly to French neoclassicist—ideals that the Creole elites turned for a cultural model on which to base their newly independent societies.

On a more popular level, however, devotional art and pageantry and other expressions of popular culture continued to demonstrate a taste for theatricality and ornamentation characteristic of baroque culture well into the 19th century and beyond. In fact, the enduring presence of baroque aesthetic norms can still be observed in Latin American cultural expression.