Wednesday, November 7, 2007
In works such as the fresco of The Glory of St. Dominic in the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna, Italy, Guido Reni painted the grandeur of Christianity in a high Baroque style like few others. Born November 4, 1575, Reni epitomized the state of Italian art in early seventeenth century with his knowledge of ancient statuary, beautiful draftsmanship, and almost erotic sensuality in a religious context. Faced with the threat of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church launched its own Counter-reformation, enlisting artists such as Reni as their secret weapon to reach the masses. Standing beneath the grand fresco of St. Dominic high above in the dome of San Domenico, they reasoned, who could not be convinced that the church was right?
Today, many of Reni’s works appear in museums, far from their intended setting, which takes away from their functional aspect. Reni sold the Catholic point of view well, humanizing his saints yet making them stunningly appealing at the same time. The blood and gore of the grotesquely arrow-ridden versions of St. Sebastian disappear in Reni’s version (above), replaced with a fresh-faced, nearly nude youth, bound and vulnerable. St. Sebastian brings the ancient statuary of Greece and Rome to life, reimagining the classical ideal within a Christian setting, an ideal that the illiterate people choosing between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church could find persuasive. Reni’s saints look like 1950s movie stars—humble in some ways, yet quietly sexual in others. Bernini’s blatantly orgasmic Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is still a few decades away, but Reni’s portrayals lay the groundwork for that leap of faith.
The Old Testament, of course, provided more than enough situations for sex in the choristers. Reni painted Susanna and the Elders (above, 1620-1625), one of the favorite sexually charged scenes of the Bible, knowing full well what he was doing. Using the Bible the way many used mythology—as a license to thrill—Reni shows the voyeuristic elders interrupting the voluptuous Susanna while bathing. Such scenes comprised the pictorial Bible of the illiterate, “teaching” them about morality while drawing in the crowds at the same time. Reni’s paintings stand above the rest of his Counter-reformation cohorts for their great draftsmanship and beautiful modeling. Although they were created for propaganda as much as for praise, Reni’s works today show the aesthetic aftershocks of the Renaissance earthquake that redefined art and humanism forever after.