The Baroque period occurred during the late 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, came after the Renaissance, and was characterised by grandiose, ornate art of religious themes.
During this era, the Counter-Reformation and Catholic Revival were in full swing. Churches and monasteries commissioned artworks from famous painters that celebrated grandeur, drama and mystical scenes. Painters used chiaroscuro to create tension in their visual narratives. Many of these works remain today and are admired for their fascinating and unique visual style.
In this guide, we take a look at ten of the most famous paintings from the Baroque period and explore who painted them, their significance to art history and what makes them special.
The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio
Caravaggio’s work, The Calling of St. Matthew is considered one of the most important Baroque paintings of all time, as it marks a new approach to religious painting in the 17th century. It was painted in 1600 and is an oil painting featuring seven characters who are frozen in the moment of Saint Matthew’s calling to join Jesus. It is considered a masterpiece, as it was one of the first to make use of dramatic chiaroscuro lighting that created contrast with the figures in the composition.
The Raising of Lazarus by Rembrandt
The Raising of Lazarus by Rembrandt is another example of an iconic Baroque painting, painted in 1630. It portrays the moment Jesus brings Lazarus back to life and highlights both the light and dark elements of the scene. The facial expressions of sadness and fear are especially well depicted, making this piece one that continues to be admired for its emotional complexity.
Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne by Annibale Carracci
This fresco by Carracci depicts the myth of Bacchus, a Greco-Roman God, and Ariadne on the isle of Naxos. It was painted around 1597-1608. Carracci drew inspiration from Michelangelo’s style while creating this piece, and it signifies the change in painting style from Renaissance Mannerism to 17th-century Baroque. It is located in the Palazzo Farnese, commissioned by Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. The scene is part of the ceiling fresco cycle, ‘The Loves of the Gods’, which shows thirteen narrative scenes, painted in the barrel-vaulted gallery of the palace.
The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne shows the procession of the wedding between Bacchus, the God of Wine, and Ariadne on the Isle of Naxos. Bacchus’s followers, a motley crowd of satyrs and nymphs, create a lively backdrop to the scene. The fresco is noted for its lush colours, strong contrasts, and the vigorous physicality of its figures—all key characteristics of Baroque art. This artwork is not just an expression of a mythological narrative, but a celebration of love, passion, and joy.
The Assumption of the Virgin by Guido Reni
Guido Reni’s The Assumption of the Virgin was painted in 1626-1628 and is an important example of Baroque painting. It portrays the moment when Mary ascends into Heaven with her hands in prayer. The composition remains true to the traditional representations of this event, as Reni has depicted a majestic Mary surrounded by angels and saints. With vibrant colours and dynamic composition, Reni used light and shadow to create the appearance of diffused light coming from the skies. It is a powerful representation of divine intervention in a moment of human suffering.
The Adoration of the Magi by Peter Paul Rubens
Rubens’ The Adoration of the Magi was painted around 1624. Flemish Baroque painter Rubens originally painted the oil on canvas as an altarpiece for a convent in Louvain. However, the painting is now in King’s College chapel in Cambridge.
It features a classical composition with Mary and the baby Jesus in the centre, surrounded by characters that represent different nations from across Europe, Asia and Africa. The painting is filled with movement and colour and is an excellent example of Baroque art’s ability to capture emotion and atmosphere.
The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn
The Night Watch is Rembrandt’s most well-known painting, painted in 1642. It depicts a city night watchman and his group of soldiers marching towards the viewer with their weapons drawn. The painting was originally commissioned by one of Amsterdam’s civic guard companies as a group portrait, but it ended up being an individual study of light and movement.
The way that Rembrandt chose to portray his subjects diverged from other commissioned portraits at the time. By painting the group in a candid action scene, instead of in a still portrait, he was able to capture the energy and alertness of his subjects.
Rembrandt creates focal points in the painting with the use of chiaroscuro, highlighting the two most important figures at the front, Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. The girl in the centre left, who has been painted with bright highlights acts as a visual mascot.
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio
Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes is an oil painting from 1598-1599. It portrays the moment in the Old Testament when Judith beheaded the Assyrian commander, Holofernes, to save her people from destruction.
The striking aspect of this painting is its dramatic and vivid portrayal of violence, which was a common theme during the Baroque period. Caravaggio intensified the drama of his visual narratives with his use of Tenebrism. This is an artistic technique that became synonymous with his name during the Baroque period. The Tenebrism technique, also known as ‘dramatic illumination’, involves creating bold contrasts between highlight and deep shadow to add a sense of volume and a three-dimensional effect to the painting. It also functions to create a sense of tension, drama and focus in paintings. This painting especially displays the extreme use of chiaroscuro, where Caravaggio used light and shadow to achieve a stark, dramatic, almost theatrical contrast, between the figures, forcing the viewer to focus on the horror of the scene.
Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba by Claude Lorrain
Hanging in the National Gallery in London, the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba is a 17th-century oil painting by French painter Claude Lorrain. While the majority of Lorrain’s works were landscapes and marine scenes, this painting is an exception. It depicts a moment from the Old Testament when the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon in Jerusalem and they exchanged gifts at the port.
This painting contains many elements that are characteristic of Baroque art. Its innovative composition, lush colours, and dynamic movement are all examples of the genre. Lorrain’s use of light and atmosphere creates a sense of grandeur that captures the drama and emotion of this important moment in history. Lorrain used light to great effect with the figures illuminated by a bright sun, while the whole composition is enveloped in a golden light.
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son portrays a moment from the Gospel of Luke when a father welcomes his son home after he has been lost and gone astray. This is one of Rembrandt’s final oil paintings, painted in 1669, within two years of his death.
Rembrandt made several etchings and studies inspired by the parable. A story of forgiveness, it illustrates the allegory of a son who spent his inheritance on his travels. He returned home to repent to his father, who accepts the gesture. In this painting, Rembrandt conveys a powerful message of mercy and love with his use of light, colour and texture. The composition is full of movement and emotion as the figures interact with each other in an intimate embrace.
David and Goliath by Caravaggio
Caravaggio’s David and Goliath is another important painting from the Baroque period. The use of colour and contrast creates tension between the two figures, while his precise detailing and depth, with the use of chiaroscuro, gives the scene realism. The scene is from the biblical story of David and Goliath. Caravaggio, in his true dramatic style, chose to paint the most disturbing part of the story, when David beheads Goliath with Goliath’s sword.
Caravaggio explores themes of power and morality in the painting. Its vibrant colours and dynamic composition make this one of Caravaggio’s most iconic works.