The Baroque in Central Europe

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The Baroque in Central Europe

Warfare and External Threats.

In comparison to the relative peace and stability of the Netherlands, the seventeenth century in Central and Eastern Europe was a time of great tribulation. Religious disputes marred the first half of the century, as the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) raged in much of Central Europe. This great conflict involved almost every major European power, although Germany and parts of Bohemia were its primary battlegrounds. The Thirty Years' War produced widespread poverty, famine, and disease, and resulted in the depopulation of large areas of the countryside. As internal religious strife receded in Germany, the region began a slow process of recovery. To the east, however, in the Habsburg lands of Austria and Hungary, a renewed threat to security arose in the later seventeenth century. During the 1660s, the Ottoman Empire reinforced its positions in Hungary and renewed its drive up the Danube into Austria, laying siege to Vienna in 1683. Eventually, the Habsburgs succeeded in expelling Ottoman forces from their homelands, but not without expending considerable financial and military resources. As a result of these protracted religious crises and external threats, fewer great architectural projects were undertaken in the region than in Italy or Western Europe during the seventeenth century. As stability returned, though, the way was paved for an enormous building boom throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

The Beginnings of Revival.

While the warfare that had afflicted much of Germany and Central Europe left the economies of many areas depressed, devastation also brought new opportunities for renewal and rebuilding. In 1622, for example, the town of Mannheim in southwestern Germany had been destroyed as a result of the conflicts of the Thirty Years' War. It was soon rebuilt, although French forces destroyed it yet again in 1689. As the local prince prepared to reconstruct his capital, he adopted a comprehensive plan influenced by the ideas of Baroque architects and town planners. His new city included broad avenues, handsome squares, harmonious buildings, and a grid system for its streets that was similar to that which was later to be adopted in New York City. During the Second World War, most of the town was destroyed in bombing raids, only to be rebuilt again largely in a functional modern style. Even now, though, Mannheim's street system largely continues to adhere to the original Baroque grid pattern laid out in the late seventeenth century. Very few modern observers find the overall effect of the town as it now stands satisfying when compared against the city of handsome squares and palaces that existed for more than two centuries as a monument to the intelligence and sophistication of Baroque planners. At the same time, it is important to note that the ideas of those designers reflected certain notions about power, and Baroque architecture has often rightly been treated as a tool of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rulers anxious to establish greater authority over their subjects. At Mannheim, these intentions produced relatively happy results. Elsewhere in Central Europe the Baroque became a tool for establishing cultural and religious uniformity with mixed results. In the wake of the Thirty Years' War, the Austrian Habsburgs established hegemony over the Czech citizens of Prague. Since the fifteenth century the inhabitants of the city had provided a safe haven for many reform movements critical of the Roman church. As the Habsburg dynasty moved to establish its authority over the city, they labored as well to re-establish Roman Catholicism as the sole religion in the region. Habsburg church and state authorities remodeled Prague's churches, transforming the town's once spare and severe Protestant-styled churches into models of Baroque display and ornamentation. Authorities expelled those townspeople who continued to practice Protestantism and seized their properties, often selling their houses for a fraction of their worth to new German-speaking settlers. This plan of resettlement thus paved the way for large portions of Prague to be rebuilt in the new ornate fashions of the Baroque. Thus in Prague the Baroque became synonymous in the minds of native Czech inhabitants with the establishment of Austrian political hegemony and Catholic religious authority.


Where affections for Roman Catholicism ran deeper in Central and Eastern Europe, they soon gave birth to an unprecedented boom in the construction of new churches and religious institutions. In Italy, the rise of the Baroque had been accompanied by the construction of scores of new religious edifices, testimonies to the renewal of a spirit of self-assurance typical of the Catholic Reformation. In Central Europe, the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War similarly left Catholic rulers and their subjects re-invigorated. As the economy revived and stability returned, numerous church building projects were begun. While the more ornate and imaginative styles pioneered in Rome and Northern Italy had begun to spread in Central Europe quite early, the trials of the Thirty Years' War had stalled the fashion's general acceptance. In 1614, for instance, the archbishops of Passau had begun the reconstruction of their Cathedral at Salzburg along plans set down by early Italian Baroque designers. Undertaken to replace a basilica that had been destroyed by fire at the end of the sixteenth century, the town's new Baroque-styled Cathedral was consecrated in 1628. As warfare worsened in the region, the style of Salzburg's new Cathedral was not to be immediately imitated. In the second half of the seventeenth century, though, many Catholic patrons, bishops, and monasteries began to rebuild their churches in the grand Baroque style and the Baroque architectural language. At its very core, the elaborate and sumptuous interiors of the Baroque church were a counterattack on Protestant sensibilities, which stressed restraint and a relatively unadorned style as most befitting to Christian worship. As the Baroque spread in Central Europe, it demonstrated considerable variety, although certain constants continued to recur in most of the movement's churches. As in Italy, a taste for dramatic spaces developed in which all parts of the structure were subordinate to the greater goal of achieving a climactic impression. Rich ornamentation and gilt, curved shapes, broken pediments, and other elements that were not strictly classical in origin prevailed. In place of the relatively restrained vocabulary of decoration that was present in England, the Netherlands, and Protestant Germany, the Italian and native architects who practiced in Central Europe

Sacred Landscape

The period following the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War was followed by an unprecedented construction and remodeling boom in Catholic churches throughout southern Germany and Austria. Inspections of local churches in the wake of the conflict made obvious the deficiencies in church architecture. But the boom in remodeling and reconstruction arose from a surge in the people's piety, since many of these projects were initially financed by a broad segment of the Catholic population. As this surge in popular religiosity intensified, the Catholic elite also supported many projects aimed to beautify churches throughout the countryside after 1700.

Many churches needed new furnishings in the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War. All the visitations conducted in the 1650s, and even the 1660s, focused on the need to use resources to replace utensils, pictures, and statues lost and stolen during the war. The recovery from the war was followed by a wave of redecorating and redesigning which began in the last two decades of the seventeenth century.

In many ways, developments inside churches and chapels mirrored the development of the sacral landscape itself. As the number of churches and sacred sites increased after 1650, so too did the number of altars, the quantity and quality of furnishings, the number of statues and paintings, and the general density of decorations in the churches. The effect of denser furnishings was also to provide a greater variety of settings for religious practice.

The Catholic population, church patrons, and secular authorities all supported the adornment of churches. The driving force appears to have been the village community, especially in the late seventeenth century. In 1669 the Gemeinde [community council] of Schönau in the Black Forest rebuilt the interior of the chapel at Schönenbuch, removing St. Blasien as the patron and replacing him with St. John the Baptist, probably to the displeasure of the local lord, the Abbey of St. Blasien. In 1683 the Gemeinde of Mindersdorf asked its parsimonious lords, the Teutonic Knights in Mainau, for help in paying for new bells for the parish church. The Knights were never enthusiastic about such expenditures and the Mindersdorfer had to engage in the typical long process of appeal, especially to the bishop, to try to squeeze some money out of the parish patron. Such disputes had been the pattern since the sixteenth century, and probably before. While parish patrons often had some obligation to pay for the upkeep of parish church, village communities frequently were the only ones willing to pay for the decoration of chapels.

Beginning around 1700, however, many parish patrons, especially the monasteries, became active, and even enthusiastic, about decorating village churches and chapels. Not surprisingly, of course, abbots and abbesses preferred dramatic projects such as the construction of the new shrines at Steinhausen and Birnau. At the same time, however, the constant need to refurbish parish churches and local chapels provided further opportunities to patronize the arts. Although ecclesiastic patrons always sought to avoid new financial obligations, in the eighteenth century they often responded positively to requests for new decorations. The cooperation between villagers and church institutions reflects the unity of rural Catholicism, as well as the desire for self-promotion and religious representation that characterized the world of the Catholic elite.

source: Marc Forster, Catholic Revival in the Age of the Baroque (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001): 78–79.

frequently created spaces that were colorful and enlivened by a festive spirit. Their free flowing, dramatic shapes owe a great deal to the innovative designs of figures like Guarini and Borromini, and generally the Baroque architecture of the region derived more inspiration from Italian rather than French examples.

Major Projects.

Among the most important church monuments of the early Baroque in Central Europe were the new Cathedral at Passau (begun after a fire destroyed the existing structure in 1662), the Church of the Theatine Order in Munich (begun in 1663), and the Cathedral at Fulda (begun in 1704). Great Baroque churches multiplied even more profusely throughout Central Europe during the first half of the eighteenth century. The numbers of new projects undertaken at the time still manages to astound modern visitors to the region. In the century that followed 1650, almost all of the Catholic parish churches in southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland were either rebuilt or redecorated in the Baroque style. As a result of this architectural renewal, central features of the Catholic Reformation's teachings—particularly of the Jesuits and other counter-reforming orders—were given architectural expression. Since the mid-sixteenth century these orders had argued that religious worship should take place within sacred spaces that captivated the human imagination and prepared the soul for union with God in the sacraments. Visibly, the Baroque churches of Central Europe attempted to achieve this aim with spaces that merged architecture, painting, and all the visual and decorative arts in ways that inspired the soul to undertake the pursuit of Christian perfection.

Pilgrimage Churches.

Another popular feature of the church architecture of the age was the construction of both great and small pilgrimage churches. During the sixteenth century, Protestants had attacked the medieval custom of making pilgrimages to the graves, relics, and religious images long associated with the saints. In the later seventeenth century this custom experienced a renewal in the Catholic regions of Central Europe, eventually becoming an important element of the religious identity of the period. During the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, hundreds of pilgrimage churches were consequently erected or remodeled throughout Central Europe. Many of these places were quite small, but the greatest often had monasteries attached to them, and their pilgrimages became significant sources of income to the surrounding economy. In southern Germany, Vierzehnheiligen, the Wieskirche, and Altötting were among the largest pilgrimage centers. At each, masterpieces of Baroque architecture were created to deepen the piety of the pilgrims who visited these sites. Similar great churches were constructed in Austria in places like Maria Zell and Maria Plain and in Switzerland at Einsiedeln. These pilgrimage churches often provided large interior spaces and imposing central squares at which the faithful might congregate for religious rituals and worship. Notes of charm and whimsy were also present in the hundreds of edifices constructed at the time. In 1716, the Benedictine monks of Weltenburg Abbey, a site located along a narrow, cliff-bound stretch of the Danube River in Bavaria, commissioned the famous architects, Cosmas and Aegidius Asam, to remodel their church in the Baroque style. The Asam brothers created a fantastic interior that presented pilgrims with the illusion of being caught up in the heavens. The visual techniques of the building even extended to the confessional boxes, which were sculpted out of plaster to appear as if they were clouds. This playful note recurred in many places in southern Germany during the Baroque period, and as the stylistic movement endured, architects made use of a great range of decorative sophistication and creativity.

Palaces and Cities.

As greater stability returned to the region, numerous country villas and palaces also began to be constructed in the Baroque style throughout Central Europe. If Baroque church architecture was popular primarily in Catholic regions as a counterattack on Protestant sensibilities, both Protestant and Catholic rulers proved to be enthusiastic builders of palaces in the Baroque style. The political realities of Central Europe bred a climate ripe for the construction of innumerable palaces and country retreats. For centuries, the political heart of the region had been the Holy Roman Empire, a multi-lingual, multicultural, but nevertheless weak confederation of about 350 separate principalities, free cities, and territories ruled by officials of the Roman Catholic Church. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, political disintegration had made the empire into ever more of a fictional power, as the largest territories became more like autonomous states and the emperor ever more an honorific figurehead. By the later seventeenth century any pretensions of his power to rule over this unwieldy set of states had largely been destroyed, especially by the specter of the internecine destruction that had raged during the Thirty Years' War. In the now largely independent territories that made up the Holy Roman Empire, rulers increasingly adopted the trappings of absolutist rule, ignoring or disbanding the representative assemblies that had long served to limit their power. At the same time, these princes became anxious to surround themselves with the kinds of sumptuous displays and ostentation that were common in far wealthier and more powerful states like France. Scores of grand palaces, hunting lodges, and country villas thus sprang up on the landscape as an enduring testimony to this political reality. When compared against the standard of late seventeenth-century Versailles, many of these structures were quite modest, although given the large number of territories in the region, Central Europe today is populated with a far larger number of Baroque monuments than other continental regions. What is equally remarkable about the Baroque style here is the ambitious plans it inspired to remake many of the region's cities. As imposing country palaces and urban residences for the nobility grew in popularity, however, other minor noble families and wealthy merchants imitated the style, and thus the fashion for imposing Baroque buildings soon spread to influence the appearance of entire towns. Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, and Passau managed largely to preserve much of their Baroque core against the devastation of the Second World War. Other not-so-fortunate cities such as Warsaw, Dresden, and Berlin had to reconstruct many of their monuments. Even the depredations of World War II, which destroyed the majority of the historical centers of these towns, have proven insufficient since then to erase the imprint Baroque designers left on these places. In Warsaw, the Baroque core of the city was lovingly reconstructed over a number of years following its destruction in World War II. In Berlin and Dresden, the campaign to restore the monuments of the Baroque continues even in contemporary times, and the absence of many major buildings from the Baroque era is still felt by many people in these cities as a palpable loss. Perhaps in no place except Rome, then, has the Baroque style's effects on urban life continued to cast such a long shadow as in Central Europe.

Austrian Architects.

The numerous monuments produced in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Poland resulted from a talented group of designers who came on the scene rather quickly after 1700. While Italian and French architects were imported to design some of these structures, native designers produced most of them. In Austria the most important architects included Johann Fischer von Erlach (1656–1723), Jakob Prandtauer (1658–1726), and Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668–1743). Von Erlach even received a minor noble title from the Habsburg emperor for his efforts to beautify Vienna and to create stunning palaces for the royal family and nobility. His major commissions included the massive Karlskirche in Vienna, a structure that was a charming, but rather unusual mixture of architectural design elements that ranged across periods from Antiquity to the Baroque. Another important set of structures Fischer von Erlach created was the complex of buildings at the Belvedere Gardens on the outskirts of Vienna. He undertook these commissions for Prince Eugene of Savoy, a war hero from Austria's campaigns against the Turks, and the charming summer palaces and garden architecture that von Erlach created there were often imitated in later years. By contrast, the most important works that Jakob Prandtauer undertook were several imperial abbeys built along the Danube River. Among these, the lofty grandeur of Cloister Melk is the most impressive, sitting as it does perched high on a dramatic outcropping of rocks above the river. Prandtauer adapted his plans for Melk—which included a series of ceremonial rooms intended for imperial visits—to other powerful churches and religious institutions in the region. The grandest project of the age, though, proved to be the continual construction and rebuilding of the Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna. A country house had been located at this site since the fourteenth century and had been remodeled in 1548. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the estate came into Habsburg possession and the family began to rebuild it to serve as a retreat and hunting lodge. A grander structure was built at this place, in what are now suburbs of Vienna, in the mid-seventeenth century, although Turkish forces destroyed that structure in the siege of the city that took place in 1683. By 1700, the Habsburgs had reconstructed much of the building on an even more monumental scale, although the extensive plans made for the site by the architect Johann Fischer von Erlach were never undertaken in their entirety because they were too costly. Finally, in 1742, the family decided to extend the palace once more, destroying parts of the von Erlach design in the process. Over the next five years the building expanded at such a rate as to be the equivalent of the Versailles. During the Empress Maria Theresa's long reign, it eventually became the center of government, an enormous structure whose more than 1,400 rooms rivaled the French palace. While Maria Theresa's most important residence, it was only one of an impressive collection of palaces, villas, and country retreats that the monarchy used at the time.

German Designers.

Similar patterns of profligate ostentation were also the rule among the greatest German princes of the age. Throughout this region an even larger number of Baroque architects practiced their trade. The country's major Baroque designers included Georg Bähr (1666–1738), Daniel Pöppelmann (1662–1736), Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff (1699–1759), Andreas Schlüter (1659(?)–1759), and Balthasar Neumann (1687–1743). Bähr, Pöppelmann, and von Knobelsdorff were all active in Dresden during the first half of the eighteenth century, where they served the ambitions of the electors of Saxony, who were anxious to transform their capital into a model of Baroque elegance. It was during this period that Dresden began its rise to prominence as an artistic center that eventually earned the town the reputation for being the "Florence on the Elbe." One of the most unusual projects begun during this time was the building of the Frauenkirche, or the Church of Our Lady, a massive domed structure that once stood at the center of the city, and which is presently being rebuilt with a painstaking attention to detail. Although Dresden was Lutheran, and Lutheran church architecture usually avoided sumptuous display, Georg Bähr created an enormous structure with a grand interior. By contrast, most of the monuments that Daniel Pöppelmann left behind were of a secular nature. For many years he reigned as the chief architect in and around the city, where he produced such famous landmarks as the Zwinger Palace, a masterpiece of the high Baroque and Rococo style. As Dresden developed into a town of incomparable Baroque elegance, the designers Andreas Schlüter and Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff transformed the Hohenzollern capital Berlin and its surrounding countryside with the design of similar monumental creations. Von Knobelsdorff is chiefly responsible for the Hohenzollern dynasty's masterpiece, the Palace of Sansouci, a pleasure villa constructed at Potsdam, Berlin's suburban counterpart to Versailles and Schönbrunn. To construct this and other monuments in and around Potsdam, an entire population of stoneworkers and artisans had to be settled in the town. The enormous façade of the Palace of Sansouci, a pleasure structure more than 300 meters long, recalled the Grand Trianon in the gardens of Versailles, although by the time of its construction its confectionary of decorative details and greater plasticity of line and form had departed far from the relative restraint of the French example. Numerous Baroque buildings were also under construction in the city of Berlin at the time, and those that survived the Second World War suggest the elegance of the Baroque city. Major features of Berlin's cityscape that date from this period included Von Knobelsdorff's designs for the Opera as well as many of the other impressive monuments that lined the city's elegant core avenue Unter den Linden. To the south, in Catholic Bavaria, the Wittelsbach rulers continually remodeled their Munich palace, the Residence, and created broad and handsome squares to beautify the city. Outside the city at Nymphenburg and Schleissheim they created a series of country retreats, some on a smaller scale than Versailles, Sansouci, or Schönbrunn, while others like the New Palace at Schleissheim were said to rival these creations. This brief snapshot of major Baroque palaces cannot begin to suggest the scores of even smaller projects undertaken throughout Germany at the time. While minor nobles might not hope to compete in grandeur with the Wittelsbachs, Habsburgs, and Hohenzollern, most princes equipped with even modest resources tried to surround themselves with the elegant and ornate trappings of Baroque structures. Perhaps the greatest architectural figure of the German Baroque was Johann Balthasar Neumann, a designer who worked for many years in southern Germany, primarily in the diocesan capital of Würzburg. There he built a number of structures, including his masterpiece, the Residence, an urban palace for the town's prince bishops, which contained the largest and most sumptuous staircase ever built during the period. Although the palace itself was not the grandest of Germany's Baroque creations, the entire complex is, nevertheless, one of the era's most attractive and completely realized. Its appealing qualities arise from its integration of new French design and decorative elements drawn from the developing Rococo movement with a thorough understanding of the massive and monumental possibilities of the Italian Baroque. Neumann's career opened up new vistas in the Baroque in Germany, and in his relatively long career he produced many buildings notable for their sinuous, undulating lines and their dramatic uses of light. These spaces seem to breathe, and as a consequence they reflect an appealing organic dynamism. Among his best works was the pilgrimage church of Vierzehnheiligen (constructed between 1743 and 1772), although Neumann created a number of handsome churches throughout southern Germany. He was also notable for his urban planning efforts at Würzburg, efforts that helped to transform the city into one of the more completely harmonious Baroque cities in the empire. As in his buildings, Neumann planned broad and curving streets and squares, and he created a number of ingenious regulations that encouraged building in the ornamented Baroque style. At his behest, for example, the town granted tax exemptions of twelve years to anyone who added a Baroque façade to their house or business. Measures like these also contributed to Neumann's own trade, and in his years at Würzburg he obliged the town's burghers with a number of buildings.

Baroque Variety and Unity.

As it left Italy, the Baroque style came to be invigorated by national traditions and to be molded to the religious and political demands of the states of Northern Europe. Great variety characterized the national styles of architecture, with England and the Netherlands generally avoiding the sumptuous and ornate decorative dimensions of the movement in favor of a more restrained classical vocabulary. In France, a grander and more ornate form of that same classicism continued to hold sway throughout most of the seventeenth century, particularly in the public buildings constructed in and around Paris. In Central Europe, though, the plastic forms and decorative impulses of the Baroque that had first developed in Italy came to full fruition, producing monuments that astounded their viewers with their complexity, free-flowing lines, and festive spirit. One feature, though, that was shared by architects in all regions of Europe in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was a new attention to details of urban planning, as purpose-built squares, broader avenues, and handsome public buildings came to be prized as expressions of a civic ethos as well as the state's power to accomplish change on the urban landscape. If Baroque architects and their patrons thus dedicated themselves to the task of making over many European towns and cities, they were also no less determined to create elaborate pleasure palaces and retreats set in idyllic, yet highly formalized gardens on the outskirts of Europe's growing cities. This tension between ideal visions of rural and urban existence was one of the defining characteristics of the age, and continued to endure long after the Baroque style had faded in favor of new influences.


J. S. Held and D. Posner, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971).

Nicolas Powell, From Baroque to Rococo: An Introduction to Austrian and German Architecture, 1580–1790 (London: Faber, 1959).

Christian N. Schulz, Late Baroque and Rococo Architecture (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1980).

Jeffrey Chipps Smith, Sensuous Worship: Jesuits and the Art of the Early Catholic Reformation in Germany (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).

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The Baroque in Central Europe

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