One of the main giveaways that you are looking at a baroque painting rather than a work done in the Renaissance is the overall dramatic effect. Whereas paintings from the Renaissance are evenly lit, balanced, and symmetrical, baroque paintings usually feature strong diagonals, intense contrasts between dark and light tones (chiaroscuro), and ornate decoration.
Swiss art critic Heinrich Wolfflin created a list of “polarities,” or points of contrast between renaissance and baroque art in his influential text, Principles of Art History. These polarities can be applied to architecture, painting, and sculpture. The final two (indicated with an *) are the most complex, and are controversial amongst art critics and historians. When reading through these contrasting characteristics, think about Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c. 1495–1498) as a good example of a Renaissance painting, while Tintoretto’s Last Supper (1594) is more characteristic of the baroque style.
|Linear (the piece can be easily outlined)
||Painterly (there are so many details that line alone is not enough to define the piece)
|Plane (the work appears flat)
||Recession (the work has depth)
|Closed (it is impossible to imagine anything outside of the picture plane)
||Open (there is a sense that the world of the painting extends beyond its frame)
|Multiplicity* (each part of the piece stands out as an independent unit; similar to linear)
||Unity* (the artwork is so complex that it must be viewed as a whole, rather than as a collection of independent units)
|Absolutely Clear* (there is less room for interpretation as to meaning, light often shines equally on all images in the piece)
||Relatively Clear* (the work is less clear; there is more room for interpretation)