This was my conversion to the Baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those coffered ceilings; here, as I passed . . . and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain . . . I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones, was indeed a life-giving spring.
Charles gives this description in Book 1, Chapter 4, describing his idyllic summer at Brideshead alone with Sebastian. The quotation describes the way Sebastian and Brideshead convince Charles to reject the plain, simple aesthetics of modernity and embrace an older, more elaborate style. When Charles starts at Oxford, he decorates his rooms in a plain, clean style, popular at the time. After meeting Sebastian, with his love of exuberance and nature, Charles begins to reject the clean lines of modernity. Here, Charles embraces the Baroque, an artistic style from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries known for being extremely elaborate, dramatic, and opulent. Although he likely uses the word “Baroque” to simply refer to elaborate art and not the movement in particular, Charles’s word choice emphasizes that he’s rejecting what is popular to embrace an older style. Charles’s changing aesthetic sense shapes who he becomes as an artist, painting English manors before they’re destroyed and preserving their beauty for posterity.
This quotation also hints at Charles’s ultimate embrace of Catholicism. The use of the word “conversion” when describing his newfound love of Baroque aesthetics alerts us that this shift in Charles is not merely aesthetic because we usually associate the word “conversion” with religion. Baroque art is generally ornate and opulent, associated with the aesthetics of Catholicism, as opposed to the plain and simple art and architecture associated with Protestantism. Charles’s specific reference to Brideshead Castle’s dome recalls its architectural similarities to St. Peter’s Basilica, the heart of the Catholic Church. Charles uses the language of a spiritual awakening when describing his time near the fountain and calls the fountain’s waters “life-giving,” an image that evokes a baptism. Although at this point in the novel, Charles still sees Catholicism as foolish, his intense reaction to the Catholic heart of Brideshead shows that he’s instinctively drawn to the religion.