Christian art

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A mosaic from Daphni Monastery in Greece (ca. 1100), showing the midwives bathing the new-born Christ. Daphni.jpg
A mosaic from Daphni Monastery in Greece (ca. 1100), showing the midwives bathing the new-born Christ.

Christian art is sacred art which uses themes and imagery from Christianity. Most Christian groups use or have used art to some extent, although some have had strong objections to some forms of religious image, and there have been major periods of iconoclasm within Christianity.

Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament in Christianity, and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with about 2.4 billion followers.

Aniconism in Christianity

Christianity has not generally practised aniconism, or the avoidance or prohibition of types of images, but has had an active tradition of making and venerating images of God and other religious figures. However, there are periods of aniconism in Christian history, notably during the controversy of the Byzantine iconoclasm of the 8th century, and following the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, when Calvinism in particular rejected all images in churches, and this practice continues today in Reformed (Calvinist) churches, as well as some forms of fundamentalist Christianity. The Catholic Church has always defended the use of sacred images in churches, shrines, and homes, encouraging their veneration but condemning anyone who would worship them as if they were gods themselves.

Iconoclasm The destruction of religious images

Iconoclasm is the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons. People who engage in or support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be figuratively applied to any individual who challenges "cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious".

Contents

Images of Jesus and narrative scenes from the Life of Christ are the most common subjects, and scenes from the Old Testament play a part in the art of most denominations. Images of the Virgin Mary and saints are much rarer in Protestant art than that of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Jesus The central figure of Christianity

Jesus, also referred to as Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ, was a first-century Jewish preacher and religious leader. He is the central figure of Christianity. Most Christians believe he is the incarnation of God the Son and the awaited Messiah (Christ) prophesied in the Old Testament.

Life of Christ in art Set of subjects in art

The Life of Christ as a narrative cycle in Christian art comprises a number of different subjects narrating the events from the life of Jesus on earth. They are distinguished from the many other subjects in art showing the eternal life of Christ, such as Christ in Majesty, and also many types of portrait or devotional subjects without a narrative element.

Old Testament First part of Christian Bibles based on the Hebrew Bible

The Old Testament is the first part of Christian Bibles, based primarily upon the Hebrew Bible, a collection of ancient religious writings by the Israelites believed by most Christians and religious Jews to be the sacred Word of God. The second part of the Christian Bible is the New Testament.

Christianity makes far wider use of images than related religions, in which figurative representations are forbidden, such as Islam and Judaism. However, there is also a considerable history of aniconism in Christianity from various periods.

Aniconism in Islam

Aniconism is the avoidance of images of sentient beings in some forms of Islamic art. Islamic aniconism stems in part from the prohibition of idolatry and in part from the belief that creation of living forms is God's prerogative. Although the Quran does not explicitly prohibit visual representation of any living being, it uses the word musawwir as an epithet of God. The corpus of hadith contains more explicit prohibitions of images of living beings, challenging painters to "breathe life" into their images and threatening them with punishment on the Day of Judgment. Muslims have interpreted these prohibitions in different ways in different times and places. Religious Islamic art has been typically characterized by the absence of figures and extensive use of calligraphic, geometric and abstract floral patterns. However, representations of Muhammad and other religious figures are found in some manuscripts from lands to the east of Anatolia, such as Persia and India. These pictures were meant to illustrate the story and not to infringe on the Islamic prohibition of idolatry, but many Muslims regard such images as forbidden. In secular art of the Muslim world, representations of human and animal forms historically flourished in nearly all Islamic cultures, although, partly because of opposing religious sentiments, figures in paintings were often stylized, giving rise to a variety of decorative figural designs. There were episodes of iconoclastic destruction of figurative art, such as the decree by the Umayyad caliph Yazid II in 721 CE ordering the destruction of all representational images in his realm. A number of historians have seen an Islamic influence on the Byzantine iconoclastic movement of the 8th century, though others regard this is as a legend that arose in later times in the Byzantine empire.

Aniconism in Judaism covers a number of areas. The portrayal of YHWH in any kind of human or concrete form is not encouraged.

History

Beginnings

Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early catacombs, Rome, 4th century. VirgenNino.jpg
Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early catacombs, Rome, 4th century.

Early Christian art survives from dates near the origins of Christianity. The oldest Christian sculptures are from sarcophagi, dating to the beginning of the 2nd century. The largest groups of Early Christian paintings come from the tombs in the Catacombs of Rome, and show the evolution of the depiction of Jesus, a process not complete until the 6th century, since when the conventional appearance of Jesus in art has remained remarkably consistent.

Catacombs of Rome Church building in Rome, Italy

The Catacombs of Rome are ancient catacombs, underground burial places under Rome, Italy, of which there are at least forty, some discovered only in recent decades. Though most famous for Christian burials, either in separate catacombs or mixed together, people of all the Roman religions are buried in them, beginning in the 2nd century AD, mainly as a response to overcrowding and shortage of land. The Etruscans, like many other European peoples, used to bury their dead in underground chambers. The original Roman custom was cremation, after which the burnt remains were kept in a pot, ash-chest or urn, often in a columbarium. From about the 2nd century AD, inhumation became more fashionable, in graves or sarcophagi, often elaborately carved, for those who could afford them. Christians also preferred burial to cremation because of their belief in bodily resurrection at the Second Coming. The Park of the Caffarella and Colli Albani are nearby.

Depiction of Jesus Christian icons or images depicting Jesus

There is no useful description of the physical appearance of Jesus given in the New Testament, and the depiction of Jesus in pictorial form was controversial in the early Church. The depiction of him in art took several centuries to reach a conventional standardized form for his physical appearance, which has subsequently remained largely stable since that time. Most images of Jesus have in common a number of traits which are now almost universally associated with Jesus, although variants are seen.

Until the adoption of Christianity by Constantine Christian art derived its style and much of its iconography from popular Roman art, but from this point grand Christian buildings built under imperial patronage brought a need for Christian versions of Roman elite and official art, of which mosaics in churches in Rome are the most prominent surviving examples. Christian art was caught up in, but did not originate, the shift in style from the classical tradition inherited from Ancient Greek art to a less realist and otherworldly hieratic style, the start of gothic art.

Iconography Branch of art history

Iconography, as a branch of art history, studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images: the subjects depicted, the particular compositions and details used to do so, and other elements that are distinct from artistic style. The word iconography comes from the Greek εἰκών ("image") and γράφειν.

Roman art the visual arts made in Ancient Rome and in the territories of the Roman Empire

Roman art refers to the visual arts made in Ancient Rome and in the territories of the Roman Empire. Roman art includes architecture, painting, sculpture and mosaic work. Luxury objects in metal-work, gem engraving, ivory carvings, and glass are sometimes considered in modern terms to be minor forms of Roman art, although this would not necessarily have been the case for contemporaries. Sculpture was perhaps considered as the highest form of art by Romans, but figure painting was also very highly regarded. The two forms have had very contrasting rates of survival, with a very large body of sculpture surviving from about the 1st century BC onward, though very little from before, but very little painting at all remains, and probably nothing that a contemporary would have considered to be of the highest quality.

Mosaic image made from an assemblage of small pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials

A mosaic is a piece of art or image made from the assembling of small pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials. It is often used in decorative art or as interior decoration. Most mosaics are made of small, flat, roughly square, pieces of stone or glass of different colors, known as tesserae. Some, especially floor mosaics, are made of small rounded pieces of stone, and called "pebble mosaics".

Middle Ages

12th-century Byzantine mosaics of the Hagia Sophia showing the image of Christ Pantocrator. Christ Pantocrator Deesis mosaic Hagia Sophia.jpg
12th-century Byzantine mosaics of the Hagia Sophia showing the image of Christ Pantocrator.

Much of the art surviving from Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire is Christian art, although this in large part because the continuity of church ownership has preserved church art better than secular works. While the Western Roman Empire's political structure essentially collapsed after the fall of Rome, its religious hierarchy, what is today the modern-day Roman Catholic Church commissioned and funded production of religious art imagery.

Europe Continent in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere

Europe is a continent located entirely in the Northern Hemisphere and mostly in the Eastern Hemisphere. It is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Asia to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. It comprises the westernmost part of Eurasia.

Fall of the Western Roman Empire Political change in late antiquity that came with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was the process of decline in the Western Roman Empire in which the Empire failed to enforce its rule, and its vast territory was divided into several successor polities. The Roman Empire lost the strengths that had allowed it to exercise effective control over its Western provinces; modern historians posit factors including climate change, the effectiveness and numbers of the army, the health and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperors, the internal struggles for power, the religious changes of the period, and the efficiency of the civil administration. Increasing pressure from invading barbarians outside Roman culture also contributed greatly to the collapse. The reasons for the collapse are major subjects of the historiography of the ancient world and they inform much modern discourse on state failure.

Western Roman Empire Independently administered western provinces of the Roman Empire

In historiography, the Western Roman Empire refers to the western provinces of the Roman Empire at any time during which they were administered by a separate independent Imperial court; in particular, this term is used to describe the period from 395 to 476, where there were separate coequal courts dividing the governance of the empire in the Western and the Eastern provinces, with a distinct imperial succession in the separate courts. The terms Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire are modern descriptions that describe political entities that were de facto independent; contemporary Romans did not consider the Empire to have been split into two separate empires but viewed it as a single polity governed by two separate imperial courts as an administrative expediency. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476, and the Western imperial court was formally dissolved in 480. The Eastern imperial court survived until 1453.

The Orthodox Church of Constantinople, which enjoyed greater stability within the surviving Eastern Empire was key in commissioning imagery there and glorifying Christianity. As a stable Western European society emerged during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church led the way in terms of art, using its resources to commission paintings and sculptures.

During the development of Christian art in the Byzantine Empire (see Byzantine art), a more abstract aesthetic replaced the naturalism previously established in Hellenistic art. This new style was hieratic, meaning its primary purpose was to convey religious meaning rather than accurately render objects and people. Realistic perspective, proportions, light and color were ignored in favor of geometric simplification of forms, reverse perspective and standardized conventions to portray individuals and events. The controversy over the use of graven images, the interpretation of the Second Commandment, and the crisis of Byzantine Iconoclasm led to a standardization of religious imagery within the Eastern Orthodoxy.

Renaissance and Early Modern period

Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper (1498). Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) - The Last Supper (1495-1498).jpg
Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper (1498).

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought an end to the highest quality Byzantine art, produced in the Imperial workshops there. Orthodox art, known as icons regardless of the medium, has otherwise continued with relatively little change in subject and style up to the present day, with Russia gradually becoming the leading centre of production.

In the West, the Renaissance saw an increase in monumental secular works, but until the Protestant Reformation Christian art continued to be commissioned in great quantities by churches, clergy and by the aristocracy. The Reformation had a huge effect on Christian art, rapidly bringing the production of public Christian art to a virtual halt in Protestant countries, and causing the destruction of most of the art that already existed.

Artists were commissioned more secular genres like portraits, landscape paintings and because of the revival of Neoplatonism, subjects from classical mythology. In Catholic countries, production continued, and increased during the Counter-Reformation, but Catholic art was brought under much tighter control by the church hierarchy than had been the case before. From the 18th century the number of religious works produced by leading artists declined sharply, though important commissions were still placed, and some artists continued to produce large bodies of religious art on their own initiative.

Modern period

As a secular, non-sectarian, universal notion of art arose in 19th-century Western Europe, ancient and Medieval Christian art began to be collected for art appreciation rather than worship, while contemporary Christian art was considered marginal. Occasionally, secular artists treated Christian themes (Bouguereau, Manet) — but only rarely was a Christian artist included in the historical canon (such as Rouault or Stanley Spencer). However many modern artists such as Eric Gill, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Jacob Epstein, Elizabeth Frink and Graham Sutherland have produced well-known works of art for churches. [1] Salvador Dali is an artist who had also produced notable and popular artworks with Christian themes. [2] Contemporary artists such as Makoto Fujimura have had significant influence both in sacred and secular arts. Other notable artists include Larry D. Alexander and John August Swanson. Some writers, such as Gregory Wolfe, see this as part of a rebirth of Christian humanism. [3]

Since the advent of printing, the sale of reproductions of pious works has been a major element of popular Christian culture. In the 19th century, this included genre painters such as Mihály Munkácsy. The invention of color lithography led to broad circulation of holy cards. In the modern era, companies specializing in modern commercial Christian artists such as Thomas Blackshear and Thomas Kinkade, although widely regarded in the fine art world as kitsch, [4] have been very successful.

Subjects

Supper at Emmaus, 1601, by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas, 139 x 195 cm. National Gallery, London 1602-3 Caravaggio,Supper at Emmaus National Gallery, London.jpg
Supper at Emmaus , 1601, by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas, 139 x 195 cm. National Gallery, London

Subjects often seen in Christian art include the following. See Life of Christ and Life of the Virgin for fuller lists of narrative scenes included in cycles:

See also

A rare sample of medieval Orthodox sculpture from Russia Russia-Moscow-Kremlin Museums Exhibitions-9.jpg
A rare sample of medieval Orthodox sculpture from Russia

Notes

  1. Beth Williamson, Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press (2004), page 110.
  2. "Dali and Religion" (PDF). National Gallery of Victoria, Australia.
  3. Wolfe, Gregory (2011). Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. p. 278. ISBN   978-1-933859-88-0.
  4. Cynthia A. Freeland, But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory, Oxford University Press (2001), page 95

Related Research Articles

Christendom

Christendom has several meanings. In one contemporary sense, as used in a secular or Protestant context, it may refer to the "Christian world": Christian-majority countries and the countries in which Christianity dominates or prevails, or, in the historic, Catholic sense of the word, the nations in which Catholic Christianity is the established religion, having a Catholic Christian polity.

Crucifix cross with an image or artwork of Jesus on it

A crucifix is an image of Jesus on the cross, as distinct from a bare cross. The representation of Jesus himself on the cross is referred to in English as the corpus.

Chalcedonian Christianity refers to the Christian denominations adhering to the christological definitions and ecclesiological resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in 451. Chalcedonian Christians follow the Definition of Chalcedon, a religious doctrine concerning the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. The great majority of Christian communions and confessions in the 21st century are Chalcedonian, but from the 5th to the 8th centuries the ascendancy of Chalcedonian Christology was not always certain.

Madonna (art) artistic theme

A Madonna is a representation of Mary, either alone or with her child Jesus. These images are central icons for both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The word is from Italian ma donna, meaning 'my lady'. The Madonna and Child type is very prevalent in Christian iconography, divided into many traditional subtypes especially in Eastern Orthodox iconography, often known after the location of a notable icon of the type, such as the Theotokos of Vladimir, Agiosoritissa, Blachernitissa, etc., or descriptive of the depicted posture, as in Hodegetria, Eleusa, etc.

Religious art art that is religious in theme

Religious art or sacred art is artistic imagery using religious inspiration and motifs and is often intended to uplift the mind to the spiritual. Sacred art involves the ritual and cultic practices and practical and operative aspects of the path of the spiritual realization within the artist's religious tradition.

Medieval art Epoch of European art

The medieval art of the Western world covers a vast scope of time and place, over 1000 years of art in Europe, and at times the Middle East and North Africa. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, revivals, the artists' crafts, and the artists themselves.

Byzantine art Art of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire

Byzantine art refers to the body of Christian Greek artistic products of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, as well as the nations and states that inherited culturally from the empire. Though the empire itself emerged from the decline of Rome and lasted until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the start date of the Byzantine period is rather clearer in art history than in political history, if still imprecise. Many Eastern Orthodox states in Eastern Europe, as well as to some degree the Muslim states of the eastern Mediterranean, preserved many aspects of the empire's culture and art for centuries afterward.

Religious images in Christian theology

Religious images in Christian theology have a role within the liturgical and devotional life of adherents of certain Christian denominations. The use of religious images has often been a contentious issue in Christian history. Concern over idolatry is the driving force behind the various traditions of aniconism in Christianity.

Iconodulism designates the religious veneration of icons. The term comes from Neoclassical Greek εἰκονόδουλος (eikonodoulos), meaning "one who serves images". It is also referred to as Iconophilism designating a positive attitude towards the religious use of icons. In the history of Christianity, Iconodulism was manifested as a moderate position, between two extremes: Iconoclasm and Iconolatry.

Art in the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The Protestant Reformation during the 16th century in Europe almost entirely rejected the existing tradition of Catholic art, and very often destroyed as much of it as it could reach. A new artistic tradition developed, producing far smaller quantities of art that followed Protestant agendas and diverged drastically from the southern European tradition and the humanist art produced during the High Renaissance. The Lutheran churches, as they developed, accepted a limited role for larger works of art in churches, and also encouraged prints and book illustrations. Calvinists remained steadfastly opposed to art in churches, and suspicious of small printed images of religious subjects, though generally fully accepting secular images in their homes.

Byzantine Iconoclasm two periods in the history of the Byzantine Empire when the use of religious images or icons was opposed by religious and imperial authorities

Byzantine Iconoclasm refers to two periods in the history of the Byzantine Empire when the use of religious images or icons was opposed by religious and imperial authorities within the Orthodox Church and the temporal imperial hierarchy. The "First Iconoclasm", as it is sometimes called, existed between about 726 and 787. The "Second Iconoclasm" was between 814 and 842. According to the traditional view, Byzantine Iconoclasm was started by a ban on religious images by Emperor Leo III and continued under his successors. It was accompanied by widespread destruction of images and persecution of supporters of the veneration of images. The pope remained firmly in support of the use of images throughout the period, and the whole episode widened the growing divergence between the Byzantine and Carolingian traditions in what was still a unified church, as well as facilitating the reduction or removal of Byzantine political control over parts of Italy.

A religious image, sometimes called a votive image, is a work of visual art that is representational and has a religious purpose, subject or connection. All major historical religions have made some use of religious images, although their use is strictly controlled and often controversial in many religions, especially Abrahamic ones. General terms associated with religious images include cult image, a term for images, especially in sculpture which are or have been claimed to be the object of religious worship in their own right, and icon strictly a term for Eastern Orthodox religious images, but often used more widely, in and outside the area of religion.

Catholic art

Catholic art is art produced by or for members of the Catholic Church. This includes visual art (iconography), sculpture, decorative arts, applied arts, and architecture. In a broader sense, also Catholic music may be included. Expressions of art may or may not attempt to illustrate, supplement and portray in tangible form Catholic teaching. Catholic art has played a leading role in the history and development of Western art since at least the 4th century. The principal subject matter of Catholic art has been the life and times of Jesus Christ, along with people associated with him, including his disciples, the saints, and motives from the Catholic Bible.

Marian art in the Catholic Church

The Blessed Virgin Mary has been one of the major subjects of Western Art for centuries. Numerous pieces of Marian art in the Catholic Church covering a range of topics have been produced, from masters such as Michelangelo and Botticelli to works made by unknown peasant artisans.

God the Father in Western art

For about a thousand years, in obedience to interpretations of specific Bible passages, pictorial depictions of God in Western Christianity had been avoided by Christian artists. At first only the Hand of God, often emerging from a cloud, was portrayed. Gradually, portrayals of the head and later the whole figure were depicted, and by the time of the Renaissance artistic representations of God the Father were freely used in the Western Church.

Christian culture Cultural practices common to Christianity

Christian culture is the cultural practices common to Christianity. With the rapid expansion of Christianity to Europe, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Egypt, Ethiopia, and India and by the end of the 4th century it had also become the official state church of the Roman Empire. Christian culture has influenced and assimilated much from the Greco-Roman Byzantine, Western culture, Middle Eastern, Slavic, Caucasian, and possibly from Indian.

References

Further reading