Religious art has dominated much of the history of art. From the Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century, a great majority of artistic output in the Western world had Christian subject matter, to such an extent that Western culture would be unrecognizable absent the influence of Christianity in art. Before cultures began putting their art in museums for study and admiration, art held a much different function. Almost utilitarian, art was a way to experience religion visually and aesthetically, telling its stories through pictures.
Religious works of art were created to serve various purposes, usually to affect or inspire the viewer in some way. Art could teach the public about the life of Jesus or the miraculous acts of a saint. Some artworks were used in rituals or as devotionals, meant to aid the viewer in their faith. Some are highly idealized and meant to glorify and bolster the religion, creating a sense of awe and respect in the viewer and spreading its influence. Sometimes, works were divinely inspired and, later, created simply to fulfill a commission or showcase the artist's skill.
Near the beginning of the history of art, the works of ancient Greece and Rome did often focus on mythology, but they more frequently celebrated secular subjects like athletes, wars, statesmen and philosophers. However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, artists worked almost exclusively under the influence of the clergy, and religious iconography held a monopoly in the subject matter of Western art. The most important artistic output from the Middle Ages came in the form of illuminated manuscripts and Gothic architecture, two mediums created to glorify God and the Catholic Church.
These types of art and architecture provided a visible, tangible reason why God is worthy of worship, promoting Christianity and contributing to unity and order. If God could inspire such awe-inspiring works of art, and if God could give one the talent and artistic vision to complete it, then he must be glorious. Artists were able to take the beauty of a religious experience and recreate or interpret it through an artistic lens for the Church's benefit. Art helped Christianity become the predominant influence in European culture for centuries to come.
What first comes to mind for many when they think of religious art are the grand canvases and frescos of the Renaissance. The philosophy of Humanism was key in shaping the artistic development of the Renaissance. This movement focused on the revival of classical learnings, realism and individualism. The Renaissance reached its height in Florence, Italy, due in large part to the Medici, a wealthy merchant family who were dedicated humanists, believing firmly in the autonomy of the individual. Their patronage included the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo, and their many, many artistic commissions reflected these ideals. This resulted in much more naturalistic depictions of religious subjects and more believable interactions between figures, moving away from the stiffness of Medieval works. Portrayals of even the holiest subjects took on more lifelike, individualistic qualities, with Christ's humanity becoming a common theme.
At times, holy figures in art were highly controversial, even among the most devout. Almost all major world religions have gone through an aniconic phase — prohibiting depictions of the divine in order to avoid the sin of idolatry. For instance, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of Church in Wittenberg in 1517, he set into motion a new religious movement that would profoundly impact the arts. In the beginning, the Protestant Reformation had numerous zealots, many of whom took the third commandment, "Thou shall not make onto thee any graven image," literally. As a result, many religious works were destroyed or vandalized by iconoclasts in the name of religion.
After the Renaissance, due in part to the Protestant Reformation, artists catered more and more to secular patrons and audiences. Religious art did not disappear, but historically important pieces were rarely created for devotional purposes as they had been previously. Also, criticism of the Church became more prominent and socially acceptable. In the 19th century, a short-lived genre of painting known as Cardinal painting saw artists depicting Church officials in a humorous, unflattering light on canvas. For centuries, clergy members commissioned portraits exuding dignity and reverence, the qualities they sought to define their public image. With the Church's inner workings hidden behind closed doors, the public felt only awe for the clerics in these grand portraits. Cardinal paintings allowed an alternate view into those sequestered chambers, revealing the clerics' antics and indulgences.
By the 19th century, Academicism had become the prevailing trend in the European art world. Academic art emphasized the intellectual component of painting, favoring Neoclassic and Romantic aesthetics and a highly polished style, preferably depicting mythological or historical themes. Within those historical themes, religious scenes were prevalent among artists working in the style. The French Academy espoused a hierarchy of genres in painting, and history painting (paintings with any religious, mythological or historical themes) held the most value; they were also known as the grand genre. The Academy used this system as the basis for awarding scholarships and prizes and for allocating spaces in the Salon, meaning painting a religious scene was a good way for an artist to get noticed and earn commissions.
An interesting and perhaps counterintuitive aspect of religious subjects in the Victorian age is their ability to let the artist "get away with" painting the nude. During this time, artists almost always presented nude figures within contexts that were removed from everyday life, primarily to avoid offending 19th-century morals. In other contexts, a sensual depiction of a woman bathing would be considered taboo, yet within the careful constraints of a biblical story, the nudity and eroticism of the scene were acceptable.
As the 19th century progressed, religious art fell out of favor, but it remains a cornerstone of art historical study to this day. Click here to view our entire collection of artworks inspired by religion.