Art and the Bible have been intertwined for hundreds of years reflecting what people believed about God.
What is biblical art? Biblical art has existed as a way of expressing what people believe about God. Over time, it has evolved to express different aspects of God and the world he created. Looking at biblical artwork throughout history helps us to better understand their theology and can also give us insight into what we believe about God today.
When I sat down the first time to write this post my research was less than fruitful. So, I met with one of my professors for some guidance and needless to say I was blown away by what I learned. Now, I can pass that on to you.
Some topics covered in this post are:
- Theology Expressed in Art
- Era of Persecution: Christ as the Good Shepherd (30-313 AD)
- Era of Constantine: Christ as King (313 – 1517 AD)
- Era of the Protestant Reformation: God’s Grace in Everyday Life (1517-1545 AD)
- Era of the Counter-Reformation: Reconciling with Christ In My Own Life (1545-1860 AD)
- Era of Pre-Modern Art: Art as Self Expression (1860-1970 AD)
- God Revealed Through Art
Theology Expressed in Art
When I first approached this topic I had it backward. I was looking for artwork that had a significant impact on Christianity when, in reality, the artwork wasn’t what made the impact.
Artwork is the evidence of what people thought about God. Those ideas are what had an impact. The artwork simply served to communicate them.
As we look through history, we will be able to see how artists expressed their theological ideas through artwork.
Era of Persecution: Christ as the Good Shepherd (30-313 AD)
The first era of Christian artwork is also the smallest. This era was characterized by extreme persecution from the time Jesus ascended to heaven until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD.
Because of the persecution, the only artwork from this era is found in catacombs where Christians were buried. One such catacomb is the Catacomb of Santissimi Pietro e Marcellino in Rome.
Throughout this era, Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is the primary theme. Others such as deliverance and victory over death were common as well.
The people were struggling, battling against political and cultural oppression. This cultural situation fueled an idea of Christ as a shepherd. Someone personal that you can know, and who takes care of you.
This kind of imagery is found throughout the Bible and is a good way to relate to Jesus. However, it was not the full picture we are about to see next.
Era of Constantine: Christ as King (313 – 1517 AD)
In 313 AD there was a dramatic shift in the cultural landscape as Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and eventually made it the state religion of the Roman Empire.
This is extremely significant because up to this point, the emperor was considered a deity. By making Christianity the state religion, Constantine acknowledged that he was not a deity and instead put God above even himself.
Two things ultimately came from this. First, Rome was now a “Christian” empire. Christianity was now part of the culture and that would impact the region for hundreds of years to come.
Second, Christ as the Good Shepherd is a true depiction of Jesus, however, given that all previous Roman leaders were “deities” it was a little strange to project an image of God who was greater than the emperor, as a shepherd.
For the next 1200 years, the image of God would transition from the Good Shepherd to a king, also called Pantocrator.
This depiction of God is also true, he is king. Both the shepherd and the king are accurate representations of God. But it does show the shift in how people thought about God and identified with him.
Constantine put a ton of money into the creation of magnificent cathedrals and churches filled with artwork that depicted God as their king. And, over time, things became more elaborate and more realistic.
Biblical scenes emerged through art and became plastered all over the walls and ceilings of these churches.
Examples From The Constantine Era
This era was marked most notably by artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci. Paintings like The Last Supper, Ecce Homo, Madonna and Child, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and sculptures like Pieta, and David, these pieces are some of the most famous of all time.
But, once again, that was all about to change.
Era of the Protestant Reformation: God’s Grace in Everyday Life (1517-1545 AD)
The Protestant Reformation brought about another huge change on the Christian landscape and was noted for having some of the most influential Christian Theologians in history such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.
During this era, the belief that it was wrong to depict God in artwork began to circulate. According to influential leaders like John Calvin, depicting God in artwork decreases fear of God and misrepresents him (more on this later).
As a result, many churches began to destroy their artwork and paint over it. A lot of beautiful artwork was lost during this time.
What would they paint if they couldn’t paint from the Bible? What they came up with blew my mind. For years I have walked right past all of the still life, or vanitas, paintings.
I didn’t understand the point of a bowl of fruit or a mandolin, or vase of flowers. They carried little meaning to me.
Without being able to paint things from the Bible, artists began looking around them for inspiration.
What they realized was that God was revealing his goodness and grace to them in everyday life. Fruit, flowers, music, are all blessings and proof of God’s goodness to us.
Look even closer. Now you may begin to notice all the places where flowers are beginning to wilt and bugs are gathering on the fruit. These details that I never took the time to notice are little reminders.
This fruit is good, it is a gift from God. But but be careful, don’t put your trust in material things that fade away and rot.
Enjoy God’s goodness, but don’t rely on it and keep trusting in the Lord for provision.
They also began painting people. Not kings and queens, heroes of the the Bible or God – ordinary people. They began to recognize the value in all people.
All people are made in the image of God and are, therefore, worth looking at. Even the “ordinary” people have a part in God’s plan.
And, finally, the self-portrait was introduced as well. This forced the artists themselves to reconcile with God’s goodness in their own life.
They have a role in God’s plan as well and have to wrestle with that.
Examples From The Protestant Reformation
The Dutch masters were the most prominent artists of this time again focusing on subjects such as flowers, fruit, instruments, wine, and money.
My appreciation for this kind of artwork has multiplied ten fold since I learned more about what they were expressing through these pieces. However, this wouldn’t be the last word on the “God in artwork” debate.
Enter the Counter-Reformation.
Era of the Counter-Reformation: Reconciling with Christ In My Own Life (1545-1860 AD)
Not everyone agreed with the proponents of the Protestant Reformation and their decision to no longer depict God in artwork.
If the reason that we don’t depict God in art is because we can’t express him fully, then neither should we write books because they can’t express him fully either. God is entirely unfathomable to humans.
We will never fully grasp the entirety of who he is. But God did send his son Jesus to this earth, incarnate in human flesh to save us.
He could have saved us any way he wanted to, but he chose to send his son in a form we could recognize and relate with.
Examples From The Counter-Reformation
As a result, we began to see images of God come back into artwork of the time. One of the most notable artists of this time was Caravaggio.
He depicted several biblical scenes through his paintings and one of the characters was always a self-portrait.
For example, in his painting “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” he depicted himself as Thomas putting his finger in Jesus’ side. In doing this he claimed “I am the one who doubts” and “I am the one who has to reconcile with Jesus’ sacrifice.”
This sentiment characterized much of Caravaggio’s work and work of the time period. The idea that not only is God’s grace in my everyday life like in the Protestant Reformation, but Jesus is a part of my everyday life and I need to reconcile with that.
Some other pieces of Caravaggio’s during this time include:
- The Calling of St Matthew
- Madonna di Loretto
- The taking of Christ
- The Supper of Emmaus
- The Crucifixion of St Peter
- The Entombment of Christ
Era of Pre-Modern Art: Art as Self Expression (1860-1970 AD)
The final era leading up to present day is the Pre-Modern era. Unlike the other eras, this one was not brought about by changing politics or religious ideas, but by the invention of the camera.
Up until this point, the purpose of art was the communication of ideas by depicting some sort of reality. However, when the camera was invented, art was no longer needed to depict reality and communicate ideas.
This caused a shift to using art as a form of self-expression.
This also marked a move away from Christian Art entirely. Ever since Constantine, Christianity remained largely a part of the culture. However, in recent years religions became more diverse.
While Christianity is still a large part of European and American society it does not have the same cultural impact that it used to have.
As a result of these things, Pre-Modern art has lost most Christian themes entirely and is only a mode of self-expression.
This era also birthed different styles of artwork such as impressionism, instead of the realism that characterized the hundreds of years prior. This is the era of Piccaso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Salvador Dalí.
God Revealed Through Art
As you may have noticed, each era expresses God in a different way. First as the Good Shepherd, then King, then his goodness in our lives, his image in all people, and his relationship with us.
Each one illustrated a key way that people thought about God during that time period. They are all correct, however, not without fault.
For example, God is king. This is true, and it resulted in paintings that reflected that. They often depict him as king on ceilings of cathedrals that forced you to look up when you walked into the room.
It was things like this that made God feel far away and emphasized the gap between “professional Christians” and laity.
This resulted in a view of God that was not personal. God was far away and uninvolved in the lives of people. This is not an accurate understanding of God. This is compensated for in the Protestant Reformation art by showing God’s grace in everyday life.
Yet, still lacking relationship until the counter reformation art.
Each era lacked something. In an effort to correct an error of thinking from the previous era they would compensate and at times leave that characteristic out entirely.
Each era teaches something different about God and now we must put all those things together for a more complete balance of who he is. God is king. He is shepherd. He is good. He is personal.
All these things are true, we just need to remember not to emphasize one at the expense of another.