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Tracing patterns of belief in art

11 September 2015

The context in which we encounter Christian art can profoundly affect our perception of it, writes Dana Arnold


Baptistry window, Coventry Cathedral, by John Piper, 1954-5

Baptistry window, Coventry Cathedral, by John Piper, 1954-5

CHRISTIAN art includes some of the most famous works in the world. We need only think of Renaissance masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, or Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper to appreciate how artistic genius and religious subjects combine to stunning effect.

For those of us fortunate enough to have visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the experience of the space and the ensemble of spectacular ceiling frescoes is unforgettable. The centrepiece of the ceiling, The Creation of Adam, depicting God and Adam touching fingers, has become so familiar that it is now used to express ideas beyond its original Christian meaning.

It is certainly true that Christian patrons and the works they commissioned have played an important part in the history and development of Western Christian art. We can trace this from the first representation of Christ as the ichthys (fish symbol) in Roman times through to the naturalistic images of Christ that were a hallmark of Renaissance art both north and south of the Alps.

Closer to home, contemporary interpretations of the crucifixion and deposition by British artists such as Maggi Hambling, or Sir Anthony Caro, demonstrate the dynamic nature of Christian art.

Questions about the different ways and contexts in which we encounter Christian art, and how this might influence our appreciation and understanding of it, are especially pertinent here in the UK, as we rarely find early religious pictures in churches.

The Reformation outlawed such works, and led to the destruction of most of the religious paintings that had previously decorated places of worship. The Christian art that we now see in churches is mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries.

As a result, we often forget that stained glass was an important part of religious decoration in medieval times: the Christian figures and stories that adorned the windows, and the effect of light and colour were intended to create the impression of divine glory.


THE artist John Piper turned to medieval examples for inspiration for his many stained-glass projects, such as his design, in the 1950s-60s, for the baptistry chapel in the new Coventry Cathedral. Although his paintings were at the cutting edge of the British Modern Art movement, Piper chose to borrow from medieval motifs, which he juxtaposed with panes of coloured glass. The overall effect is as abstract and symbolic as the ichthys.

The piece is also a reminder of the distance that the English Reformation put between the Christian art of the Byzantine and medieval world, and ourselves. The absence of medieval art in our churches means that it is not familiar, and can seem remote and inaccessible.

If we take the archetypal image of the Virgin and Child (also known as the Hodegetria — “She who shows the way”), we can see the Byzantine influence on Italian religious art in the medieval period. In the Mother of God Hodegetria by the Russian icon-writer Dionysius, the key element of the piece is that the Virgin presents her son to the viewer rather than cradling him as one would a small child. Indeed, the Christ-child appears more like a small adult than an infant.

We can also see the Byzantine influence in the way the Virgin’s head is tilted to one side, and in her almond-shaped eyes and elongated fingers. Other works from the period sometimes included symbols such as coral beads, or goldfinches, which prefigure the death of Christ. The luxurious quality of these works is striking: the gilding, and the use of expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli, a shimmering blue made from semi-precious stones.

The Hodegetria continued to be popular well into the 16th century, and was an important image used in Eastern Orthodox icons. This form of Christian art ran in parallel with the more naturalistic representations of biblical subjects of the Italian Renaissance.

Although these traditions had very different appearances, they did share some characteristics, such as the use of portable altarpieces, which served as aids to private devotion. To make them easily transportable, the altarpieces usually had three parts: a central panel, and two side-wings that folded over it and protected it. When opened out, the side wings revealed images that complemented the central picture.


TODAY, the majority of Christian art that we encounter in the UK is housed in museums and galleries, even though much of the art was originally intended to go in specific places of worship, and may even have formed part of a larger work made up of many images.

Encountering Christian art in this way can make us see it differently: we tend to look at these works as part of a sequence in the artist’s career, or part of a wider story in the development of art.

For example, The Virgin of the Rocks, by Leonardo da Vinci, displayed in the National Gallery in London, is often thought to reveal the artist’s interest in studying from life. The inclusion of identifiable plants typifies the more general preoccupation with nature during the Renaissance.

I wonder, however, if seeing this picture in a gallery rather than in its original location (as the central panel of a multi-part altarpiece for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, in Milan), detracts from the subject-matter itself. We can almost forget to notice the narrative: the fact that da Vinci has added a new dimension to the established image of the Virgin and Child by introducing the apocryphal story of the Christ-child and St John the Baptist meeting as children. Da Vinci is being equally as inventive in his storytelling as he is in the way he chooses to represent it.


INDEED, narrative is fundamental to much Christian art. It first became popular in Italy during the 14th century, and some of the best examples remain in their original locations. Popes, princes, and nobles commissioned famous artists to decorate their private family chapels with picture cycles telling stories from the Bible.

These would frequently include a representation of the patron, known as a donor portrait, to secure the connection between the devotional gift and the individual. These gifts were often understood as a way of atoning for sin, as it was believed that the saints depicted could mediate between the donor and God.

An example of this is in the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, decorated by Giotto for the patron Enrico Scrovegni, in c.1305, who wished to atone for his father’s sin of usury (and perhaps his own). Through this work, Giotto began a new tradition in Christian art that combined narrative and naturalism.

Of the many striking scenes that tell the story of the life of Christ, Giotto’s Crucifixion is perhaps the most moving. The angels wear a tormented expression, and the anguish of the fainting Virgin and of Mary Magdalene kneeling at the foot of the cross is almost palpable.

The Renaissance tradition spread across most of mainland Europe. Religious painting was seen as one of the highest art-forms by the academies that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, influencing the next generation of artists. The Royal Academy in London, however, differed from its counterparts, and tended to emphasise works that depicted subjects from British history rather than Bible stories. Yet the stylistic influence of the Renaissance endured.


THEN, in the mid-19th century, a group of British artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites rebelled against the academic tradition, advocating a return to the kind of art produced before the Italian Renaissance, which they considered to be truer to nature.

One of the leaders of this group, John Everett Millais, exhibited his first religious piece, Christ in the House of His Parents, at the Royal Academy in 1850. The scene was painted in meticulous detail and, rather than showing an idealised, imagined space, Millais copied a real-life setting: a carpenter’s shop in Oxford Street, London.

He also included symbols referring to the life of Christ not dissimilar to those used in Byzantine icons, although, instead of coral beads, the wood and nails of the carpenter’s shop, and the blood on the young Christ’s hand foreshadow the crucifixion.

In a meeting that is as apocryphal as the one depicted by da Vinci, the young John the Baptist is shown fetching a bowl of water with which to bathe Jesus’s wound, which also prefigures his baptism.

Millais used friends and family as models, and they can be identified through their accurate portrayal. The result is not unlike the work of the 17th-century Italian artist Caravaggio, who produced a series of pictures in which biblical figures were depicted “warts and all”. Both artists shocked the Establishment with their earthly representations of Christian themes.

The Times newspaper summed up the national reaction when it described Millais’s painting as “revolting”. The minutely detailed portrayal of the Holy Family as commonplace people in a humble carpenter’s shop was considered utterly inappropriate.

Whether we warm to the ordinariness of this work or not, we can appreciate how it fits into the story of Christian art through the traditions it both upholds and subverts; for no picture is produced in a vacuum, and giving consideration to the influences, purposes, and intended location of a work, devotional or otherwise, can dramatically change our experience of the art.


Dana Arnold is Professor of Architectural History and Theory at Middlesex University.


A Short Book About Art by Dana Arnold is published by Tate Publishing at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70), 978-1854379078.

The Church Times has five copies to give away. Please email features@churchtimes.co.uk before 25 September to enter the draw.

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