Christian Art
History, Characteristics of Catholic and Protestant Visual Arts.

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The Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1694)
By Andrea Pozzo. The greatest ever
quadratura church mural.

Pieta (1500) by Michelangelo.
St Peter's Basilica, Rome.
The finest Christian sculpture of
the Italian Renaissance.

Christian Art (c.150-2000)
History and Characteristics


Historical Background
Early Christian art in Rome (c.150-450)
Byzantine Art: Icons, Mosaics (c.450-1450)
Medieval Art: Illuminated Manuscripts (450-1200)
Romanesque Church Architecture (c.1000-1150)
Gothic Architecture, Book Painting (c.1150-1375)
Italian Renaissance
Northern Renaissance
Reformation Art
Protestant Art
Catholic Counter-Reformation Art
Rubens (1577-1640)
Caravaggio (1571-1610)
El Greco (1541-1614) and the Spanish School
Bernini (1598-1680) and the Italian School
Christian Church Murals
Architectural Paintings of Churches
Church Architecture of the Baroque
Christian Art in the Modern Era (1750-2000)

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52)
Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.
By Bernini. The greatest sculpture
of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Medieval Byzantine Christian mosaics
in St Mark's Cathedral, Venice.


Since its beginnings during the first century of the Roman Empire, Christianity has spread around the world to become the principal religion, value-system, and social agenda of mankind: at least until the 20th century. Run first by Christ and the Apostles, it gradually gave birth to its own hierarchical organization, the Christian Church, which over time became the largest and most influential patron of the arts. Indeed, from the outset, the Christian Church used many different types of art in order to create an identity for itself, increase its power and thus attract worshippers. In the process it developed its own Christian iconography, relying heavily on architecture (cathedrals, churches, monasteries), sculpture (statues of the Holy Family, as well as prophets, apostles, saints), painting (altarpieces, church murals), decorative art (stained glass, mosaics) and illuminated manuscripts (Gospels, psalters). In fact, during the early 16th century, the Church commissioned so much Biblical art - using money raised through higher taxes, and the 'sale' of benefices and indulgences - that it led to widespread protests: protests that coalesced into the Reformation, and the division of the Church into Roman Catholic and Protestant. Even so, one can say that, in the West at least, the history of art is the history of Christian art.

Historical Background

In 313, after almost three centuries of precarious existence (and a tradition of art limited to rings, seals, plus some paintings in the catacombs), Christianity was finally permitted to exist. In this year, the Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christian worship. Then, in 380, Christianity's future was assured when Emperor Theodosius I, the last Roman Emperor to rule over all the empire, declared that henceforth it was the empire's sole authorized religion. During the 5th century, under pressure from barbarian attacks, the Roman Empire split into two halves: east and west. The eastern half, centered on Constantinople, adopted the Eastern Orthodox Church, becoming world-famous for its icon painting and mosaics; the western half remained in Rome, and continued to follow the Roman Church. The latter blossomed under Charlemagne and the Ottonians, and fully re-established itself with its huge building campaign of Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals (c.1000-1350). Later, in 1517, the Dutch pastor Luther launched the religous revolution, known as the Reformation, culminating in the formation of a more modest, less hierarchical form of Christianity, known as Protestantism, since when the Roman Church has been referred to as Roman Catholicism. Christian art encompasses both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as the earlier offshoot, the Eastern Orthodox Church.



Early Christian art in Rome (c.150-450)

Until the legalization of Christianity in 313, early Christian art was relatively scarce. It included fresco painting on the walls of some of the catacombs (burial sites outside the city walls), and "house-church" meeting places; a number of simple architectural designs for structures (martyrium) erected over the graves of martyrs; and a number of sarcophagi, carved with various emblems or reliefs of Jesus, Mary and other biblical figures. In these early times, when Christians were still being persecuted, most Christian Roman art remained (literally) part of an underground culture. What's more, Christianity (along with the imagery used to symbolize or illustrate it) was still evolving from a secret society (whose images were intelligible only to the initiated few) to a public organization (whose imagery was understood by all). Thus, to begin with, Christian painting and, in particular, early Christian sculpture used motifs from both Roman and Greek art: the image of "Christ in Majesty", for instance, derives from both Roman Imperial portraits and portrayals of the Greek God Zeus. It took centuries for Christian iconography to be standardized, and to harmonize with Biblical texts.

Once Christianity was legally permitted, its need for religious art increased rapidly. New churches were built as centres of worship, using the architectural design of the basic Roman Basilica (used for civic administration and justice). A typical basilica church had a central nave with one or more aisles on either side and a semi-circular/polygonal apse at one end, covered by a semi-dome or sectional vault; the apse became the presbytery and contained a raised platform, upon which sat the bishop, his priests, and also the altar. Baptisteries were also designed and built for various rites, notably baptism followed by annointing-with-oil, as non-baptized people could not enter the Christian Basilica. Most interior decoration of these new religious buildings was done with mosaics, although mural paintings have also been uncovered. The sculptural decoration of sarcophagi became more intricate, often illustrating numerous scenes from the bible. But almost no sculpture in the round was made, for fear of creating pagan-style idols. Relief sculpture was therefore standard, mostly in stone although ivory carving was another popular medium. Overall, the 4th century witnessed more art, the use of richer materials, and the development of precise narrative sequences, as in the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and the later 5th century churches of Ravenna. In addition, during the 5th century, Christian imagery began to accord greater importance to religious significance than to realism. Thus realistic perspective, proportions, colour and light were downgraded in favour of standardized conventions and symbols, when portraying Biblical figures and events.

Byzantine Art: Icons, Mosaics, Architecture (c.450-1450)

Byzantine art, that is the art of the Eastern Orthodox Church - the form of Christianity that emerged in Constantinople (previously called Byzantium, now called Istanbul), headquarters of the Roman Empire in the east - was the first category of Christian art to really blossom. An expression of the theocratic state that it represented, Christian Byzantine art specialized in architecture, mosaic art, mural and icon painting. Byzantine artists also excelled at items of jewellery, goldsmithing and ivories, and produced the earliest illuminated manuscript, or codex.

As the power of Rome declined, that of Constantinople grew. In 535, the armies of Justinian I (482-565), Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565, invaded Italy (mostly occupied by barbarians) and in 540 conquered Ravenna, which became the seat of Byzantine government in Italy. From 540 to 600, the Exarch of Ravenna instigated a major building program of churches in the city and its port township of Classe: they included the Basilica of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe. The Basilica of San Vitale combines a Roman dome, doorways and stepped towers, with a Byzantine polygonal apse, as well as Byzantine capitals, and narrow bricks. It is world famous for its Byzantine mosaics, the most spectacular and best preserved mosaic art outside Constantinople. For details, see: Ravenna Mosaics (c.400-600).

As it was, Byzantine architecture achieved its distinctive forms during the life of Justinian, who built four major churches in Constantinople, including: the Basilica of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (begun 526); the Basilica of Saint Irene (begun 532); the Basilica of the Apostles (536-46) - whose design was replicated in St Mark's Cathedral in Venice - and the greatest of all, the Basilica of Hagia Sophia (1532-37) (converted to a mosque in 1453, now a museum). Crowned by a massive dome whose weight was carried to corner piers by revolutionary concave triangular sections of stone, called pendentives, and decorated throughout with gold mosaics and multicoloured marble, the Hagia Sophia was the culmination of Roman architecture and a huge inspiration for later buildings throughout the Middle East, including the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

Mosaic art was the most important feature of Byzantine art for almost a thousand years: comparable with sculpture in Ancient Greece, the painted panel of the Northern Renaissance, or the altarpiece in 16th century Venice. Shimmering in the candlelight and sometimes decorated in gold leaf, these exquisite glass jigsaws were governed by rigid rules as to colour, size and composition, mosaics had two key aims: to beautify the house of the Lord (and overawe the spectator), and to educate illiterate worshippers in the Gospel story. The individual mosaic pieces (tesserae) were often deliberately set unevenly, to create movement of light and colour.

The rapid rise of Arab power during the 7th century and the consequential economic difficulties suffered by the Byzantine Empire, led to a reappraisal of Arab culture and Islamic art. During the 8th century (726-787) and the 9th century (814-842), this culminated in two "Iconoclasms", when a ban was imposed on all figurative artworks. This went down very badly with Byzantine mosaicists. Many emigrated to Rome who were firmly opposed to Iconoclasm. Others, paradoxically, went to Arab cities where they produced some of the finest ever abstract mosaics. See, for instance, those in the Islamic Dome of the Rock (688-91, Jerusalem) and the Great Mosque (715, Damascus).

Ravenna remains the best single source of surviving mosaics. These include: Christ as the Good Shepherd mosaic (450, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia); the Baptism of Christ mosaic (6th century, Arian Baptistery); the Queen Theodora mosaic (547, Basilica San Vitale); Christ Before Pontius Pilate mosaic (550, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Classe). In Istanbul, see the floor mosaics (400-550) at the Imperial Palace; the South Gallery mosaics (c.1260) in Hagia Sophia; and the Dormition of Mary mosaic (1310, Church of the Chora Monastery). Elsewhere in the Byzantine Empire, see the mosaics at Hagios Demetrios (650) in Saloniki; and the outstanding early 12th century apse mosaics in Torcello Cathedral, Venice.

Wall painting was substantially cheaper than mosaics and was therefore reserved for poorer churches. Later, however, as economic difficulties grew, it became a more widespread alternative. It was characterized by large-scale 'architectural' compositions - Byzantine muralists typically used an entire wall as their 'canvas' - typically filled with narrative detail without regard to principles of time and place. Famous extant Byzantine Christian murals include: those in the burial chamber (450-500) at Nicaea (Iznik); the Weeping Christ (1164, Church of St Panteleimon, Nerezi, Skopje, Macedonia); the Crucifixion (1209, Church of St Joachim and St Anna, Studenica, Serbia).

Given its theocratic nature, it is perhaps not surprising that Byzantine culture is more noted for its icons than its murals. First appearing during the early 4th century, these small-scale devotional diptych panel paintings (sometimes called "travelling icons") of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or Saints, proved hugely popular. Church screens (iconostases) were filled with them, as were private homes. After the victory of the pro-figurative Iconodules over the Iconoclasts in 842, the production of icons increased dramatically, and the techniques of icon painting spread to Greece and Russia, notably to Kiev, Novgorod and Moscow. Famous examples of Byzantine icon paintings include: The Virgin Hodegetria (mid 5th century, Hodegon Monastery, Constantinople: now lost); St Peter (c.550, Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai); St Michael (c.950-1000, Tesoro di San Marco, Venice); the Holy Virgin of Vladimir (c.1131, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow); Madonna of Don Icon (c.1380, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) by Theophanes the Greek, founder of the Novgorod school of icon-painting (c.1100-1500); and Mother of God Hodigitria (1502-3) by Dionysius, an early master of the Moscow School of painting (c.1500-1700).

Byzantine Christian book illustration seems to have begun during the late 5th century, with the Garima Gospels (recently carbon-dated to 390-660). Other ancient Christian illuminations include the Rabbula Gospels (c.586, Laurentian Library, Florence). Both manuscripts were probably created in a Syrian or Jerusalem monastery.


Medieval Christian Art: Illuminated Manuscripts (450-1200)

With the fall of Rome and the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Western Europe entered the Dark Ages (400-800), a period of political uncertainty and cultural stagnation. The only possible unifying force was Christianity, but with Rome sacked and the Roman Church under pressure, its influence was limited. Only in Ireland, a country cut off from the European mainland, did Christianity flourish. In fact, Irish Monastic art and culture was critical in keeping alive the ideas of classical antiquity, as well as the message of the Bible. Early Medieval art in Ireland was dominated by the making of illuminated manuscripts, notably the Cathach of St. Columba (c.610), the Book of Durrow (c.650-80), the Lichfield Gospels (c.730), the Echternach Gospels (690-715), the Lindisfarne Gospels (698) and the stunning Book of Kells (800). Because of the country's ongoing tradition of Celtic art, most Irish manuscript illustrators used abstract Celtic designs, rather than figurative imagery preferred by Continental artists.

Using skills derived from earlier traditions of Celtic Metalwork art, Irish monasteries were also responsible for high quality ecclesiastical vessels, like the Ardagh Chalice (8th/9th century, National Museum of Ireland), decorated in the La Tene style of art.

A third type of Christian art which appeared in Ireland during the Middle Ages was High Cross Sculpture (c.750-1150 CE). Consisting of different-sized monuments, all based on the standard design of the Celtic-Cross. Decorated either with abstract patterns or narrative scenes from the bible (rarely both), these monuments constitute the most important set of free-standing sculpture produced between the fall of Rome (c.450) and the start of the Italian Renaissance (c.1400).

Medieval Christian art on the Continent followed similar paths, albeit a little later. Carolingian art (c.750-900), for instance, (the culture of the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne I) was inspired by Byzantine rather than Irish models. Monastic scriptoria at Aachen, Paris, Reims, Metz and Tours produced beautiful examples of medieval painting like the Godescalc Evangelistary (c.783), the Utrecht Psalter (c.830) and the Grandval Bible (c.840). Carolingian cuture was followed by Ottonian art, under the Holy Roman Emperors Otto I, II and III (900-1050). Inspired by Carolingian techniques as well as Byzantine elements - like the use of gold leaf - Ottonian art was famous for its lavishly decorated manuscripts, including the Perikpenbuch of Henry II (c.1010), the Bamberg Apocalypse (c.1020), the Hitda-Codex (c.1025) and the Codex Aureus Epternacensis (c.1053). See also: German Medieval Art (c.800-1250).

New Christian architecture was also seen under Charlemagne - see, for instance, the Gatehouse of the Lorsch Monastery (792-805) and the Palatine Chapel (800, Aachen) - and under the Ottos - see the Church of St Cyriakus at Gernrode (961), Bamberg Cathedral (begun 1004).

In addition, goldsmithing and precious metalwork reappeared on the Continent, as did sculpture, although the medieval sculpture (at least under the Ottos) tended to focus on church furnishings - altars, tombs, doors, candlesticks, and sepulchres, rather than embellish church architecture. Some murals were also produced, such as The Raising of Jairus's Daughter and Healing of the Hemorrhaging Woman (c.980, Church of St George, Reichenau).

Romanesque Church Architecture (c.1000-1150)

Ottonian architecture and culture overlaps considerably with Romanesque art, a term which in practice describes a new European-wide style of Christian architecture. It was the first great church-building campaign, initiated by Rome and by the new Christian Orders of monks, which included Cathedrals, abbeys, and parish churches. (In the UK, Romanesque is known as Norman architecture.) Romanesque architecture was inspired largely by classical Roman designs, and was characterized by a new monumentality, marking the growing stability of the age and the renaissance of European Christian culture after four centuries of darkness.

The most famous Romanesque churches and religious buildings include: Cluny Church II (981, Burgundy); Monastery Church of S. Pedro de Roda (1022, Catalonia); Abbey Church of St Michael, Hildesheim (1033, Germany); Ely Cathedral (1080, England); Pisa Cathedral (after 1083, Italy); La Grand Chartreuse Abbey (1084, Grenoble); Durham Cathedral (after 1093, England); Speyer Cathedral (1106, Germany); Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy (1120, France); Baptistery of St Giovanni, Florence (1128, Italy); Cluny Church III (1130, France); Mainz Cathedral (1137, Germany); Krak des Chevaliers (after 1142, Homs, Syria); Abbey Church of Fontenay (1147, France); Worms Cathedral (1200, Germany); and the Church of the Madeleine (1215, Vezelay).

Romanesque architecture had to cope with the growing number of pilgrims visiting the sites of holy relics across Europe. In France/Spain, for instance, massive archways were built to cope with the huge devout crowds on the El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (1075-1211) in Galicia, northwestern Spain, where the remains of the apostle Saint James are reportedly interred. Other Romanesque churches on the route included St Etienne Pilgrimage Church (1063, Nevers), and Saint-Sernin Pilgrimage Church (1120, Toulouse).

To decorate their churches, Romanesque architects relied upon stained glass, mural paintings and sculpture.

Stained glass production was concentrated in centres like the Rhineland (Germany) and in the Ile de France and Poitiers. Framed for the first time in lead, designs were based on strong colour contrasts (blue, intense reds, yellow). (See also: Stained Glass Art: Materials, Methods.) Famous examples include glass windows like: The Prophet Hosea (1130, south wall of Augsburg Cathedral); and The Crucifixion of Christ (1165, Poitiers Cathedral). Murals were used - as in Byzantine churches - to educate the illiterate churchgoer. Styles were typically dynamic and animated, while Spanish artists created Romanesque murals with a mixture of Spanish and Islamic art. Sculpture appeared mostly on the exterior of churches, in a rather static or wooden style. The most famous Romanesque artist was probably the sculptor Gislebertus (1120-1135), known for his relief work on the portals of
Saint Lazare Cathedral, Autun.

Gothic Architecture, Book-Painting (c.1150-1375)

Gothic art, too, was all about Christian architecture. It was indebted to a revival of science and mathematics, notably Euclidian geometry. While the Romanesque was noted for its massiveness of scale, thick walls, narrow windows and dim interiors, Gothic architecture dazzled with its soaring vaults, huge stained glass windows and spacious, well-lit interiors. Using pointed arches to spread the weight of the ceiling, and revolutionary flying buttresses to support the walls, it allowed architects to create a church which fully reflected the glory of God. The Gothic style first appeared in the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, near Paris (begun 1140), and within less than a century had revolutionized cathedral design across Europe. For the ultimate expression of religious Gothic architecture, see: Sainte Chapelle (1241-48) in Paris.

Other famous Gothic buildings included the cathedrals at Laon (1160), Notre Dame de Paris (1160), Chartres (1194), Bourges (1195), Reims (1211), Amiens (1220), Salisbury (1220), Burgos (1220), Westminster Abbey, Lincoln (1230), (1245), Cologne (1248), Freiburg (1275), York Minster (1280), Rouen (1281), Siena (c.1290), Barcelona (1298), Orvieto (1330), Milan (1386), Seville (1402), and others.

Architectural sculpture was another important feature. Column statues and reliefs of figures from the Old Testament, as well as depictions of Christ and other members of the Holy Family, were commonplace. Gothic sculpture developed in a series of small creative steps. First came an increased realism, visibly different from the rather wooden look of the Romanesque idiom; then we see more graceful figures with soft drapery; then figures with a solid, upright appearance, with more restrained gestures. Finally came figures with dainty postures and thick drapery hanging in long V-shaped folds. Among the greatest sculptors were Nicola Pisano (c.1206-1278) and Arnolfo di Cambio (c.1240–1310).

Late Gothic sculptors, based in Germany during the 15th and early 16th century, produced a burst of exquisite Christian wood-carving in a series of spectacular triptych altarpieces, never since equalled. Noted for the emotion of their expressionist figures, These master carvers included Michael Pacher (1435-98), Veit Stoss (c.1447-1533), Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531) and Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540). See: German Gothic Art (c.1200-1450).

Heavily influenced by sculpture, Gothic painters were also busy creating works of religious art, but not inside churches, where enormous stained glass windows now provided the colour and Biblical illustration that previously had been provided by murals: see, for instance, the translucent stained glass art inside Chartres Cathedral (c.1194-1250). Instead Gothic painters focused on illuminated manuscripts, such as the French Bibles Moralisees (c.1230-40), Le Somme le Roi (1290), the Manesse Codex (1310), Heures de Jeanne d'Evreux (1328), Psaltar of Bonne of Luxembourg (1349), the English Amesbury Psalter (1240), Queen Mary Psalter (1330) and the Arundel and Luttrell Psalters (1340). These are just a few of the many Books of Hours, Missals, Psalters, Apocalypses, Bibles and other illuminated gospel texts that emanated from monastic scriptoria of the period. See, in particular, works by Jean Pucelle (1290-1334). For more, see: History of Illustrated Manuscripts (600-1200).

Towards the end of the Gothic era, there emerged a rich style of art, among the royal courts of Europe, that acted as a kind of bridge between Gothic and Renaissance culture. Known as International Gothic (c.1375-1450), this style was exemplified by a range of Christian illuminations which reached their peak in works like Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1416) by the Limbourg Brothers (all died of plague, 1416); the Hours of the Marechal de Boucicaut, by Jacquemart de Hesdin (c.1355-1414), and The Missal of Jean des Martins by Enguerrand de Charenton (Quarton) (c.1410-1466).


Italian Renaissance

Christian art of the 14th century, the pre-Renaissance era, was dominated by Giotto - see the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel Frescoes (c.1303-10) - and Duccio de Buoninsegna (1255-1318) - see the celebrated polyptych for Siena Cathedral, known as the Maesta Altarpiece (1308-11). After this came the Early Renaissance in Florence, exemplified by the city's duomo - for more, see: Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi and the Renaissance (1420-36) - Masaccio (Brancacci Chapel frescoes) and Donatello (statue of David). If 15th century Christian art was dominated by Florence, the centre of 16th century Christian art was Rome, where the greatest patrons were Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), Pope Julius II (1503-13), Pope Leo X (1513-21) and Pope Paul III (1534-49).

The 16th century also witnessed a Golden Age of art in Venice: see Venetian altarpieces (1500-1600) and Venetian Painting.

Immortal religious paintings from the Renaissance include: The Flagellation of Christ (1460) by Piero della Francesca; The Last Supper (1495-98) and The Virgin of the Rocks (1484) by Leonardo da Vinci; Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1490) by Andrea Mantegna; The Sistine Madonna (1513) and The Transfiguration (1518-20) by Raphael; The Assumption of the Virgin (1516-8) by Titian; the Assumption of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1524-30) on the ceiling of the dome in Parma Cathedral by Correggio; The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563) and Feast in the House of Levi (1573) by Paolo Veronese; and The Crucifixion (1565) by Tintoretto. The greatest Christian Renaissance sculpture included: The Gates of Paradise (1425-52, Florence Baptistery) by Lorenzo Ghiberti; The Incredulity of St Thomas (1467) by Andrea Verrocchio; numerous items of devotional terracotta sculpture by the Florentine Della Robbia family; Pieta (1500), David (1504) and the Tomb of Pope Julius II (1505-45) by Michelangelo. But surely the most iconic Christian art of the 16th century must be the Sistine Chapel frescoes, painted by Michelangelo. These include The Genesis Fresco (1508-12) - see in particular The Creation of Adam (God Passing the Spark of Life).

For analysis of many of the above, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Ironically, Christian Renaissance architecture was based on designs from pagan Greek architecture, and made liberal use of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders. Outstanding examples include: the dome of Florence Cathedral (1420-36) and Church of San Lorenzo (1420-69) designed by Brunelleschi; Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri (1485-1506) by Giuliano da Sangallo; Saint Peter's Basilica (1506-1626) by Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Giacomo della Porta, Carlo Maderno and Bernini; Church of San Giorgio Maggiore (1562) by Palladio.

Northern Renaissance Christian Art

So-called Northern Renaissance art (c.1430-1580) was dominated by the school of Flemish Painting, part of the broader movement of the Netherlandish Renaissance. In simple terms, the Northern Renaissance started with a bang, rapidly establishing itself as the foremost school of oil painting, and thereafter gradually declined. The altarpiece art of painters like Jan van Eyck (see his Ghent Altarpiece, 1432) and Roger van der Weyden (Descent from the Cross, 1440), as well as the unbelievably intricate works of Hugo van der Goes (Portinari Altarpiece, 1475), were rarely equalled, except by the extraordinary visionary pictures of Hieronymus Bosch - see Garden of Earthly Delights and Haywain Triptych - (avidly collected by the austere Catholic monarch Philip II of Spain), and the complex genre paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Census of Bethlehem, 1566; Massacre of the Innocents, 1564; Parable of the Blind, 1568).

NOTE: 15th-Century religious painting in France was led by the Provencal artist Enguerrand de Quarton (1410-66) - celebrated for his Avignon Pieta (c.1455, Louvre) - and the court painter Jean Fouquet (1420-81) noted for his Melun Diptych (c.1450-55).

Flemish realism and precision is also evident in the work of German painters such as Stephan Lochner (The Last Judgement, 1440s), Lucas Cranach the Elder (Adam and Eve, 1528), Hans Baldung Grien (Altar of the Virgin Mary [The Freiburg Altarpiece], 1514), and Hans Holbein the Elder (Scenes from the Passion of Christ [The Kasheim Altarpiece], 1502). Other German masters include the expressionist Matthias Grunewald (Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510-15) and the versatile printmaker and painter Albrecht Durer (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498, woodcut), and Martin Schongauer (Madonna in the Rose Garden, 1473).

Historical Note: The Protestant Reformation
In 1517, Luther, a Dutch priest - no doubt influenced by the earlier revolt of Savonarola (1452-98) in Florence - began a religious revolt against the corrupt practices of the Church of Rome, that led to a split in the Christian movement. The protesters became known as Protestants, while those who continued to follow the traditional Church called themselves Roman Catholics. Protestantism (which divided into four types: Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican and Anabaptist) took root in Northern European countries like Holland, Germany (except Bavaria) and Britain, while Southern European countries like France, Italy and Spain (along with the Spanish colony of Flanders), remained Catholic.

Reformation Art

From about 1520, as the Northern Renaissance felt the impact of Luther's revolt against the corrupt practices of the Roman Church, a new set of aesthetics took hold, in the form of Protestant Reformation Art, which reflected the Christian agenda of the Protestant movement, which rejected the humanist art and ideology of the High Renaissance, and celebrated a more austere religious experience, with minimal decoration. As a result, the amount of religious art commissioned by Protestant Church authorities was hugely reduced, and artists in Protestant countries were forced to switch to secular forms like genre painting, portrait art, landscape painting, and still lifes.

Protestant Art

Protestantism taught a low-key, personal form of worship that focused on the direct relationship between God and man, without making a fuss about go-betweens like Popes, Bishops and other church employees. It also placed little or no importance on decorative or ceremonial aspects of religion. Because of all this, Protestant art favoured low-key moralistic depictions of ordinary day-to-day life, or simple narrative scenes from the Bible, rather than dramatic theological scenes involving the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. Other acceptable scenes included depictions of sinners forgiven by Christ, in line with the Protestant view that salvation is only possible through the grace of God. Protestant art also tended to be smaller-scale than Catholic art, reflecting a more modest, personal approach to religion. For the same reason, book illustration and prints became more popular, while Catholic paintings and sculptures became the object of physical iconclastic attacks, as exemplified by the beeldenstorm, an episode of mob destruction which broke out in 1556. But Protestant church authorities were equally aware of the power of art to educate and influence worshippers. As a result they made maximum use of various forms of printmaking, which allowed images to be made widely available to the public at a very low cost.

Protestant aesthetics achieved a highpoint during the Dutch Baroque era (c.1600-80). This period, known as the Golden Age of Dutch art, witnessed the ultimate development of the realist style adopted earlier by Flemish painters. Although portraits and landscapes were also popular, the period is best known as the high point of Dutch Realist genre painting, and what is known as still life painting (arranged tableaux). Leading genre painters of the Protestant Reformation came from a variety of schools. Adriaen van Ostade and the Catholic artist Jan Steen represented the Haarlem school; Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch represented the Delft school; Hendrik Terbrugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst belonged to the Utrecht school; Gerrit Dou represented the Leiden school; Samuel van Hoogstraten and Nicolaes Maes were members of the Dordrecht school; and Carel Fabritius, Gerard Terborch, and Gabriel Metsu belonged to the Amsterdam school.

Many of these genre paintings contained subtle moral messages about how to live a Christian life, as well as not so subtle messages about the dangers of vice. This low-key Protestant iconography was a complete contrast to the intense Biblical scenes, such as the Crucifixion and the Lamentation, favoured by Catholic art. Still lifes provided another example of this moralistic art. Known as Vanitas painting, this genre consisted of arrangements of food and other objects laid out on a table, complete with symbolic messages that frowned upon gluttony and sensual indulgence. There were two varieties of vanitas paintings: "banquet pieces" (pronkstilleven), or "breakfast pieces" (ontbijtjes). Exponents of pronkstilleven included: Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56), Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-84) and Willem Kalf (1622-93). While the leading practitioners of ontbijtjes included: Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680) and Pieter Claesz (1597-1660).

Even in Protestant Amsterdam, however, there remained a modest demand for religious paintings. One of the most important commissions received by the young Rembrandt, was five paintings for Prince Frederick Henry of Orange - the leading soldier in the Dutch wars against Catholic Spain - on the subject of Christ's Passion. In addition to his skill as a portraitist, Rembrandt went on to become the greatest religious painter of Dutch Protestantism, noted for works like: The Blinding of Samson (1636), The Sacrifice of Isaac (1636), Susanna and the Elders (1647), Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654), Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph (1656), and Return of the Prodigal Son (1666-69).

Catholic Counter-Reformation Art

The Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation with the Counter-Reformation. Catholic Counter-Reformation Art was designed to communicate the distinctive tenets of the Catholic liturgy and faith so as to strengthen the popularity of Catholicism. It was launched at the same time as Mannerist painting was taking hold in Italy - a highly expressive style that used distortion for effect, as exemplified in Parmigianino's picture Madonna with the Long Neck (1535, Uffizi). Concerned that Catholic art was attaching too much importance to decorative qualities, and not enough to religious values - thus negating its educational effects on churchgoers - the Catholic authorities decreed that Biblical art should be be direct and compelling in its narrative presentation, which itself should be accurate rather than fanciful, and should above all encourage piety. Nudity, and other inappropriate imagery was banned. For an example of a pious Mannerist artsist who adapted his style in line with the Church's teaching, see: Federico Barocci (1526-1612).

In short, the sole purpose of Counter-Reformation art was to glorify God and Catholic traditions, and promote the sacraments and the saints. Thus Michelangelo's Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel was heavily criticized for its nudity, for showing Jesus without a beard, and for including the pagan character of Charon. Paolo Veronese's painting The Last Supper was (not unreasonably) attacked for including extravagant costumes, drunken Germans and dwarfs along with a huge crowd of people. In fact, Veronese simply side-stepped the issue by renaming the picture Feast in the House of Levi.

The Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation to fight for the hearts and minds of those Christians who had 'gone over' to Protestantism. To this end, the Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu) - founded by S. Ignatius Loyola and commonly known as the Jesuits - was formally established in 1540 by Pope Paul III, as an important teaching body and missionary order. Jesuit art was suitably inspirational. First, the architect Giacomo Barozzi (Vignola) was commissioned to design a church for the new order - The Church of the Holy Name of Jesus (Il Gesu) (1568-73) - for which the Baroque painter Giovanni Battista Gaulli painted the fabulous trompe l'oeil ceiling frescoes. Another Jesuit church, the San Ignazio, was the setting for what is arguably the greatest example of quadratura painting ever created - The Triumph and Apotheosis of St Ignatius of Loyola (1691-4) by Andrea Pozzo. There exists no greater exemplar of Counter-Reformation painting, and no better example of the differences between Protestant and Catholic art.

Rubens (1577-1640)

A devout Catholic, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens became the most influential exponent of Counter-Reformation painting in Northern Europe. Famous for his large-scale religious and history paintings, full of sensuous colour and drama, he socialized in the leading circles of European society as both an artist and diplomat. Despite the distance separating Rubens from the ordinary churchgoer, some of his Catholic pictures, like the celebrated triptych Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612), are intensely moving, and his impact on later painters was enormous. See also: Samson and Delilah (1610).

Caravaggio (1571-1610)

The Italian Early Baroque painter Caravaggio was one of the heroes of the Catholic Counter-Reformation arts campaign. Not because of his piety, but because he painted Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles and Saints, with such unbelievable naturalism. Caravaggio's brand of unsophisticated realism was the perfect style for the Church's message. It gave key Biblical events an immediacy which no other painter had achieved. By abandoning the stylistic pretensions of late Mannerism - a style which was understood only by an educated minority, he provided the instant inspirational impact demanded by the Council of Trent. His greatest works include: The Calling of St Matthew (1600), The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1600), Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601), Supper at Emmaus (1602), The Entombment of Christ (1601-3), The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601), and The Death of the Virgin (1601-6). His dramatic use of light and shadow was continued after his death by followers of so-called caravaggism.


El Greco (1541-1614) and the Spanish School

Spain is the only European state to have emerged from a religious struggle between Christianity and Islam (Muslim rule over most of the Iberian peninsula lasted 718-1492). Not surprisingly therefore, the school of Spanish Painting produced a form of Christian art which was consistent with the country's uncompromising devotion to the Catholic cause. Its greatest exponent was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco. After training in Byzantine icon painting he worked in Venice before making his home in Spain. Here he created a series of ecstatic portraits of Christ and the Saints, whose intensity of expression appealed directly to the spiritual feelings of the spectator. These powerful holy paintings, with their elongated figures, distorted perspective and non-natural colour schemes made El Greco the father of Counter-Reformation art in Spain. His most famous Catholic paintings include: The Trinity (1577-9); The Disrobing of Christ (1579); The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586); Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1600); the Resurrection (1600), and The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (1608). Although they had none of Caravaggio's naturalism, these pictures were spiritual masterpieces, and thus wholly in line with the doctrinal requirements of the Vatican.

After El Greco came Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), an artist strongly influenced by Spanish Quietism, who specialized in large-scale sacred paintings for Religious Orders like the Carthusians, Capuchins, Dominicans, and others. Zurburan's contemporary Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) was a key figure in the Neapolitan School of Painting (1600-56), and an early follower of Caravaggio. Works by both these painters are famous for their visual truthfulness, bold chiaroscuro and tenebrism, which gave them great drama and intensity. See also: Christ Crucified (1632) by Diego Velazquez.

The spiritual intensity achieved by Spanish painters was also seen in the works of Spanish sculptors, such as Alonso Berruguete (c.1486-1561) the greatest of all Renaissance sculptors in Spain, whose masterpieces include: the altarpiece for the monastery of La Mejorada Valladolid (1526), and the choir stalls in Toledo Cathedral (1539-43); Juan de Juni (1507-1577), noted for his emotive expressiveness, as in his two groups of the Entombment of Christ (1544 and 1571). Juan Martinez Montanes (the "God of Wood"), famous for his wooden crucifixes and religious figures, like The Merciful Christ (1603) and the Santiponce Altarpiece (1613); and Alonso Cano (the "Spanish Michelangelo"), whose masterwork is The Immaculate Conception (1655).

Bernini (1598-1680) and the Italian School

No other Italian artist embodied Catholic Baroque art better than Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose output of religious art included the sculptural masterpiece The Ecstasy of St.Teresa (1645–52), inside the specially designed Cornaro Chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. The Baroque idiom spawned a melodramatic style of architecture, exemplified by Bernini's design for Saint Peter's Square (1656-67) and the approaches to St Peter's Basilica in Rome. A favourite of Urban VIII, and a rival of Francois Duquesnoy (1594-1643) and Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654), Bernini's stature in Rome (though not his creativity) was matched by that of the French-born Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), the founder of French Classicism, whose religious paintings included The Martyrdom of St Erasmus (1628), The Plague on Ashdod (1630), The Israelite Gathering Manna in the Desert (1639), The Boy Moses Tramples the Pharaoh's Crown (1645), and The Holy Family on the Steps (1648).

NOTE: German Baroque sculpture could also be awe-inspiring. See, for instance, the extraordinary High Altar of the Virgin Mary (1613-16), in the Church of Saint Nicholas at Uberlingen, sculpted by the master carver Jorg Zurn (1583-1638).

Church Murals (Quadratura)

Probably the most spectacular form of Christian painting was the church ceiling mural painting (called quadratura), often executed with trompe l'oeil illusionist effects. This decoration of vaulted/domed ceilings of churches began during the Renaissance in Italy. Renaissance examples included: the Sala delle Prospettive fresco (c.1517, Villa Farnesina) by Baldessare Peruzzi; and the Assumption of the Virgin (1524-30) by Correggio, which decorated the domed ceiling of Parma Cathedral.

Baroque murals include the celebrated Aurora fresco (1621-3, Villa Ludovisi, Rome) by Guercino and Agostino Tassi; the Assumption of the Virgin (1625-7) on the duomo of the church of S. Andrea della Valle, by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647); the Palazzo Barberini frescoes by Pietro da Cortona, including Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-9); and the Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1688-94, Sant'Ignazio, Rome) by Andrea Pozzo.

Noteworthy Rococo Christian murals - all by Giambattista Tiepolo - include the Palazzo Labia frescoes (c.1745) in Venice; the Wurzburg Rezidenz frescoes (1750-3) in Germany; and the Apotheosis of Spain fresco (1763-6) in the Royal Palace of Madrid.

Architectural Paintings of Churches

An interesting feature of Christian drawing from the Baroque period were the architectural drawings, prints and paintings of church interiors. Three of the leading exponents of this genre were: the Haarlem artist Pieter Saenredam noted for his architectural accuracy and his pictures of whitewashed church interiors (Interior of the Buurkerk, Utrecht, 1645); Emanuel de Witte, who was less concerned with technical accuracy and more interested in the atmosphere of the church (Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, 1680); and the Italian view painter (vedutista) Giovanni Paolo Panini (Interior of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, 1731).

Church Architecture of the Baroque

Baroque architecture abandoned the balanced symmetry of Renaissance designs in favour of dramatic curved lines and surfaces that combined art and architecture into one dynamic entity, creating illusionary effects of light, colour and texture. Baroque churches were characterized by a combination of domes, decorated chapels, fresco quadratura, and other embellishments, as exemplified by these four structures.

Saint Peter's Basilica (Rome) (1506-1626)
First built over the legendary burial site of St Peter, during the time of Emperor Constantine I, Saint Peter's Basilica is among the holiest of all Catholic sites. The current building was mostly designed by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Bernini, and embodies the artistic transition from Renaissance to Baroque. Crowned by a 433-foot high dome, it is packed with priceless works of art, including Michelangelo's marble sculpture Pieta (1500), carved by the artist from a single block of Carrara marble at the age of 25. St. Peter's is strongly associated with the Early Christian church, the papacy, the Counter-Reformation and is considered to be the finest building of its age.

Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, Venice (1631-87)
Designed by the Italian architect Baldassarre Longhena as a token of thanks to the Virgin Mary for delivering the city from the plague, this two-domed Basilica which stands on the peninsula between the Canal Grande and the Zattere in Venice, combines Greek, Islamic and classical Baroque features. It is one of the city's most famous landmarks.

St Paul's Cathedral, London (1674-1710)
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, St Paul's is a Church of England cathedral which stands on the site of the original church, founded in 604. The seat of the Bishop of London, the cathedral was constructed as part of the major rebuilding program overseen by Wren, following the Great Fire of London. Its 365-foot high dome is one of the best-known sights of London.

Melk Abbey, Austria (1702-36)
Designed and built by the Austrian architect and master mason Jakob Prandtauer, it combines Italian Baroque elements with traditional Austrian design. Set on high cliffs overlooking the Danube River, its abbey church combines a high dome and twin towers. The abbey's exterior is a mass of undulating surfaces and soaring turrets and towers, while its interiors and hallways were decorated by many of Austria's leading artists. It houses several famous features, including the Marble Hall, the Imperial Staircase and a library containing an extensive collection of rare medieval texts.

Christian Art in the Modern Era (1750-2000)

By the middle of the 18th century, Catholic countries were becoming overstocked with cathedrals, churches, abbeys, monasteries and convents - in the case of certain cities like Naples, almost absurdly so. As a result, ecclesiastical commissions began to dry up. At the same time, with the advent of the 18th century Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and political upheavals like the French Revolution of 1789, the European Christian Church lost ground to nationalism, socialism and other value systems. What's more, it raised less money to spend on religious statues or other forms of church art. By the 19th century, the Church was less important as a patron of the arts than kings and noblemen, while the middle class demand for portraits, topographical landscapes and other secular works, was increasing rapidly. Painters could enjoy a prosperous career simply by focusing on portrait art, or various types of landscape painting, without ever painting a religious subject - something hitherto unknown in Catholic countries, though long regarded as normal in Protestant ones.

Only in the New World were significant numbers of new churches erected. The type of architecture chosen was generally revivalist: see, for instance, the neoclassical-style Baltimore Basilica (1806-21), the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe; the decorated Gothic-style St Patrick's Cathedral, New York (1858-79), designed by James Renwick; Richard Upjohn's Trinity Church, New York (1841-6), another masterpiece of Gothic revivalism; and Trinity Church, Boston (1872-77), designed by Henry Hobson Richardson in a revivalist Romanesque style.

Only one major innovative example of Christian church architecture was built in Europe during the 19th century - the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (1883), designed in a highly decorative neo-Gothic style by Antoni Gaudi. Celebrating the Holy Family and the mysteries of the Catholic faith, this extraordinary church with its tree-like formation of vaulted structures includes five towers and twelve campaniles. Made of stone and concrete, the building is embellished in parts with ceramic tiles, pompom finials and numerous sculptures, but is still not completely finished. Gaudi himself was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and was associated with the Catalan Modernista school.

Fewer churches meant less sculpture and less ecclesiastical decoration. But some new works did appear, such as Christ the Redeemer (1926-31), the huge soapstone statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. Designed by Heitor da Silva Costa, and sculpted by Paul Landowski, it is the largest Art Deco statue in the world. Other noteworthy pieces of modern Christian sculpture include: Tarcisius, Christian Martyr (1868, Musee d'Orsay, marble) carved by Jean-Alexandre-Joseph Falguiere; Genesis (1929-31, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) and Adam (1938, Harewood House), both by Jacob Epstein.

Christian fine art painting was hardest hit by the decline in religious belief, although some exceptional works were produced. Two modern groups of religious painters, include the Nazarenes and the Russian school.

Belonging to the Romanticism wing of German 19th-Century art, the Nazarenes were a group of idealistic Vienna-trained painters, whose spiritual pictures recalled German medieval art and early Renaissance painting. Leading members included Friedrich Overbeck, Franz Pforr, Wilhelm von Schadow and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. They were dubbed Nazarenes because of their biblical dress, long hair and devout way of life.

Russian art of the 19th century produced some outstanding works of Christian painting. Leading painters included: the Ukrainian Anton Losenko (1737-73), Professor of History Painting at the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts (see his Renaissance-inspired works Miraculous Catch and Abraham's Sacrifice); and the influential Alexander Ivanov (1806-58), whose works included The Appearance of Christ to the People (1837-57) a huge canvas which took 20 years to complete. Later in the century, several members of the Itinerants group produced some remarkable Christian paintings, characterized by a unique spiritual intensity. They included: The Last Supper (1863) by Nikolai Gay; The Raising of Jairus's Daughter (1871) by Ilya Repin; Christ in the Wilderness (1872) and Laughter ("Hail, King of the Jews!") by Ivan Kramskoy; Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1887) by Vasily Polenov.

Other exceptional Christian paintings by modern artists include: The Angelus (1859) by the Barbizon realist Jean-Francois Millet; Christ Before Pilate (1881) by the Hungarian realist Mihaly Munkacsy; Christ's Triumphant Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888), by James Ensor, leader of the Symbolism movement; The Christian Relic (1893) by the Spanish social realist painter Joaquin Sorolla; the unfinished Adam and Eve (1918) by the Viennese master Gustav Klimt; Ecce Homo (1925) by the German Expressionist Lovis Corinth; The Screaming Pope (1953) by Francis Bacon, inspired by Velazquez's Innocent X (1650); Mark Rothko's wall-paintings for the chapel at the St Thomas Catholic University in Houston; Crucifixion 3.85 (1985) by Antonio Saura, inspired by Velazquez's Crucifixion (1631).

In addition, there are numerous expressionist works by the French Catholic painter Georges Rouault, notably his series of The Holy Face, the Crucifixion and Christ Mocked, which make him one of the most important Christian artists of the 20th century. A similar accolade could be bestowed on the Russian fantasy painter Marc Chagall, whose imaginative Jewish art and scenes from the Old Testament were followed later by his series on religious themes - The Bible Message - now on display at the Cimiez Museum, in Nice. Chagall also produced a number of stained-glass designs for the cathedrals of Metz (1968), and Reims (1974), as well as the Hadassah Synagogue near Jerusalem. In addition, he was noted for the tapestry art that he designed for the Knesset.

Another modern Christian tapestry was the 75-foot high Christ in Glory (1962) commissioned for Coventry Cathedral, and designed by Graham Sutherland (1903-80). It was woven by Pinton Freres, at Felletin, in France.


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