Religious Art

Written by Sarah Provost
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Religious art is a genre that gains immense power from the significance of its imagery. But you don't have to be of any particular denomination, or even religious at all, to appreciate religious art on its own terms. You may see Raphael's Small Cowper Madonna as an attempt to capture the transcendence of the Mother of God, or simply as breathtaking portraiture.

Religious Art Gives the Divine a Human Face

From the earliest Byzantine and medieval paintings up to the Baroque period, the great majority of all art had religious themes. Perhaps one of the most important purposes of religious art is to humanize divinity for us, to give God a recognizable face. Though few artists actually attempted to depict God himself--Michaelangelo and Blake being notable exceptions--Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles were constant subjects.

Though the Nativity and Crucifixion are the most frequent subjects, there are some lesser-known masterpieces that depict other moments in the life of Christ. Look closely at Giotto's Kiss of Judas, and you will learn as much about Christ's understanding and forgiveness as you will in hours of studying the Gospels. Guercino's Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows us an unidealized Jesus with a strong nose, listening intently to the authorities, but unmoved in his compassion. In purely physical terms, you could see his like walking down the street today, which makes the divinity of his face seem indisputably real.

Similarly, Martini's Christ Discovered in the Temple, though painted in 1342 and resplendent with gilded haloes, depicts an angry adolescent at odds with his bewildered and equally angry parents. It can be hard for a viewer to identify with Christ on the cross, and even with some of the grander Nativities. But these portraits of the Son of God in less overtly dramatic moments can help us to recognize that he was also the Son of Man.


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