Art and Architecture: Christianity

Art and Architecture of the World’s Religions. Editor: Leslie Ross. Volume 2. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Origins and Development

Christianity, along with Judaism and Islam, is one of the three major monotheistic religions of the world. It has a very lengthy history of change and transformation, is presently the largest of the world’s religions, and is represented today by an enormous variety of different groups, branches, and denominations found in all areas of the world. The three main branches of Christianity today are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant (which itself comprises hundreds of different denominations). All Christians, regardless of branch or denomination, accept the teachings of Jesus as central, even normative.

The religion of Christianity was begun by Jesus (Yeshu’a) of Nazareth, a Jew of humble origin who lived in the region of Galilee in what is now modern-day Israel. He is traditionally believed to have been born in the city of Bethlehem (ca. 4 BCE), to have been raised in the city of Nazareth by pious Jewish parents named Mary (Miryam) and Joseph (Yosef), and to have died in Jerusalem (ca. 30 CE). During his time, this area of the world was part of the vast Roman Empire, and the territory of Judea/Palestine where Jesus lived and taught was administered both directly and by Roman-appointed Jewish kings.

Jesus is briefly mentioned by several later Roman historians (in the early second century CE) and by Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian), but the principal sources of information about the life and teachings of Jesus are contained in the first four books of the Christian scriptures (or “New Testament”). These texts, known as the Four Gospels (authored by or associated with the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) include various accounts of his career, words, and actions. Written several decades after his death to promote the then-growing religion, the Gospels present Jesus as a teacher, healer, and miracle worker whose apocalyptic message of the coming of the kingdom of God challenged both Jewish and Roman authorities. His public career began when he was about age 30, after his baptism (or “washing of repentance”) in the Jordan River by the Jewish prophet known as “John the Baptist.” Jesus then traveled for a time through the rural regions of Galilee gathering followers who believed in his teachings and who saw him in some way as the promised messiah or savior of the Jewish people. He offered hope to all social classes, criticized some aspects of the rituals, practices, and hieratic structure of the Judaism of his time, and asserted principles of ethical behavior based on the fundamental Ten Commandments of Judaism but expanded via the “Beatitudes” (right behavior as a result of blessings), which he offered during his “Sermon on the Mount” (recounted in the Gospel of Matthew). This “new ethical system [extended] the Mosaic law in a way that became central to the formation of a distinctly Christian morality.” Jesus was a social and religious reformer whose sphere of influence was originally restricted to a relatively small group of Jewish followers and whose career was cut dramatically short by his execution by the Roman authorities, but his enormous impact has been of lasting and worldwide significance.

Although the deeds and teachings of Jesus during his lifetime provide the critical foundation for the Christian religion, his death and subsequent return to life (resurrection) are of absolutely signal importance in the Christian belief system. At the end of his life, Jesus

was betrayed by one of his followers and arrested:[After] cross-examination by the Jewish authorities, Jesus was sent before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, [was charged] and found guilty of claiming to be the king of the Jews, a claim that was blasphemous under Jewish law and treason to the Romans. Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion, a normal Roman punishment for criminals, and died on the cross.

The Gospels, however, tell that Jesus was raised to life several days after this, and some of his followers had experiences that inspired them to believe that he had been resurrected by God. This further convinced them of his status as the Messiah, the redeemer, the Christ (from the Greek Christos, a translation of the Hebrew term mashiach—messiah—the “anointed one of God”). The term “Christ” was originally a title given to Jesus to signify his role as the Messiah, and it then became used as a name: Jesus Christ. Thus, “Christians” are the followers of Jesus (the) Christ.

The news of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ultimate ascension to heaven spread rapidly among Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) alike. The missionary work of Saul of Tarsus (Saint Paul, ca. 3-65 CE) was especially instrumental in the spread of Christianity through the wider Roman world during the early growth of the religion. Not among the original disciples or initial 12 apostles of Jesus (from the Greek apostolos, “messenger” or “delegate” of Christ), Paul, originally an avid anti-Christian, experienced a dramatic conversion, and became one of the most active and ardent supporters and spreaders of the faith, especially to Gentiles. A well-educated Greek-speaking Jew with Roman citizenship, “Paul was one of the first to articulate a Christian theology distinct from Jewish practice and law.” He journeyed widely through Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor promoting the new faith, and his writings (letters, or “epistles”) to the growing Christian communities in these regions form the major section of the Christian New Testament.

Up through the early fourth century, Christianity continued to grow within the late Roman empire in spite of opposition. The spread and popularity of the religion and the perceived potential political threats to the authority of the Roman state resulted in periodic and at times extremely severe persecutions of Christians through the early centuries. These persecutions came to an end formally under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337) whose Edict of Milan in 313 declared “toleration” of Christianity—the religion to which he himself is said to have ultimately converted. The state support for Christianity represented by Constantine’s toleration and conversion paved the way for Christianity to ultimately be declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, via edict of the Emperor Theodosius I (ca. 346-395) in 392. From this period onward, the history of Christianity became especially connected with the politics and events that took place in the late Roman world—the re-division of the Roman Empire into two jurisdictions: the Eastern Roman empire (or “Byzantine” empire—based in the city of Constantinople, the ancient Greek city of Byzantium) and the Western Roman empire (centered on the city of Rome).

The first through eighth centuries of Christianity are often called the “Patristic era” (from the Latin Patres Ecclesiae, “Fathers of the Church”). During this time, the Christian Church developed systems of administrative hierarchy and jurisdiction, based on Roman government models, and defined the basic and authorized tenets of the faith in a series of Church Councils, such as the Council of Nicea, convened by Constantine in 325, and the Council of Chalcedon, convened by the emperor Marcian in 451. The meetings served to clarify basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Various disputes and disagreements had arisen about such matters as the exact identity of Jesus, the role and position of Mary, and the definition of the Holy Trinity (defining Jesus’s relationship to God). Many influential theologians discussed these issues in their writings. Heretical (incorrect) beliefs were identified and discarded as the early Church sought to codify the essential and correct (orthodox) fundamentals of the faith.

Many significant figures among the early Church Fathers include Saint Augustine (354-430, the bishop of Hippo), Saint Ambrose (ca. 339-97, the bishop of Milan), Saint Basil (ca. 329-79, the bishop of Caesarea), and Saint Jerome (342-420) who, at the direction of Pope Damascus, translated the Hebrew and Greek scriptures of the “Old” and “New” Testaments into Latin. Jerome’s translation is known as the “Vulgate” Bible, from the Latin Versio Vulgata, “Common Translation.” The vast body of patristic literature was greatly expanded during the medieval period, often called the “Scholastic” era of Christianity. Major authors such as Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), whose writings represent highly intellectual and philosophical approaches to theological issues, are especially important for the history of Christianity.

During the earlier medieval period, an event of monumental significance took place for the Christian church, known as the “East-West Schism.” In 1054, as a result of complex and long-standing cultural and doctrinal differences, the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) churches formally split. A number of factors contributed to this, but it was most notably a result of the insistence of the Western Church on the ultimate authority of the Pope (bishop of Rome) over all Christians and all church matters. To the present day, the Orthodox and Catholic churches remain divided. The Catholic Church accepts the supreme authority of the Pope in Rome, whereas the Eastern churches are less centrally organized and are made up of several different and autonomous branches (such as the Greek Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox) governed by bishops and patriarchs (senior priests) and guided by councils.

The authority of the Roman Pope as well as other practices of the Catholic Church were again questioned definitively in the early 16th century, during what is known as the Protestant Reformation. The movement was begun by leaders such as Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), and John Calvin (1509-64), who criticized the hierarchical structure of the Church and complained against many practices that they deemed corrupt. The Protestant reforming movements, in general, can be said to have been seeking a return to the foundations of the Christian faith, the fundamental teachings of Jesus, and the authority of the Bible, not mediated through any scholastic philosophy or religious institution (the Catholic Church in particular).

The history of Protestant Christianity from the 16th century to the present day is extremely complex and involves the growth of literally hundreds of different variations or denominations. Among the oldest Protestant groups, founded in the 16th through 18th centuries, are the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican (or Episcopal), Methodist, Congregationalist, and Baptist churches, all of which exist in numerous branches. The Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were all founded in the 19th century, and the Pentecostal movement dates to the early 20th century. Other groups, such as the Unitarians (18th century) and Mormons (or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in the 19th century), diverge significantly from other groups in their understanding and interpretations of the nature and role of Jesus.

In the wake of the challenges posed by the initial Protestant reformers of the 16th century, the Catholic Church responded via a period of internal reflection, renewal, and public outreach. Often called the “Catholic Reformation” or “Counter Reformation,” this period was characterized by a reaffirmation of the Catholic faith, a modification of some of the practices deemed objectionable by the Protestant reformers, a great flourishing of the arts, and the formation of new orders such as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) under the leadership of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).

As Christianity moved into the modern period, powerful rationalist and skeptical influences were exerted on the faith by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of industrial capitalism, and advances in science from the seventeenth century to the present. Urbanization and secularization, particularly in the West, were among the factors that changed traditional roles and functions performed by the church and its community in earlier historical periods.

In addition to the further development and growth of Protestant denominations in the early modern period, and intensive missionary work by Catholics as well as Protestant groups, the mid-20th century was especially marked by several events and new trends in Christianity. The Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962, inspired significant changes in Catholic beliefs and practices. These included a simplification of the liturgy and use of local languages (rather than Latin) in church services. The decisions of Vatican II were designed to update and energize the Catholic Church. They also reflect the growing spirit of ecumenism—the acceptance of differences, if not actual conciliation, between the various branches of Christianity—as well as the hope for mutually beneficial dialogue with other world religions.

Principal Beliefs and Key Practices

Christian beliefs and practices have gone through many centuries of evolution and interpretation since the time of Jesus.

Like any living religious tradition, the vitality of the Christian faith is evidenced in a continual process of reform and internal pluralism. Today, over four hundred denominations all identify themselves as Christian. Many regard this worldwide religious diversity as one of the greatest challenges facing Christianity in the modern world.

The great diversity of Christian practices may also present some enormous challenges in any attempts to define what is foundational or most fundamental about the Christian religion. Catholic Christians diverge from Orthodox Christians in some significant ways; they follow different church calendars and, in some cases, celebrate different holy days. The major holy days in the Christian Church are Christmas (celebrating the birth of Jesus) and Easter (commemorating his resurrection.) Numerous other holy days are observed by different Christian groups.

The many denominations of Protestant Christianity, though largely sharing the distinction of being “non-Catholic” and “non-Eastern-Orthodox,” have different approaches to what they believe are the most important matters for Christians. Certain liturgical practices (which have themselves evolved and changed) have characterized Catholic worship services through history. Orthodox churches also have their unique rites, many of which would not be recognized at all or understood in either Catholic or Protestant churches of vastly different types. Nevertheless, there is unity in this diversity.

The Christian religion is monotheistic. Christians believe that there is one God alone and that this God is a supreme and transcendent being. This God-force is also an active principle in human lives and has communicated directly with humans through the ages. This God (sharing some continuity with the God of the Jews/Israelites) has offered and continues to require specific ethical behaviors of his followers. As an ethical monotheism, the religion of Christianity shares much with its Jewish ancestors and Islamic heirs. The focus of Christianity is, however, on the figure of Jesus Christ. The majority of Christians believe that Jesus was not simply an inspired teacher, or a social reformer, or an incarnation of any one of a number of divine beings, but that Jesus was and is the only Son of the One God who was sent to earth by God to fulfill God’s promise of salvation for all humankind.

The concept of salvation—although fundamental for Christianity—has involved a number of different iterations and related precepts throughout Christian history. Diverse branches of Christianity have, in different eras, emphasized specific aspects of salvation, ranging from the rewards anticipated in a glorious afterlife in heaven (versus punishments for sinners in hell) to the liberation from socially or personally oppressive situations.

Salvation, the term for the state of redemption and reconciliation with God, is a primary spiritual goal of Christians. Aside from the Calvinist notion of predestination, which holds that only an elect body of worshippers is saved, in most Protestant communities salvation is guaranteed solely by the worshipper’s faith, the acceptance of Jesus Christ. For Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, salvation is also dependent upon faith in the mysteries of the church, and on the fulfillment of sacraments. Interpretations of the path to salvation vary, but the belief that humans have an immortal soul is generally accepted in Christianity.

Some Christian groups, notably Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, place great emphasis on the acknowledgment and veneration of saints. These holy figures range from the martyrs of the early Church through a progression of historical examples up to the present day. The process by which saintly figures are officially deemed worthy of veneration is known as canonization. This is especially developed in the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant groups tend to place far less emphasis on the mediating role of saints (including Mary), focusing primary attention on the figure of Jesus.

Regardless of group or denomination, Jesus provides the central focus for all Christians as the humanly embodied revelation of God. Belief in the divinity of Jesus and adherence to his ethical teachings brings reconciliation with God. God’s continued and abiding presence in human life is acknowledged by all Christians.

Traditional Art and Architectural Forms

Given the diversity of Christian denominations, the lengthy history, and the worldwide spread of the religion, it is no surprise to see that an enormous variety of art and architectural forms are characteristic of Christianity at various periods in history and in different regions of the world. The function and purposes of Christian religious structures, and the use of and attitude toward visual imagery, have diverged as well.

The religion originally developed within the late antique Greco-Roman world, where artistic traditions in painting, sculpture, and architecture had long flourished. The production of art by and for Christians in the first several centuries was, however, somewhat restricted because of the uneasy position and often persecuted status of the new religion. Examples of the very earliest Christian art, such as the fresco paintings in the Roman catacombs (underground cemeteries), often make use of a symbolic visual vocabulary closely akin to works produced for non-Christian patrons. Subjects such as the “Good Shepherd,” an image presumably understood by Christians to represent Jesus Christ in his role as savior of humankind, can ultimately be seen as based on the developed and popular pre-Christian Roman traditions of pastoral landscape scenes inhabited by sheep, shepherds, and other bucolic elements. As with many other subjects and symbols found within the funerary context of the catacombs, there are problems with “knowing precisely what these early images meant to Christians—how far the memory of pre-Christian meanings survived and what changes were wrought by successive Christian interpretations.” A number of specific biblical (especially Old Testament) subjects appear in early Christian art, in catacomb frescoes, on carved sarcophagi, and on other small-scale objects. It has often been said that the selection of these particular scenes, many of which focus on God’s miraculous interventions to save deserving humans from destruction (Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, Noah’s Ark, and so on), appears to reflect the fears and hopes of Christians during these early centuries of oppression. These subjects, as well, may indicate a rich heritage of Jewish pictorial sources from which early Christians also drew.

After the Constantinian Edict of Milan in 313, the now-tolerated and soon-to-be-official religion of the Roman Empire entered an important phase of art and architectural activity. Swiftly growing Christian communities, with a rapidly expanding administrative structure as well, were in need of specifically designed churches for liturgical assemblies. Before the fourth century, Christian gatherings took place in private homes, in rented halls, or in open spaces such as markets.  There appears to be no literary or solid archaeological evidence for any structures being intentionally and exclusively designed for Christian worship before the fourth century, although some very early churches may rest on the foundations or sites of private homes previously used for Christian assemblies.

The architectural form used for the earliest actual Christian churches was adopted from the model of the Roman basilica (from the Greek basilike, “royal”). Basilicas were ubiquitous public structures in Roman towns and cities and were used for many purposes, such as audience halls, meeting halls, and law courts. The basilican model suited Christian purposes very well because it provided adequate interior space for communal gatherings. The horizontal, longitudinal layout of the Christian church-basilica customarily involved placement of the altar at the east end with the entrance on the west front. Depending on size, the main rectangular hall (nave) of the basilica might be subdivided by rows, piers, or columns, creating aisles. Traditionally, the east end terminated in a semi-circular shape called the apse. A transept with projecting arms, running perpendicular to the nave and creating a Latin cross plan for the overall building, also became a common feature. Many basilicas have an enclosed entry porch (narthex) at the west end, and several are preceded by an open-air courtyard (atrium). Old Saint Peter’s in Rome, begun during the time of Constantine, provided the fundamental model of the early Christian basilica. “By the fifth century, every major city in Christendom possessed at least one church on the basilican plan, providing ample room for growing congregations.”

Centrally planned churches (of various layouts: circular, polygonal, and equal-armed cruciform—or “Greek cross” shape), topped by domes, also developed in the early Christian period. Variations on this style became especially characteristic of Byzantine and later Eastern Orthodox forms. An important early Byzantine example is the famous church of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) constructed in the early sixth century in the city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) under the direction of the emperor Justinian (527-65). This massive and complex structure, crowned by an impressive dome, provided inspiration for many later Byzantine structures as well as Islamic mosques, especially in the Ottoman Empire. The minarets (tall slender towers) were added after the mid-15th century when the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque.

The early Christian basilican form has served as the basic model for many Western Christian churches up to the present day. In Western Europe, during the Middle Ages, many of the still-standing and most impressive monuments of Christian art were created. These Romanesque and Gothic buildings, constructed primarily during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, are traditionally regarded as the epitomes of medieval Christian art and devotion—and the forms that have influenced and colored Christian art modes in the modern world as well. During the Gothic era, the use of architectural forms such as pointed arches, rib vaults, and exterior building supports in the form of flying buttresses resulted in the creation of tall and light-filled buildings that are extremely impressive on both the interior and the exterior for their enormous size and loftiness. The Cathedral of Notre Dame of Chartres, France, is one of the most celebrated examples. The art of stained glass developed greatly during the Gothic period, and religious structures were often enhanced with many impressive examples of narrative and symbolic windows of colored glass. Although the production and use of glass (for vessels and small-scale objects) has a very lengthy history, and the technology of glass production dates back to ancient Egypt, the use of colored glass for large-scale windows is especially characteristic of the Gothic period, when architectural advances allowed for the creation of larger windows.

Whether of round-arched Romanesque or rib-vaulted Gothic style during the medieval era, classically inspired Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, dramatic 17th-century Baroque, or decorative 18th-century Rococo, Christian church architecture reflects a very wide range of historical and regional styles. Simple wooden construction is typical of many American vernacular examples, and quaint, white-painted churches are a common sight in the American landscape. Numerous other examples of Christian church architecture, in unique and revolutionary forms, have been created by some of the most notable modern architects, such as the pilgrimage church of Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronchamp, France, designed by Le Corbusier (1887-1965) in the mid-20th century.

What take places within Christian churches, and their degree of interior and exterior decoration, varies widely throughout history and between different branches of the religion. From the earliest periods of Christianity to the present day, much discussion and debate has taken place about the proper role and function of art in the Christian religious context. As heirs to the Old Testament commandments conveyed by God to the ancient Israelites, Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) have been deeply concerned with God’s direction against creating or worshiping “graven images” or “idols.” The fear of committing idolatry via the creation of any forms of religious imagery has been an underlying theme throughout the history of Christian art. Many Christian theologians have argued eloquently for the usefulness of art in providing inspiration and in serving didactic purposes in conveying biblical narratives and messages in visual and appealing form. Pope Gregory I (“the Great,” 590-604) was an early advocate of the educational possibilities of the visual arts, stating, “To adore images is one thing; to teach with their help what should be adored is another. What Scripture is to the educated, images are to the ignorant, who see through them what they must accept; they read in them what they cannot read in books.”

Numerous other Christian authors, however, have been equally eloquent in describing the perilous sinfulness of image creation. This debate was especially heated in the Byzantine world during the eighth- and ninth-century “Iconoclastic Controversy.” During this time period—of complex political dimensions too—religious imagery was banned. Images were destroyed, and the creation of holy images was prohibited. Pro- and counter-arguments were avidly presented. Ultimately, the iconodules (supporters of images) triumphed. After the reaffirmation of images in the Byzantine world (celebrated by the Eastern Church in the Feast of Orthodoxy), the prominent role of icons (from the Greek eikon, “image,” and more specifically, “holy image”) in the liturgy and in private devotions in the Byzantine world continued to be a matter of divergence with the Western Roman Church and ultimately may be seen as one of the several factors contributing to the East-West Schism of 1054.

In the 12th century West, the writings of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (ca. 1090-1153) again represent a type of iconoclastic stance, and the Cistercian monastic order that he revived was known for great austerity and minimal decorative art. His contemporary Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (1081-1151) was, however, one of the greatest art patrons of the time. Suger was responsible for the magnificent renovation and expansion of the Parisian abbey of Saint-Denis in the new Gothic style and produced glowingly written praises of the abilities of the religious arts to raise human spirituality to the highest realms.

The Protestant reformers of the 16th century and later, in stances against the Roman Catholic Church and all associated with it, generally also represent a strongly iconoclastic tendency, eschewing the use of visual art as potentially idolatrous and misguided. There is thus a great variety of religious artistic expression in the history of Christianity. Early Christian churches were often enriched with fresco paintings and mosaics; elaborate interior and exterior sculptural programs characterize the medieval Romanesque and Gothic styles; stained glass windows play a prominent role in the Gothic era; statues and paintings are generally typical of Roman Catholic churches; icons (often in multi-tiered presentation on an iconostasis—icon screen) abound in Orthodox churches; and minimal and often austere decorations (sometimes only a plain cross—lacking the figure of Jesus) may characterize the art associated with specific Protestant denominations.

Just as the forms of art vary widely, so do the forms of worship services that take place within Christian churches. Some branches of Christianity have very elaborate and traditional rites involving the enactment of highly structured rituals that may be performed only by specially trained and authorized figures. Although most all Christian liturgy (from the Greek leitourgia, “work of the people”) is communal and congregational, the roles of the public congregants and the appointed leaders who preside at these rituals vary widely. This is well reflected by the variety of interior furnishings that may be found in Christian churches.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies, for example, focus on the sacrament of Communion and the miraculous “transubstantiation” of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. These sacred mysteries are celebrated at the church altar, led by those trained and authorized to do so, and the congregants are then invited to come forward and partake of these blessings in an orderly and pious fashion. In many Eastern Orthodox churches, the high altar itself is hidden from public view (customarily by a large screen of icons—separating the “most holy” space of the altar from the “holy” space of the church itself), and the congregants do not themselves witness the sacred rites in which they may later be invited to partake via Communion. Protestant Christian groups in general tend to regard the rites of Communion as extremely significant also, but primarily in their purely symbolic and faith-affirming nature as remembrances of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, the interior spaces of Protestant churches may place far less emphasis on a prominently positioned church altar and rather more emphasis on a pulpit or podium from which scriptural readings and sermons may be delivered. The importance of the rite of adult baptism (by partial or full immersion) is reflected by the interior accouterments of many Baptist churches, and the importance of personal faith and healing testimonials is reflected in Christian Science churches often by the arrangement of prominent and dual podiums from which church leaders may encourage speakers to describe their healing experiences.


Religious imagery plays a prominent role in the history of Christianity. Images of holy figures (such as Jesus, Mary, the apostles, and saintly martyrs) and scenes depicting episodes from their lives have been created through the centuries in a variety of styles and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, the production of visual and figurative imagery in the service of the Christian religion (for teaching or devotional purposes) has been a source of intense discussion up to the present day. Some Protestant branches of Christianity eschew the use of visual/narrative imagery altogether, whereas the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have traditionally made maximal use of figural art for worship-directed practices. The following selections have been chosen to demonstrate the richness and diversity of Christian imagery as well as the changes in style and interpretation represented by different time periods. With literally thousands of examples to choose from, the following selections are simply a small sample focusing on depictions of the key figures and events in the Christian religion.

Three Images of Mary and Jesus

These three images represent quite different interpretations of the same subject matter: Mary and the infant Jesus. They are vastly different in style, format, and technique. Their differences not only reflect their art historical contexts but also can be seen as significant reflections of important theological issues concerning the role and position of Mary and her relationship to Jesus.

The earliest image is a Byzantine icon that was produced, probably in the city of Constantinople, in the late sixth century. This particular icon is one of the rare survivals from the early Byzantine period; it was produced before the Iconoclastic Controversy. It was created in encaustic (colored wax pigments) on a wooden panel. The second example (the Madonna of Vladimir) is also a Byzantine icon. It was created in Constantinople in the late 11th or early 12th century. This later image was produced long after the period of Iconoclastic Controversy in the Byzantine world. It was created with egg tempera paint on a wooden panel.

The third example was also painted with egg tempera on a wooden panel. It was created ca. 1465-67 during the Italian Renaissance period by the artist Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69).

Comparing these three similar images is extremely useful in tracking the changes in, and diversity represented by, Christian art forms from different historical and style periods. Although all of the works primarily focus the viewer’s attention on the holy figures themselves, there are many notable differences between the three images. The early icon depicts Mary seated on a chair, facing forward, holding the infant Jesus on her lap. Mary and Jesus are flanked by two saintly figures on either side, and two heavenward-looking angels appear behind them. The composition is extremely symmetrical and formal in appearance. The infant Jesus and the two saints (traditionally identified as Saints Theodore and George—both later saints who lived long after the time of Mary and Jesus) all stare straight out at the viewer. Mary gazes slightly off to the right. All of the figures appear solemn and serious. The viewer thus sees that this is a significant and formal work of art, whose intention was to convey the theological importance of these sacred figures. Mary, at the center of the composition, is shown as the holy person who miraculously gave birth to the Son of God. She is the “God-bearer” (or Theotokos)—a title that she formally received in the preceding century at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Jesus is the God-being seated on her lap whom she presents to the viewer but with whom she otherwise demonstrates little interaction or motherly affection.

The later Byzantine icon (the Madonna of Vladimir) shows a quite different level of interaction between Mary and Jesus. In contrast to the frontal formality of the earlier image, this later icon depicts the infant Jesus snuggling up to his mother’s cheek while she tenderly supports him on her arm. This icon has been frequently restored and over-painted so that only the faces of Mary and Jesus are close to their original appearance. The disproportionate body of the infant Jesus and the dramatic gold highlighting on his garment are largely the result of later additions. This panel was given as a gift by the Patriarch of Constantinople to the Grand Duke of Kiev in Russia in the early 12th century and ultimately was taken to the city of Vladimir (hence its name). Believed to be a wonder-working image, it was taken to Moscow in the late 14th century and, according to tradition, protected the city of Moscow from Mongol invasions of the time. The image was employed in such a capacity at several later periods in Russian history as well. The Theotokos (Mary) is seen as the holy protectress of Russia.

This icon presents a much more maternal and loving relationship between the two holy figures than the earlier pre-iconoclastic version. This type, known in Greek as the Eleousa and in Russian as Umoleniye (“merciful” or “loving kindness”), developed in the post-iconoclastic period as a reflection of continued theological discussions about the position of Mary and the divine/human nature of Jesus. A comparison between the two panels also indicates significant changes in art style; the works “were surely made in worlds with different expectations regarding what a representation was and what effect it was expected to create.”

The desire to represent the visible nature of Christ resulted in the emphasis on his human aspect, and the representation of the human nature is necessarily tied to the miracle of the incarnation through the Virgin Mary. Her human qualities rather than her utility as a source of doctrine had to be brought out directly, and emphasizing her motherhood was the most obvious means of achieving this.

In images of this later type (and numerous variations exist in Byzantine and Russian art on the overall theme of Mary and the infant Jesus), the emphasis is on the emotional relationship between the two figures. Warmth, tenderness, mercy, and sorrow combine in Mary’s expression of motherly care and compassion for her son and his ultimate sacrificial and redemptive role. Although intense emotion and powerful spiritual messages are conveyed in images of this sort, all icons generally adhere to strict guidelines and traditions of image and presentation format. The figures are meant to be seen as holy and sacred, existing in a spiritual rather than earthly realm.

This poses a great contrast to the depiction of the Madonna with Child and Two Angels created by the Italian Renaissance artist Fra Filippo Lippi, in the mid-15th century. In contrast to the frontal formality and expressive stylization of the Byzantine icons, Lippi’s image shows a very worldly Madonna, elegantly dressed in the finest Florentine fashion of the day. She is seated on an elaborate chair in front of a window through which a detailed landscape can be seen. The infant Jesus is presented here as a plump child who reaches out to touch his mother’s shoulder. He is supported by a mischievous-looking angel who smiles out at the viewer. Another angel can be glimpsed behind the main figures. Although some traditional religious symbolism can be seen in this work—Mary and Jesus both have thin golden haloes over their heads (indicating their holiness), and the prominent pearl on Mary’s headdress as well as the coastline and water in the far distance may refer to theological commentaries describing Jesus as the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46) and Mary as the “star of the sea”—the overall impression of this work bespeaks the artist’s “enthusiasm for the beauties of light and atmosphere, rocks and fruitful plains, cities and soft cloud masses, lovely young women and healthy babies, tasteful garments and splendid furnishings.” Indeed, the holy figures here appear to have specific portrait-like qualities, as if they are representations of actual people known by the artist, painted from life. This may in fact be the case.

In any event, Lippi’s Madonna typifies, in many ways, the humanization of sacred subject matter and the interest in earthly realism characteristic of the Renaissance period in Western art. “Renaissance” means “re-birth” and is used to describe the interests of post-medieval writers and artists in the works of literature, philosophy, and art from ancient Greece and Rome. At the same time, the continued dominance of the Christian religion inspired artists and writers of the Renaissance period to create works that convey and reinforce Christian themes in a classically styled manner. Lippi’s work certainly exemplifies these trends and is worlds apart from the earlier examples—although the artistic subject is the same.

Three Images of the Crucifixion of Jesus

Although the death and resurrection of Jesus is a fundamental aspect of the Christian belief system, images of the crucifixion of Jesus have varied greatly through the ages. The death of Jesus on the cross, his subsequent return to life, and the importance this holds for all Christian believers have been interpreted and depicted variously through the centuries. Nevertheless, the crucifixion of Jesus was not one of the very first subjects depicted in Christian art. Although crosses are found in early Christian art, the subject of the crucifixion itself appears to have been avoided at first. A number of scholars have speculated that this may have been because early Christians preferred to focus on Jesus’s victory over death rather than on his torture and disgraceful public execution as a criminal in the Roman Empire. When crucifixion was outlawed in the Roman Empire under the emperor Constantine, the image of Jesus’s death on the cross gradually entered the pictorial vocabulary of Christian imagery and has evolved with different emphases ever since.

The early fifth-century ivory plaque illustrated shows one of the very earliest images of the crucifixion. It was probably made in Rome and is a small work measuring about three by four inches. It is one of four panels (now separated) that originally must have formed the sides of a small box, or “casket.” The exact function of these small decorated caskets is unknown; perhaps they were used to hold relics or other holy objects. Each of the four plaques contains one or two narrative scenes carved in relief. These include Pilate washing his hands, Jesus carrying the cross, the Marys and angel at the empty tomb, and doubting Thomas. The scene of the suicide of Judas and the crucifixion of Jesus appear together on one panel. The other figures represented as present at the crucifixion are Mary and Saint John (to the left) and Longinus (the Roman soldier who pierced the body of Jesus with his spear). The inscription above the head of Jesus reads REX IUD (AEORUM), meaning “King of the Jews.”

Taken as a whole, the subjects shown on the casket provide a succinct pictorial narrative of the events in the final days of the life of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection. His death, however, is definitely de-emphasized. Although the figure of Judas is clearly shown dead—with closed eyes and lifeless body hanging from the tree—Jesus is depicted as vigorous, muscular, and alert. His eyes are open, and he seems to be standing upright on or in front of the cross, rather than hanging from it. His pose, outstretched arms, and facial expression give no indication of pain or suffering. Jesus is depicted as triumphant over death, a message that is repeated in the vignette of the mother bird feeding her chicks in a nest—found in the tree branch bending toward the body of Jesus. “The first Christians wished to emphasize that Christ was risen, that is, he had overcome death and conquered evil. He would come again to judge the living and the dead. This was what mattered to them.” This early depiction of the crucifixion and the related scenes on the other ivory panels certainly well emphasize these themes.

A vastly different image of the crucifixion was created many centuries later by the German painter Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1475/80-1528). The central panel of his complex and multifaceted work, The Isenheim Altarpiece (ca. 1510-15), depicts a scene of extreme horror. The physical suffering of Jesus on the cross is conveyed in detail. His body is covered with sores; blood pours from his side and from the wounds of the nails in his twisted feet and hands. His arms pull from their sockets with the weight of his slumping body, which also pulls down the top bar of the cross. His face falls forward; his mouth is open, and his eyes are closed. The dead Jesus, placed in the center of the composition against a dark landscape background, is accompanied by the mourning figures of Saint John and Mary (who is shown collapsing with grief), the kneeling figure of Mary Magdalene convulsed in anguish at the foot of the cross, and the figure of Saint John the Baptist holding a book and pointing at Jesus. The Latin inscription next to John reads, “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John the Baptist had announced the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, the sacrificial Lamb of God, which theme is also amplified by the small cross-bearing lamb bleeding into a chalice at John’s feet.

Much has transpired in Christian imagery and history since the early ivory plaque was created, reflective of continued theological discussion regarding the human and divine aspects of Jesus. Images of the crucifixion that show Jesus clearly dead or dying began to appear during the early medieval period and became more common and accepted by the 10th and 11th centuries in both Western Europe and the Eastern Byzantine realms. Also during the Middle Ages, a number of new artistic themes developed, many based on a growing body of mystical and visionary literature. Images such as the Pietà (Pity, Mary holding the dead body of Jesus), the Man of Sorrows (Jesus wounded and suffering), the Arma Christi (Instruments of the Passion), and other devotional images designed to inspire a deeply emotional response from viewers became highly popular, especially in northern Europe.

Grünewald’s well-studied work needs to be understood within this overall context as well as within the particular circumstances for which it was created. Commissioned by the monastic order of Saint Anthony in Isenheim, the altarpiece was designed to be placed in a chapel connected to the hospital run by the Antonines. Among the sick cared for were

particularly those afflicted with St. Anthony’s fire or ergotism, a disease causing horrific lesions and eruptions of the skin. A new patient was brought first before the altarpiece in the chapel in the hope of a cure through direct divine intervention. If such a miracle did not occur, the patient at least had the consolation of knowing that Christ’s sufferings were like his.

The side panels on the front of the altarpiece depict two other figures who suffered greatly but who ultimately triumphed: Saint Sebastian (an early Christian martyr who was tortured by being shot full of arrows—often invoked against the plague and other diseases) and Saint Anthony himself (the patron of the order—whose torments by demons are vividly recounted in stories of his life and graphically depicted on an inner panel of the altarpiece). The altarpiece is a polyptych with multiple hinged panels. Grünewald’s work continues on successive openings with scenes including the Annunciation, the Madonna and Child, episodes in the lives of Saints Anthony and Paul the Hermit, and a brilliant image of the resurrection that shows Jesus rising from his tomb with a fully healed and glowing body. It is a highly complex work, an excellent example of the evolution and changes in Christian imagery as well as a special testimony to the needs and concerns of its time.

The crucifixion, one of the most frequent images in Christian art, has been depicted in all centuries and continues to provide a powerful motif for modern and contemporary artists. In the 20th century, the French painter Georges Rouault (1871-1958) produced several versions of the subject. He became a devout Catholic, and his early training as a stained glass artist may be reflected in his unique style characterized by dark black outlines and glowing patches of color. Rouault’s style is akin to, but also diverges from, the early 20th-century art movements with which he is sometimes associated, such as Fauvism and Expressionism. Like many of his contemporaries, Rouault worked in an abstract style while maintaining an interest in the representation of recognizable imagery. He was a highly prolific artist whose subjects ranged widely; however, religious imagery was always extremely important to him. He once said, “Art, the art that I aspire to, will be the most profound, the most complete, the most moving expression of what man feels when he finds himself face to face with himself and his humanity. Art should be a … passionate confession, the translation of the inner life.”

In his Christ on the Cross (1939), the traditional elements of the subject are present. The enlarged figure of Jesus on the cross dominates the center of the composition; the accompanying figures of Mary and John appear to the right side of the cross, and Mary Magdalene kneels to the left. Minimal landscape details are indicated, and the figures are quite simplified, consisting of carefully rendered color patches encased in Rouault’s typically broad black outlines. Although he has followed the traditional iconography of the crucifixion, Rouault’s rendition is a highly personal expression as well. We sense that the artist’s own feelings inspired this work. “This is not just a painting for public art, to be viewed from afar. It is the artist’s deeply felt personal response to the Crucifixion which in turn seems to require a personal response from the viewer.”

This brief selection of crucifixion imagery—from the early Christian period, through the northern Renaissance, and to the 20th century—indicates how this most-important event for Christianity has been continually reinterpreted by visual artists through the ages. It remains, regardless of style, format, and artistic interpretation, one of the most recognizable and distinctive of Christian images.