Christian Art 101 – An Introduction
‘Throughout history, art has been second only to life in bearing witness to the Lord. It was, and remains, a majestic road allowing us more than by words and ideas to approach the faith, because it follows the same path of faith, that of beauty. The beauty of art enriches life and creates communion, because it unites God, man and creation in a single symphony. It connects the past, the present and the future, and it attracts – in the same place and with the same gaze – different and far-off peoples.’ – Pope Francis
The Holy Catholic Church has fostered a fruitful dialogue with the arts and the artists throughout centuries. This dialogue has always been rooted in creed and creativity making the Church one of the greatest patrons of art and today one of the largest reservoirs of her works. The artistic language of Christian faith has varied forms. They include: paintings (frescoes, murals, encaustic, oil, tempera, enamel); sculptures; architecture; decorative arts (stained glass, mosaics); illuminated manuscripts; embroidery etc.
It is important to note that the inspiration for Christian art began as a scriptural symbolic code. The fish, the bread, the anchor, the boat, the shepherd, the raised hands and several other illustrations discovered in the early catacombs evoked mystery to memory and established the secretive voice of faith.
In 313 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great issued the famous Edict of Milan which legalized ‘the Way’ while in 380 AD Emperor Theodosius I adopted Christianity as the Empire’s sole authorized religion. Both these political developments provided a fresh breath of freedom to religious art. Majestic Basilicas were built, modified and decorated in the East and the West Roman Empire in order to meet the needs of the growing Christian community.
Since the papacy of Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604 AD), ample emphasis was placed upon the use of religious representations as catechesis to the unlettered and as a visual supplementation to worship. Scenes from the life of Christ were painted upon the walls of Churches and illuminated liturgical manuscripts. Artists rendered an indispensable service to public and private prayer.
The doctrines of the Church such as the Incarnation, the Immaculate Conception, the dual nature of Christ, the Resurrection, the Trinity, the Transfiguration were expressed and explained through art. Parables were preached through paintings and emotions stirred through sculptures. Symbolism operated as a new vehicle of meditation.
Undeniably, the Sacred Scriptures provided immense vocabulary to the artists. The narratives of the Old and the New Testament encouraged them to enliven the story of Salvation. The creation, the flood, the patriarchs, the exodus, the kings, the prophets and the overall struggle of faith ignited their minds and fired their souls as they humbly attempted to express that which can hardly be understood.
The history of Christian art is also a reflection of the artists and their audience, the patrons and the periods, the cultures and the communities, leaders and liabilities as well as institutions and intuitions of society. Thus art was at the heart of faith and civilization.
Along the path, Christian art has encountered several controversies – be it the Iconoclastic crises in the early centuries, the challenges of the Counter-Reformation or the indifference of the modern day believer. Nevertheless, art continues to find its way to bridge together the human and the divine world. The Church needs art and the arts need the Church to cultivate and convey the temporary in pursuit of the eternal.
Joynel Fernandes- Ast. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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Image: a detail from Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, Sistine Chapel