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.

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