ART through the AGES: through the lens of ‘The Parable of the two sons’

ART through the AGES: through the lens of ‘The Parable of the two sons’

 ‘The artist is a witness of the invisible. Arts give expression to the beauty of faith’ – Pope Francis

Undoubtedly the Church has been the greatest patron of art over centuries. Painters and sculptors laboured generously to fill places of worship with marvellous art forms. Art was perceived as a medium of transition of faith and remission of sins. But when and where did it all begin? Today’s article will take us through the history and development of Christian art through the pictorial lens of the ‘Parable of the two sons.’ (Matthew 21: 28 – 32). Let’s begin at the beginning.

The art of the catacombs: (200 – 325 C.E)

Identifiable Christian art can be traced to the late 2nd century and early 3rd century. As the burial practice of the people of Rome changed from cremation to inhumation, huge catacombs were dug into the ground to bury the dead. The catacombs had chambers and were decorated with imagery and symbols familiar to the early Christians. Regular threats of persecution added impetus to the practice.

Byzantine Period: (330 – 1453 AD)

The next stage refers to the art of the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital Byzantium or Constantinople. Ornate in style, its illustrations were dominated by stiffness and formality. Figures were frontal, elongated and abstracted i.e. removed from reality. They featured against a gold background which represented heaven. Thus the artists focused not on the physical (the earthly) but the spiritual (the heavenly).

However this period also marked the dawn of iconoclasm (hostility and destruction of images). Icons (Greek for images) were seen as an aversion of the 1st commandment. This convulsed the Byzantine Empire for nearly 150 years.

Late Gothic Period: (1200 – 1400)

We now move to the Late Gothic period. This stage is identified by a transition from medieval abstraction to the naturalism of the Renaissance. The artist in consideration is Giotto. Art during this time received patronage from wealthy individuals and families. They did this to secure their spiritual position in heaven and their social seat on earth.

The figures lost their frontality, had volume and emotions. Modeling or creation of an illusion of light and shadow was employed. There was also the revival of the classical interest in anatomy and proportion. Finally, this period pronounced a shift in the setting. The artist was now concerned with the physical or the earthly space as opposed to the heavenly space. Figures sat, stood and moved.

High Renaissance Period: (1500’s)

 The words ‘Art’ and ‘Renaissance’ are often aligned. In art history the word ‘Renaissance’ signifies ‘the rebirth of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome (or classical antiquity).’ This period is highly reminiscent of the legendary artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. What was so special about their art?

The single most characteristic was ‘naturalism’ or representing the ‘seen’ world as it is.  This is observed not only in the features of the figures but also in the landscape beyond. There is a representation of depth at a diminishing scale (atmospheric perspective). Figures boasted of an increased anatomical appreciation and graceful complex movement.


As the artistic journey plunged forward, it encountered the eras of Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, Neo classicalism, Romanticism and Realism. These periods manifested a feast of styles and contributed to the development of Christian art.

Modern Indian art:

Our final halt is the modern period of art. This will be considered through an Indian pictorial perspective. Several modern Indian artists such as Jamini Roy, Suhas Roy, Jehangir Sabavala, M.F Hussain portrayed the human and divine nature of Christ through conceptual and symbolic means. Their art spoke of a return to the simplification and abstraction of the early ages.  It lent itself to an interpretation by a generation familiar with photography sans inclination to create reality.

Modern Indian art illustration of the parable; An imitation of Jamini Roy’s drawings

This then was a brief understanding of the journey of Christian art through the ages. Undeniably art was employed to create a bridge between the visible and the invisible and thus uplift the human spirit!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum


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