An Introduction to Religious Wall Art
Religious artworks have a long history in the canon of Western art and the history of humanity.
Some of our earliest known artistic artifacts celebrate deities and fertility myths. The voluptuous Austrian Venus of Willendorf (likely carved 24,000 years ago) is one such example. It’s a truly enigmatic item suggesting humanity’s early search for truth and beauty.
As Christianity became the predominant power, shaping European culture and creativity, its influence is seen across the globe. Renaissance religious art produced some of the most astounding paintings of Christ and biblical passages. Artists and patrons alike created inspiring objects of worship and devotion.
To this day, religious art maintains its power to communicate biblical narratives and utmost beauty to the religious and non-religious alike. In this article, we introduce some of the most famous religious art of all time.
What Is Religious Art?
Defined as any artwork inspired by religion – religious art aims to uplift and concentrate the mind on spiritual matters. It is far more than a painting depicting biblical themes however, as religious art also serves a practical purpose of spiritual realization.
In this context, we address Christian religious wall art; paintings that support, clarify or explore the main messages of the religion. Historically, the most common form of historical religious art has been architecture. From Stonehenge to the Egyptian Pyramids and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, religious and political authorities have frequently turned to art and buildings to impress and influence their congregations.
Christian art in particular aimed to express a message of an ordered universe. This consequently contributed to the preservation of social order. But it came with a price. Popes Julius II and Leo X almost bankrupted the Church in the first decades of the sixteenth century. Their spending prompted criticisms of corruption and opulence within the church, which became a key cause of the Reformation.
Renaissance Religious Art: Italy
Renaissance religious art was born and matured in Italy. Financed by church leaders and wealthy families such as the Medici, it represented a significant shift in publicly sponsored art. It was during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel (including the Creation of Adam) and Leonardo da Vinci created the Last Supper masterpiece.
Other masterpieces of the early Italian renaissance include paintings by Rafaello Sansio da Urbano, more familiarly known as Raphael. Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1512) and The Transfiguration (1516). The transfiguration refers to Christ’s reappearance in radiant glory to three of his disciples.
Venice was particularly notable for its outstanding “Old Master” religious painters, especially Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese. Titian’s brilliant focus on vivid colors and dynamic compositions (best represented in works such as The Entombment, 1572) were taken to their fullest extent by a later contemporary, the Baroque painter, Caravaggio.
Caravaggio’s pioneering use of “chiaroscuro” (the dramatic treatment of light and shade) brought religious passages into sharp focus. The Calling of St Matthew (1600) depicts the moment Jesus Christ (accompanied by St Peter) inspires Matthew to become his disciple. Caravaggio heightens the drama of this simple scene, with a single shaft of light illuminating the shocked men.
Renaissance Religious Art: Spain
Whilst Rome remained the center of religious art – Spanish religious paintings and devotional art began to thrive in the late sixteenth century. Although hailing from Crete, El Greco was one of its leading proponents. Paintings such as The Tears of Saint Peter (1587) exemplify his mannerist approach. Building on the work of early Italian renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo – El Greco focused on idealized proportion, balance and elegance.
El Greco’s deliberate distortions and focus on aesthetic compositions inspired another Spanish master – Diego Velázquez. In Christ Crucified (1632), Velázquez produced one of the most famous paintings of Christ of all time. In a simplified, symmetrical work – it expresses the awe and mystery of the crucifixion moment. Christ shines out against a jet-black backdrop. As a life-size frontal nude, it presents a unique masterly fusion of serenity, surrender, dignity and nobility.
Later Spanish masters included Bartolome Esteban Murillo. Murillo tackled the difficult subject of the Immaculate Conception. In this work, Mary is presented as an angelic beauty, surrounded by cherubins and heavenly light. Murillo also produced some stunning paintings of Christ including two versions of Ecce Homo 1660 and Ecce Homo 1670.
Religious Art: Northern Europe
Altarpiece art was a common feature of Northern renaissance religious art. It remains a source of inspiration, expounded by modern abstract artists such as Hilma af Klint (for instance in Altarpiece No.1).
Religious art was largely propounded in Northern Europe by Peter Paul Rubens and the Flemish Baroque school (in terrifying realism with paintings such as Fall of the Damned). Rembrandt van Rijn (the undisputed master of the Dutch Golden Age) was also a leading proponent. Rembrandt often tackled biblical stories with his characteristic sense of everyday life and humanity. This includes the tale of the prodigal son, shown in The Prodigal Son in a Brothel and Return of the Prodigal Son (1669).
Whilst the eighteenth and nineteenth century saw a gradual decline in religious art, there were some notable exceptions. Geo-political developments such as the French and Russian revolutions meant that secular work predominated. Despite this, artists such as Vincent Van Gogh were inspired by earlier masters. Van Gogh conducted many studies, including Pieta after Delacroix (1889) and The Good Samaritan after Delacroix (1890).
Although better known for his post-impressionist masterpieces, depicting French Polynesia in dazzling color, Paul Gauguin also tackled religious themes. He was a personal friend of Vincent van Gogh. Indeed, Van Gogh’s famous depression and breakdown was partly in response to a failed attempt to establish an artist community with Gaugin. One can see the artists’ revolutionary treatment of religious topics in works such as The Yellow Christ and Jacob Wrestling the Angel and The Vision after the Sermon. So different from anything before, religious art would never be the same again.
With an unrivaled collection of canvas wall art, we are sure you will enjoy browsing our collection of famous religious oil painting reproductions.