Christianity in the Visual Arts

The doctrine of the Incarnation is that God appeared in human form in the person of Jesus. One implication of it is that visual representations of Jesus, and even of God, are not idolatrous but may be beneficial aids to worship and devotion. Unlike the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, Christianity offers a vast array of paintings, stained glass windows, and statues representing all the figures in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. For centuries the most prestigious genre of painting was the large sacred history canvas, which depicted some episode in the Bible or in the lives of the saints.

All these paintings were of course objects of beauty, but they took their place in the effort that the church made to convey the gospel message to largely illiterate congregations who perhaps could not understand the Latin of the mass and could not even hear the sermon (if there was one). The walls of medieval parish churches were usually covered by brightly-colored frescoes illustrating the truths that most of the congregation could hardly get in any other form.

Architecture also was designed to inspire feelings of awe. As Erasmus said of Canterbury Cathedral in the early sixteenth century, it “struck religion into the heart from afar.” The various styles of Gothic, Romanesque, and Baroque architecture continue to be reflected even in some of the churches and cathedrals built in the twentieth century.

The visual arts in the service of Christianity can be appreciated simply as beautiful things; but the more fully they are understood, the more deeply will they be appreciated. Knowledge of the Bible stories and about some of the more often depicted saints is of course a prerequisite, but it is also necessary to grasp the visual codes which inform them. Architecture signifies by the way the buildings are laid out and the furniture of the various elements of them. Iconology analyzes how the visual symbols in sculpture and especially in painting work in the context of the images available to the artist and his or her viewers. A study of Christianity in the visual arts introduces one to a new language and way of seeing, just as their meaning complements that of theologians, imaginative writers, and composers.