Christian art

A term which may be applied to the fine arts either when they are representative of Christian ideals, or when they are used directly in the service of the Church. The beginnings of art inspired and guided by the Christian religion are found in the Roman catacombs. In the earliest days of the Church the decoration of these burial-places, in imitation of the earlier Roman custom, gradually developed a symbolism which represented Christian truths to the initiated. The triumph of Christianity under Constantine, in the 4th century, permitted a freer decoration of the catacombs, and the first churches, basilicas adapted from the plan of Roman courts, offered wall-spaces which were soon filled with mosaic figures of Christ and His Apostles, or with scenes from the Old Testament. These served not only to adorn the house of God, but also to instruct the faithful. As Saint Gregory said: “The picture is to the illiterate what the written word is to the educated”; and it was the growing importance of this phase of art that led later to strict rules governing the representation of Bible scenes or incidents from the lives of the saints. With the emergence of the Church from the catacombs came also the beginnings of Christian sculpture, in sarcophagi of stone or marble adorned with carvings typifying belief in immortality. Constantine’s capital, the former Byzantium, became the new art center of the world and the Byzantine art developed there under the patronage of the Church, preserving art through the ages when western Europe was overrun by barbarians. A temporary rebirth of art in the West, where it had persisted at least in church architecture under the Merovingian kings, was fostered by the schools of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries. Everywhere too the great monasteries offered an ideal shelter for the development of arts, as at Mount Athos, Cluny, Monte Cassino, or Fulda. Miniature, perfected in the illumination of Bibles, had a large part in the development of wall-painting. Moreover the spread of religious orders carried art from one country to another, and Crusade and pilgrimage helped in the same way.

Italian art, which gradually replaced Byzantine and substituted nature for the stiff formalism of the latter, had its birth in the tender piety of Saint Francis of .Assisi. Giotto and his followers inaugurated a reverent but human treatment of religious themes, which was developed through such artists as Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, the Bellini, and Perugino, and crowned by the glorious masterpieces of Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Titian, and Tintoretto. In Flanders, too, religious art progressed from exquisitely spiritual beginnings in the work of the Van Eycks, through Memling and Quentin Matsys, to the great achievements of Rubens and Van Dyck. In Germany the highly religious School of Cologne fostered an art that grew to maturity in Durer, and Holbein. In Spain religious art flourished early in architecture and handicraft, and reached its climax in painting, later than the rest of Europe, with Velasquez and Murillo. For centuries art was devoted almost exclusively to the decoration of church, or monastery, or commemorative chapel. It was only during the Renaissance that the adornment of homes or public building took on any importance. Even the lesser arts were developed mainly in the service of the Church, in illuminated manuscripts, carved ivories, sacred vessels of wrought gold or silver, jeweled clasps, memorial brasses, embroidered vestments, rich tapestries, and silken hangings.

In architecture, churches are the living monuments of the influence of religion. Basilicas in Rome, Asia Minor, or northern Africa; Byzantine edifices of Constantinople, Italy, or France; Romanesque churches in southern Europe; Norman in France and England; marvels of Gothic architecture which were the glory of the 13th century, as the cathedrals at Chartres, Rheims, York, or Cologne; Renaissance churches, like Saint Peter’s in Rome, which adapted the classic styles to the uses of Christianity; even the over-elaborate Barocco edifices; all these still testify to the fact that the glorification of religion was the chief preoccupation of artist and artisan almost to the 17th century. In medieval France sculpture and stained glass achieved what painting did in Italy, and religious truth was taught in chiseled portico or glowing window. In Italy and Germany, too, sculpture had its place, and the names of such artists as Donatello, the Pisani, Ghiberti, Della Robbia, Veit Stoss, Peter Vischer, and Adam Krafft are associated with carved ornamentation, baptismal fonts, bronze doors and tombs, altars of stone or wood.

The preponderating influence of religion in art ended with the Reformation and the rise of Puritanism. In Germany and England there was no longer a place for art in the church. Elsewhere, too, after the Renaissance a growing luxury offered a new field to art, and kings and wealthy patrons replaced popes and cardinals in employing artists. Religion however still inspired important movements in art, as in the creation of what was called the “Jesuit style” in architecture, typified by the Gesu in Rome, a protest against Reformation coldness; or in the German return to primitive religious simplicity, inaugurated early in the 19th century by Overbeck and the Nazarenes, Schadow and the School of Dusseldorf. The English Preraphaelites were inspired by the religious ideais of medieval Italy, and in our own day an important movement in ecclesiastical art is sponsored by the Benedictines of Beuron.

see also

  • architecture
  • brasses
  • catacombs
  • ivory
  • manuscripts
  • painting
  • sculpture
  • vestments