From the earliest ages of Christianity painting has served religion, and religion painting.
Representations of dogmatic truth on the walls of the Catacombs show the close connection between religion and painting, and for centuries prior to the Renaissance the chief province of art was the decoration of churches and monasteries for the instruction and edification of the faithful.
Pope Gregory the Great said, "The picture is to the illiterate what the written word is to the educated."
Artists and scholars worked in close collaboration and the mind of the theologian guided the hand of the painter in depicting biblical scenes or episodes from the lives of the saints.
The cloister offered an ideal atmosphere of peace and leisure for fostering artistic talent, and the illumination of Bible or missal led naturally, in the case of the gifted, to the decoration of church or monastery walls.
Moreover, through the spread of the religious orders the various arts were carried from one country to another.
As patrons, popes and prelates excelled, e.g., to mention only a few, Pope Boniface VIII, Pope Martin V, Pope Julius II, Pope Sixtus IV, Pope Leo X, and Pope Innocent X.
Recent excavations in Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor have brought to light examples of religious painting dating from the first centuries after Constantine's championship of Christianity (313).
In Rome after the emergence of the Christians from the Catacombs the barbarian invasions prevented the development of art, but in Constantine's capital on the Bosporus Byzantine art developed.
Characterized by rigidity and splendor, it felt, for a time, the restraining influence of the Iconoclasts (725-880), determined to do away with pictorial or sculptured representation of sacred subjects, but the opposition of the Church to their narrow doctrines brought a rebirth to painting in the 9th century.
It was carried into Italy by the Crusades and there its formalism was gradually replaced by more natural treatment.
Cimabue was the originator of this humanized art of the 13th century, which the genius of Giotto set more firmly on its way.
The influence of Saint Francis, through the tender piety which he inspired, was so great that he is often called its father.
The Sienese school, including Duccio di Buoninsegua, Simone Martini, and the Lorenzetti brothers, produced beautiful example of a reverent familiarity in treating religious themes; the somewhat later work of Orcagna shows a growing realism.
The etherealized beauty of Fra Angelico's saints and angels marks the transition to the work of the early Florentines, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Ghirlandajo, Botticelli, and Benozzo Gozzoli.
The human element and the faithful representation of nature grow in importance.
The Early Renaissance is ushered in by the Paduan Mantegna; the Bellini, and Carpaccio in Venice; and by the Umbrians, Da Forli, Perugino, and Pinturrichio.
The High Renaissance belongs to the period of the Ginque Gento (the "five hundreds," in reality the fifteen hundreds), the golden age of Italian painting, illuminated by the names of Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio, and Da Vinci.
Technique now reached perfection, and fidelity to nature and to the classic ideal left no room for any traces of earlier stiffness and restraint.
In the Venetians of the period, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, there is such freedom, such reveling in gorgeous color and in brilliant pageantry that they are unjustly accused of paganism in spite of fine achievement in essentially religious subjects.
An effort to stem the tide of too great freedom is evident in the works of Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Sarto, Domenichino and the Caracci.
The end of the Renaissance comes with Tiepolo.
Paralleling the development of painting in Italy we have the schools that flourished north of the Alps.
The spirituality of the early Flemish artists, the Van Eycks and Roger van der Weyden, is blended with a more human quality in the later Memling and Quentin Matsys.
During the Renaissance we have the masterpieces of the great Germans, Holbein, Durer, and Hans Burgkmair, and after the glory of Rubens and of Van Dyck there is a return, in the early 19th century, to a more religious simplicity in the work of Overbeck and the Nazarenes in Germany.
A somewhat similar movement was inaugurated in England by the Pre-raphaelites, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, and Holman Hunt.
In America the name of John La Farge stands out prominently in religious painting.
In medieval France, preoccupied with the decoration of Gothic cathedrals in which great wall-spaces were lacking, painting gave way to the development of stained glass.
Later art took a more worldly turn under the influence of the court, the names of Nicholas Poussin and Claude Gellee in the 16th century being the only notable ones in religious painting.
In the 19th century, however, religion inspired much of the work of Ingres, Delaroche, and Delacroix.
More recently the names of Tissot, Puvis de Chavannes.
Dagnan-Bouveret, and Lhermitte are notable.
Few of the early religious painters of Spain won lasting fame; after 1500, however, there are several great names.
EI Greco (Theotocupoli) carried into the peninsula the influence of the Venetians.
Herrera the Elder and his son established a typically national school.
The naturalism of Ribera shows the influence of the Italian, Caravaggio.
Murillo recalls the work of Del Sarto and Carlo Dolci.
In the religious paintings of Goya a return to the spirit of the later Renaissance is evident.
New Catholic Dictionary