The Christian Bible
The source for all Christian art, the Bible (also called "the scriptures") is made up of two parts: The Old Testament (OT) and The New Testament (NT). The OT, which consists of 46 books, beginning with the story of the Creation, was written in Hebrew and was inherited from the sacred writings of the Jews. Later, during the 3rd century, it was translated into Greek. The NT is smaller: it contains only 27 books, including the four Gospels, and was written in Greek. (A number of unofficial books, called 'Apocryphal Gospels', were also written. These non-canonical writings were rejected by church authorities, but were widely read in the Middle Ages for the picturesque details they provided on the life of Christ, Mary and the Apostles.) During the period of Early Christian Art (c.150-350), there was no standardized text for any part of the Bible. Then, beginning about 385, Saint Jerome wrote a Latin version of both Testaments, called the Vulgate edition (Latin was considered a 'vulgar' tongue) which is still accepted by both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.
In general, the term "Biblical/Bible Art" refers to all visual art derived from stories in the Old or New Testaments - including stories from the Apocryphal Gospels, like Judith and Holofernes, and Susanna and the Elders, which were popular in Renaissance art in Rome, as well as in the Neapolitan School, as well as in later Mannerist and Baroque painting (1550-1700). In fact, one might say that all Christian art is a form of "Biblical Art", since the message of Christ derives exclusively from the Scriptures. In any event, the history of art in the West has been dominated by the illustration of Biblical stories in almost every major media, including: painting and sculpture, as well as mosaic art and icons. Many different types of decorative art - most famously the beautiful stained glass in Gothic cathedrals - have been used to illustrate scenes from the Bible, as have crafts like goldsmithing and metalwork. Bible art has also been widely pictorialized in Renaissance and Baroque churches through the use of breathtaking quadratura frescoes (like the Assumption of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1524-30), by Correggio), as well as extensive wall paintings, exemplified by the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel Frescoes (c.1303-10), by Giotto; the Brancacci Chapel Frescoes (1424-8) in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, by Masaccio; and the Sistine Chapel Frescoes in the Vatican (Genesis 1508-12; The Last Judgment 1536-41) by Michelangelo.
By comparison, a narrower definition of "Bible Art" might focus exclusively on decorated bibles or gospel texts, in the form of illuminated manuscripts, which dominated religious art during the Medieval era (c.500-1200).
The earliest of these illuminated manuscripts, which may have been inspired by the illustration in the Jewish Haggadah (a book of Jewish folk-tales, parables, legends), mostly covered the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, including Genesis) and the Gospels. Texts from the Apocalypse also became fashionable.
Medieval Manuscript Illumination is exemplified by masterpieces like Moses Receives the Ten Commandments (840) from the Grandval Bible (British Library, London); Noah's Ark (975) from the Gerona Beatus (Gerona Cathedral, Catalonia); and The Mouth of Hell (1160) from the Psalter of Henry de Blois (British Library). The Grandval Bible contains full-page Biblical illustrations from Genesis, and Exodus. It is especially noted for a series of pictures of Adam and Eve, from their creation to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Gerona Beatus was painted at the San Salvador de Tabara Monastery, the centre of Spanish illumination and a rival of the great French monastery of Saint Martin in Tours, as well as other Franco-German centres like Aachen, Reims, Metz, Fulda and Helmarshausen.
Other exceptional Biblical illuminations include: The Book of Kells (c.800, Trinity College Library, Dublin); The Lorsch Gospels (9th century, Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican); The Vivian Bible (845, BN, Paris); and The Codex Egberti (c.980, State Library, Trier); and The Bury Bible (12th century, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge). Other examples of illustrated bibles from the golden age of Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts (1000-1150) include: The Pantheon Bible (1126, Rome), The Lambeth Bible (1150, Canterbury), The Perugia Bible (1150, Perugia); The Bury Bible (12th century, Bury St Edmunds) and The Winchester Bible (1160-75, Winchester). A fascinating collection of Christian miniature painting can be seen in the Bible Moralisee (1240, BN, Paris), produced during the later era of Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (1150-1350).
Used by poor clergy, the Biblia Pauperum was an illuminated Bible made up of a series of pictures together with explanations, of the main stories of the New Testament (plus references to the Old Testament). Originating in Holland or Germany during the 12th/13th century, it later gained additional popularity as a printed book with illustrative woodcuts. A typical copy of the Biblia Pauperum consists of forty single-page illustrations, each depicting an event from the New Testament, accompanied by two Old Testament events, with a Biblical quotation identifying the particular episode being illustrated, and additional explanatory notes. The genre is exemplified by a 15th century Dutch Biblia Pauperum, in Esztergom Cathedral Library, in Hungary.
Biblical illustrations first appeared in 3rd-century catacombs around Rome. This early Christian-Roman art lasted until the fall of Rome (c.450), after which attention shifted to Byzantine art centered on Constantinople (formerly Byzantium). Although the Italian city of Ravenna flourished briefly as a centre of Western and Eastern Christianity - see: Ravenna Mosaics - Constantinople remained the leading source of medieval art throughout the Dark Ages, until the European revival (from c.800 onwards) under the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne - see Carolingian art - and his successors the Ottos - see Ottonian art. The only exception to this decline of Western Europe was Ireland, whose abbeys produced some extraordinary Irish Monastic art (c.600-1200). For more background, see: Medieval Christian Art (c.600-1200).
The Roman Church announced its recovery with a huge cathedral-building program (c.1000-1300), spanning the eras of Romanesque and Gothic design. Gothic architecture in particular - including English Gothic architecture - led to a massive demand for Biblical statues and relief sculpture, and led to an extensive program of Christian Iconography, concerning how Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Family should be represented. For example, the three portals of the west facade of Chartres Cathedral contain a mass of Biblical sculpture. Medieval painting, too, was highly valued for its ability to illustrate Biblical scenes, usually in the form of murals. Church art prospered in the 14th century - see for instance Pre-Renaissance painting, which led to the Renaissance in Florence and the Renaissance in Rome: both of which are famous for their patronage of a wide array of Biblical art. For an interesting comment on the necessity for Biblical artworks, see the fundamentalist views of Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98).
The Reformation and the consequent emergence of Protestantism, fostered new and more restrained forms of Protestant Reformation art - see, for instance, Dutch vanitas painting, a form of 17th century still-life painting, mastered by artists such as Pieter Claesz (1597-1660) and Willem Kalf (1622-93). However, Rembrandt van Rijn - the foremost exponent of religious art in 17th century Dutch painting - produced a number of sublime Biblical works. Then came the Counter-Reformation, which triggered a glorious period of Catholic Baroque painting, spear-headed by El Greco in Spain, Federico Barocci in central Italy, Rubens in Antwerp, and Caravaggio in Rome. With some notable exceptions, the end of Baroque art marked the beginning of a long gradual decline in Biblical art, which continues to this day.
The Old Testament consists of 39-46 books (or more), depending on whether it is seen from a Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox or Jewish viewpoint. Broadly speaking, it can be divided into four sections: the "Pentateuch" (the first 5 books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy); the "historical books" (eg. Judges, Kings, Chronicles); and the "wisdom books" (eg. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) books and the prophets (eg. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel).
Comparatively few Old Testament subjects were included in mural painting, or manuscript illustration until the late Middle Ages. Artists were asked to focus on the New Testament, which shed extra light on the OT. The most common OT themes were the Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise; the story of Cain and Abel; Noah and the Flood; The Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham; Moses, particularly the Burning Bush and the Brazen Serpent. Other popular subjects included: Daniel in the Lions' Den; and Jonah, notably as a symbol of the Resurrection. After the Reformation, however, Protestant church authorities encouraged painters to depict Old Testament scenes which had rarely, if never, been illustrated. Dutch Realist artists, for instance, like Rembrandt, began to portray such obscure subjects as The Levite and his Concubine; Esther Preparing to Intercede with Assuerus; Samson Accusing His Father-in-Law; The King Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy; Tobias Returns Sight to His Father; Sacrifice of Manoah, and so on.
Old Testament Prophets were another regular theme, the earliest known portrayal being a depiction of Balaam pointing to the star, discovered in the Catacomb of Piscilla, in Rome. They appear also in a number of 5th century mosaics in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, and were a common feature of architectural stone sculpture during the era of Romanesque architecture (1000-1150) and the more naturalistic Gothic style (1100-1400). The tradition contined during the International Gothic period: see, for instance, The Well of Moses (1395-1403) by the Dijon sculptor Claus Sluter. During the 15th and 16th centuries, prophets were also a feature of Renaissance sculpture: see, for example, Habakkuk (Il Zuccone) (1426) by Donatello; and the Tomb of Pope Julius II (1505-45) by Michelangelo.
The Creation of Adam (c.1508-12,
Sistine Chapel) by Michelangelo.
Ever since the 2nd-century, The New Testament has inspired all types of art, from the most mannered fine art, to the most exquisite decorative art. By way of background, The New Testament is a collection of 27 books on the life of Christ and early Christianity, written in Greek (c.50-150 CE) by various writers, who were either Jewish disciples of (or observers of) Jesus of Nazareth. It consists of: (1) The Gospels (meaning 'good news', from the Old English God 'good' + spel 'news'). These are four narrative versions of Jesus's life and teachings written by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They encapsulate the core of Christian revelation, and announce the 'good news' of mankind's redemption; (2) The Acts of the Apostles. An account of the Apostles' activities in the early church, reputedly composed by the same writer as the Gospel of Luke; (3) Epistles. Some 21 letters (eg. to Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians), written by various authors, dealing with various matters of Christian doctrine and advice; (4) The Book of Revelation. This consists of numerous prophecies, about the end of the world.
During the Early Christian era the Gospels were sometimes depicted as four rivers flowing from the enthroned Christ (see, for instance, the apse mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna) or as scrolls (see, for example, the mosaic in Galla Placidia's mausoleum, Ravenna). The earliest illustrated Gospel texts are the Garima Gospels (390-660, Garima Monastery, Ethiopia), and the Rabbula Gospels (586, Laurentian Library, Florence), both probably written and painted in a Middle Eastern monastery of the Byzantine Empire. (See: History of Illuminated Manuscripts (600-1200).
The most important artistic theme of the NT is undoubtedly the Life of Christ, which includes a whole series of events, all of which have been portrayed many times over in church panel paintings and monumental oil painting, as well as in wood-carving, and in relief sculpture notably during Romanesque and Gothic times.
Here is a short list of some of the important events from Christ's life, together with famous paintings of them:
The Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Shepherds
Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt
The Baptism of Christ
The Presentation in the Temple
Entry into Jerusalem
The Last Supper
The Kiss of Judas
The Trial of Christ
The Descent from the Cross (Deposition)
Reappearances of Christ
After the Life and Teachings of Christ, the next single most important subject of the New Testament is the Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Madonna), a subject which was very important in Catholic Counter-Reformation art, during the 16th and 17th century. Narrative cycles pictorializing the Life of the Virgin first started to appear in Italy around 450: see, for instance, the mosaics in the Triumphal Arch in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. Other Marian narratives were a regular feature of portal sculpture in France, as many of the major medieval cathedrals had a Virgin Portal, displaying scenes from her life in relief stone sculpture. Proto-Renaissance murals, such as those by Cimabue in the Upper Church of San Francesco at Assisi (1280-83) and the Arena Chapel frescoes (c.1306-10) by Giotto, also featured the Life of the Virgin. Giotto's work, in particular, represents the definitive pictorial cycle of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Compare it with the later cycle of woodcuts by Albrecht Durer (1509-11).
Specific episodes from the Life of the Virgin are captured in the following works:
Birth of Mary
The Immaculate Conception
The Death of Her Son Jesus
Death and Assumption
The late 15th century was a golden age of Late Gothic wood carving, during which a number of exquisite carved altarpieces were carved, often featuring the Virgin Mary. Examples include: The Death of the Virgin, St Mary Altarpiece (1477-89, Krakow) by Veit Stoss; The Altarpiece of the Virgin (c.1470, Museum of Antiquities, Rouen); The Passion Retable (c.1483, Musee National du Moyen Age, Paris); and the Assumption of the Virgin (1495-99, center panel of the Creglingen Altarpiece, Herrgottskirche, Creglingen) by Tilman Riemenschneider.
The most prevalent category of images of the Virgin/Madonna, are icon-type pictures of herself alone, or (more usually) with the Christ Child. In fact, Madonna and Child compositions are probably the most common theme in all Christian art. Another common arrangement is the Madonna and Child with Saints. A range of standard poses grew up, which varied according to the function of the image, its location and intended attributes. They included the following:
The Panagia Nikopoia (All-Holy bringer of Victory), where the Madonna is shown sitting on a throne, holding the Christ Child in front of her. The Nikopoia was superceded by the Theotokos Hodegetria (or Odegetria) [note: Theotokos means 'God-Bearer'], a more tender pose in which the Madonna points to the Child (indicating that Christ is 'the Way') - who may be seated on his mother's lap or held in her left arm. If the Child is held in the Virgin's right arm, the image is called the Dexiotrophousa. Sometimes both versions appear in the same location, as in the Eastern Orthodox mosaics at Hosios Lukas, in Greece. If there appears to be particular affection between Madonna and child, the image is known as the Theotokos Eleousa, or compassionate God-Bearer: as in The Vladimir Madonna (1130, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). See also: The Stroganoff Madonna (c.1300, Metropolitan Museum, New York). If the Child embraces the Madonna, she is the Glycophilousa, or loving God-Bearer. Another pose is the Theotokos Galaktotrophousa (milk-giving God-Bearer), which involves the Madonna suckling the Christ Child. This is actually the oldest of all images of the Virgin and Child, first seen in the Catacomb of Priscilla, around 210. (In the 14th century, this was called the Madonna del Latte.) It was the more tender images of the Madonna and Child that proved most popular with the International Gothic style and the Sienese school of painting, as well as the Italian Renaissance.
There are several other formal poses which were employed in compositions involving the Madonna. They include: the Virgin Orans, where she stands by herself, with her arms raised in prayer - an image known in Constantinople as the Theotokos Blachernitissa; the Platytera, in which the Virgin Orans has an image of the Child on her chest; the Maria Deomene (also known as the Hagiasotorissa or Holy Sorrow) is another standing pose, used when the Virgin acts as an intercessor (with arms raised) on the right of Christ the Judge, pleading for sinners.
The Mater Dolorosa (Virgin of Sorrows) describes a variety of different styles of weeping Madonna, such as that used in the Pieta; while the Madonna of Misericord is a pose used as a devotional image (typically by charities), to express her votaries confidence in her intercessionary powers: see the central panel of the Madonna della Misericordia Polyptych (14451462, Sansepolcro) by Piero della Francesca. The Madonna of Humility is an image used in The Nativity to represent the Madonna worshipping the Christ Child who lies on the ground in front of her: as in the famous Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes. Finally, the Madonna of the Rosary is used to celebrate the Catholic rite of the rosary: see, for instance, Caravaggio's Madonna del Rosario (1607, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
From among his many disciples, Christ chose a mere twelve Apostles to spread the Christian faith. They included (Matthew. 10: 2-4) Simon called Peter, his brother Andrew, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew the tax-collector, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, also called Jude, Simon Zelotes, Thomas Didymus 'the twin', and Judas Iscariot. (Note: Only two of the Apostles were also Evangelists: John and Matthew.)
The Apostles were included in many pictures and sculptures involving Christ, notably Leonardo's The Last Supper (1495-98) - the most famous painting of the Italian Renaissance during the 15th century. Specific works include: The Tribute Money (1427, Brancacci Chapel fresco) Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (1481-2, Sistine Chapel) by Perugino; The Four Apostles (1526, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) by Albrecht Durer; Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples (1547, Prado) by Tintoretto.
The earliest artistic representation of the Apostles is in a mural of the Last Supper in the late 3rd-century Catacomb of Saint Calixtus; a similar composition can be seen in a 6th-century mosaic in the church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna. Reliefs of the Apostles are also on several 4th-century sarcophagi, including that of Theodosius in Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (389).
Images of the Apostles were regular features of Christian Byzantine art (notably mosaics), as well as trecento Italian painting (eg. the Maesta Altarpiece (1308-11) by Duccio), Late Gothic wood sculpture (Altar of the Apostles, St Kilians-Kirche zu Windsheim (1509) by Tilman Riemenschneider), High Renaissance art (eg. Raphael's tapestries 1515-16, for the Sistine Chapel).
Using his own signature style of down-to-earth naturalism, Caravaggio painted numerous scenes from the lives of the Apostles. His most famous works are: The Calling of Saint Matthew (1600), The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1600), The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) and Conversion of Saint Paul on the way to Damascus (1601).
A very important medium of Biblical art was the altarpiece, of which there were two types: first, a reredos, a substantial structure standing on the floor behind the altar. Second, a retable usually standing on a surface behind the altar: as exemplified by The Isenheim Altarpiece (1506-15) Monastery of St. Anthony, by Matthias Grunewald. Occasionally, altarpieces were painted on canvas/panel and affixed to the altar wall. Such works include The Madonna of the Harpies (1517) by Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530). See also: Venetian Altarpieces of the 16th-Century. Until the era of Baroque art, the most popular type of altarpiece art were hinged panel paintings, named according to the number of panels used. Triptychs (3-panel paintings) were the most common, followed by Polyptychs (typically more than 10-panels).
The Stephaneschi Triptych
(1313) by Giotto di Bondone
Maesta Altarpiece (1311)
by Duccio di Buoninsegna
For more illustrations of the Old and New Testaments, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART