Christ as seen in the History of Art

by laurnmacsween

Within Christianity‘s long history art has been used as a tool to illustrate scenes and figures from Bible to supplement worship. As I have been raised in a highly religious culture I find this  extremely fascinating – particularly as in my Presbyterian denomination  we practice aniconism and steer clear of the beautiful and decedent iconography of the Catholic Church. In this post I will mainly be looking into the depiction of Christ in art throughout different periods of history – but will branch out into the rest of Christianty for interest’s sake.


buon-pastore_big‘The Good Shepard in the Catacombs’

We being with ‘Paleochristian Art’, the earliest form of Christian art that began in the ccatacombsof Rome in the second century. These expansive underground burial places often were decorated with primitive paintings, mosaics and engravings depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament. At this time the early Church were under persecution from Rome and Christ was little to nowhere to be found in their illustrations – these first Christians preferring vague symbolism.

sta_pudenziana_apseA mosaic of Christ and the Apostles as seen in Santa Pudenziana

It was not until a few centuries later as Rome came to legalise the practice of Christianity and the wealthy began to convert that more complex and developed images began to appear, placing Christ in a prime position.

RomeJuniusBassusFrontThe elaborate sarcophagus of a wealthy Roman engraved with various Biblical figures.


alparkernormanrockwellA mosaic of Jesus from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

The somewhat standardised depiction of Jesus that we all recognise, with long brown hair and beard, was a product of the art of the Byzantine Empire that rose to prominence in Eastern Europe after the fall of Rome – though the Byzantines considered themselves a continuation of the great Roman empire and their art style also developed in that vein.


The Byzantines created lavish Illustrated Manuscripts with detailed imagery of sumptuous use of colour and pattern work. Decedent Churches decorated with exquisite mosaics of precious gold were an obvious sign of how highly a role religion posed in this eastern sect of the Catholic church.


399px-Ulm-Muenster-SchmerzensMann-061104Man of Sorrows on the main portal of Ulm Minster in Germany

The majority of religious imagery in the Gothic style can be found in the intricacies of their astounding Cathedrals and Churches across Europe.


Stained glass was also popular during the Gothic period. The large scales and lofty verticals of gothic architecture lent itself to creating some dramatic visuals when combined with stained glass. Here are two images of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris which is homes one of the largest collections of stained glass the world over.

Baptism_Sainte-Chapelle_MNMA_Cl23717A detail of a baptism as seen in the Sainte-Chapelle


Considered one of the most important periods in the history of art, the Renaissance is home to some of the greatest periods of Religious art.


Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’ was a fresco commissioned by Pope Julius. It shows many of the great philosophers of history and is unusual in that it holds little religious significance despite it’s placing within the Pope’s library in the Vatican City.


Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ one of the most iconic pieces of art – religious or not. Here we see Jesus and the 12 apostles partaking in the aforementioned ‘Last Supper’, Christ taking centre stage.


Michelangelo’s  ‘The Creation of Adam’ as found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is another famous painting of the Renaissance.



The Elevation of the Cross‘, again by Reubens. Here the exaggerated motion common to the Baroque style is executed by the artist emphasises the emotional nature of the subject matter, a tactic used as a response by the Catholic Church to the ongoing Protestant Reformation of the time. Interestingly the artist uses muscular figures that wouldn’t be out of place in the work of Michelangelo, showing the influence of Renaissance art on painters of the time.


I particularly like ‘The Holy Trinity‘ by Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera in 1635. Here Christ is being raised to heaven after the crucifixion, his crown of thorns being taken off by his Holy Father. His extended arms and legs together are a nod to the cross that he died upon. Here the dramatic tones synonymous with the Baroque style are used to exaggerate the fragility of Christ’s earthly body by highlighting his protruding bones and by making his body look slimmer that it is. There is also a noticeable difference in colour from the dull blue grey under Christ compared to the golden clouds that fill the skys behind the red-clothed God.


The Vatican: The Christian Catacombs

Dick B, The History of Christian Art

Sabau, I The Power of Symbolism in Byzantine Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Byzantium

Badamo, H. (2011) Summer Special Topics: Early Christian Byzantine Visual Culture

History Lists: 10 Remarkable Religious Renaissance Paintings

(2010) Art History: Raphael and The School of Athens