why look at christian art

What you can learn from old paintings if you’re not religious? Plenty!

To prefix this article, I’ll admit that I spent the majority of my life until now being dismissive of religious art. Travelling through Italy especially, I got sick of seeing Christian art and crucifixion paintings everywhere I went. I considered the art collections a boring celebration of religion. Wanting to rebel against that, I decided to start dismissing religious art. I was wrong to do that because if I’d looked beyond the surface sooner, I would have seen there is still a lot to learn from these old paintings.

Christian art is just art with a subject matter many of us now find irrelevant. Let’s get over that and appreciate the mastery of the artists themselves and the techniques they were using.

Why do you dismiss religious art?

When I was young, I went to a Christian school. In it they forced me to listen to an excruciatingly boring man talk about things I didn’t care about every day. I didn’t mind the normal lessons I took but seriously, those morning sermons… really boring. Safe to say, I decided religion and Christianity weren’t for me from a young age. When I began the typical teenage rebellion, among my chief objects of scorn included anything Christian, including all those old paintings I saw everywhere in museums.

I think we all have similar stories. When we enter adulthood, those of us who aren’t religious often hold on to that rebellion when it comes to religion. We’re not religious and maybe we’re even against religion, so it feels weird to look at a painting of Jesus doing Jesusy stuff. What if we could get past that roadblock in our mind and just see the artistry?

It only struck me later in life that dismissing art from centuries ago just because it depicts religious stories is dumb. Dismissing a painting from the renaissance isn’t proving anything to anybody and deeming it interesting to only Christians is missing the point. The Louvre is full of Christian paintings, yet let’s face it, those French dudes aren’t trying to convert you. The paintings at the Louvre are just paintings… and there’s so much to learn from them.

Christian Art was Fan Art

Imagine today us being so dedicated to a fictional story that we demand an endless production of art dedicated to it… oh yeah that’s right, we don’t have to, because we have fan art. Think of Christian art as fan art from hundreds of years ago. That “fan art” was commissioned to some of the most legendary painters that ever lived.

The old lords and ladies in their renaissance mansions couldn’t get enough of this ancient fan art. They didn’t have Instagram or the Louvre to go see all their favourite religious scenes over and over. Being too busy stabbing each other and avoiding plagues, these admittedly despicable motherf*ckers simply hired the best painter in town to whip them up a nice Jesus on the cross or Adam and Eve in the garden.

This religious story dominated the western world for centuries. People were so obsessed with this story that they commissioned countless artists to dedicate their lives to depicting it. I kind of get it… imagine if you only had one book of stories in your house or those fictional stories are the only ones you hear. If some guy called Leonardo offers to paint you a nice painting based on one of those stories and you can afford it, you’re probably going to say yes.

Let’s forgive the artists, it wasn’t their fault

I bet even the artists despaired sometimes. Pretty much all the paid work available was either portraits of wealthy a*sholes or scenes from the Bible. I like to imagine artists like Leonardo thinking “oh for f*cks sake, not another Jesus on the cross”.

You know what, sometimes I get annoyed with having to work on similar themes in the films I work on, or the same kind of goofy characters. At least I can work on different stories and I have a tiny a bit of choice. I can’t imagine how soul destroying it must have been to travel from town to town in Europe, trying desperately to find someone to pay me to paint something interesting… yet all everyone wanted were sh*tty portraits of themselves and stories from the bible.

These ancient artists deserve not only our admiration for their skills and creations but also our sympathy for having to put up with the absolute barren wasteland of imagination that their audience had at the time. Leonardo managed to try doing things like make an airplane I suppose but his bronze horse statue ended up being melted down and used for canons. He should have put Jesus on the horse… if Jesus had been on that horse, I bet they wouldn’t have destroyed it.

Ok, so why appreciate Christian art?

Through the eras of Christian art, we can see techniques come and go, movements begin and end. It is a goldmine of art history and theory. Sure, after seeing 100 crucifixion paintings it gets boring. Anything would. Yet such typical scenes from the Bible offer a reference point for anybody looking to compare art from different centuries.

earliest crucifixion depiction
Left: Earliest known depiction of crucifixion 2nd century ce. Right – tracing.

Check out the earliest depiction (that I could find) of the crucifixion above. It’s from the 2nd century CE (at the time of writing 2,020 years ago). Interestingly Jesus has been drawn as a donkey. Though my evil inner self finds this a little funny, I’m looking more at the basic way in which it was rendered. Using this same basic scene from the Bible, I can follow the advances in art, all the way to masters like Raphael in 1502.

Seeing how different artists and masters tackled the same idea and scene can be very interesting. It’s an invaluable insight into how techniques developed over time. However much you might prefer Fantasy Artworks from books like Lord of the Rings, they can’t offer the same range of art history as the Bible has. You don’t have to like the Bible but you have to admit, its fanboys and fangirls have created a monster-load of art history from it.

What can artist’s gain from studying religious art?

What is the difference between studying how two different artists dealt with composition? Let’s take Caravaggio and Edward Hopper. Religion vs modern life.

why look at christian art
Study of composition in Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St Peter 1601
room in New York painting composition hopper
Study of composition in Edward Hopper’s Room in New York 1932

If our goal is to learn more about composition and become a better artist, there is no reason to study one of these over the other. If we’re only studying something like composition, whether we’re religious or not doesn’t matter.

We should take what we can from whatever we are looking at. So the next time you find yourself in a gallery full of old Christian art, try to look past the fact that it is religious. Find something interesting about the composition, colour theory, hand shapes, gestures or rendering. Whatever you decide to look for, you’ll be learning from masters.

Yet… there are reasons to criticise Christian art

Men only

Though it isn’t a problem confined to Christian art, one obvious drawback is that you are mostly going to be looking at paintings by men rather than women. This lack of female representation is a limitation in studying historical art. There are exceptions, yet they are so few and so underrated compared to male artists of the time that you are unlikely to pass them in most old art galleries.

Be critical of what you are looking at

le sueur saint bernard is carried to heaven
Le Sueur’s Saint Bernard is-Carried to heaven 1645

Christian art is a treasure trove of ridiculous acting, terrible posing and laughable plausibility. In this article I’m trying to tell you to find the merits of religious art. Yet sometimes no matter how well rendered or finished the final piece is, it deserves a roasting.

Take this painting I saw at the Louvre recently by Le Sueur. The reason I took a photo of it is because I find it funny… in a bad way. The artist is a master and I admire the way he renders skin, draws characters and composes things, yet this painting is still laughable. What I see is a demented old man being carried by babies into the sky, with no regard for his weight. Whether or not I consider that weightlessness was the intention here, I still find it ridiculous. Is it the fault of the artist? Probably not. Am I going to laugh at his painting anyway? Yep.

My point is, find paintings that impress you. If there are others you think are bad, consider what about them turns you off. That will tell you something about your own tastes.

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