Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen


The Gospels

There exists not one unique biography of Jesus Christ that could be heavenly inspired as the Revealed Truth. There are four such accounts, even five when one includes the sayings of Thomas. We call all these texts the Gospels. Each text is not to be read purely as a historical description of the life of Jesus. They form a record of the ‘Good News’ or ‘Evangilium’, the teaching brought by God’s realisation as a human, Jesus Christ. Each Gospel differs slightly not only in the chronology of the events, but also in content: specific scenes of Jesus’s life are described in one Gospel and not in another; other scenes are told in two or more Gospels. Of course, the chronology follows the general timeline of birth, youth, preaching, suffering, death and resurrection, but the order in which the parables, the miracles and the preaching appear varies in the Gospels. The Message prevails and the sequence of events in the story is subordinated to the necessity of the account of the message.

The Gospels plus the Old Testament form the Bible. The Old Testament records the history of the Jewish people and the Covenant promised by the God of the Jews to his people. The four Gospels break with thre tradition of the Jewish Old Testament. They are a story of triumph, glory and dismay, often a violent account of wars and repression. The old biblical records contain one account, one history only of the historical events. The Old Testament is the one and sole history of the Jewish people. Of the life of Jesus, four versions exist, stories as remembered and written down by various witnesses or as the written tale of past testimonies. This lends more credibility to the Gospels as a whole. The Gospels are an account of the humble life of one person, and they contain a message in which love dominates. The breadth and style of the Old and New Testament differ markedly. The Old Testament is epic in style and centred on the historical acts of kings and prophets. The stories of the Gospels are simple life-scenes of a teacher who was rejected by the religious ruling elite of the Jews. Like the Old Testament, the New Testament texts are not a literal, objective historical narrative. A lyrical breath pervades many tales.

The Gospels are usually presented in the canonical form, that is in the form historically and officially accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, always with first the text of Matthew, then the text of Mark, followed by the Gospels of Luke and John. A fifth Gospel, called of Thomas, was discovered only in 1945 and is usually not included in publications of the Bible. The three first Gospels are called Synoptic (i.e. ‘with the same eye’) because they are most alike in presentation. They have probably used the same sources and the same tradition. Yet, even the Synoptic Gospels differ from each other. The Gospel of Mark for instance does not tells us about the birth of Jesus. It starts with Jesus’s baptism. Luke is the most complete; many elements of the life of Jesus are told only in Luke. Examples of these particular events are the Visitation, the Circumcision, and the Temptation of Jesus in the desert.

The Gospel of John calls on a different tradition than the Synoptic Gospels. It is written in a more intellectual, poetic and epic style. This Gospel also does not tell of the nativity. John wants to teach and to explain. Many of the themes of the Gospel are assembled in a large discourse given by Christ during the Last Supper. As an account of the events of Jesus’s life, John’s Gospel is the less complete in the number of events recalled.

Mark’s Gospel was written in the language of the Hebrews, in Aramaic. The other Gospels were written in Greek. Mark’s account, the shortest Gospel, is usually presented as a source for the others. But it is now supposed that an earlier version in Aramaic, maybe of Matthew, was the true basis, probably with other accounts that influenced the story of Mark. Mark’s text, plus these other accounts that are designated by the letter Q for the German word for source ‘Quelle’, led to Matthew’s final text and to Luke’s Gospel, both written in Greek. The original Matthew account could date from the years 40 to 50. Matthew as a source can be historically plausible, since Matthew was one of the Apostles. But there remains a period of twenty to thirty years of oral traditions or of first texts that we know nothing of, between Jesus’s death and the Gospels. Mark’s Gospel would have been written around 65. The final Matthew version and Luke‘s text could date from between 70 and 80.

The Gospel of John, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, dates from around the same time: from the years 70 to 80, maybe even from a decade later. The origin of these writings also seems to go back to another Apostle, John. The Apostle John is consistently called ‘The Beloved of Christ’. During his Crucifixion Jesus asked John to take care of his mother Mary. He implored Mary to consider John as her new son. When John relates a specific scene, he recalls many details. John may indeed have been a witness to the scenes and he may have told as a writer the most accurate history, even though he shows in his writings a poetic inspiration and a special affinity for story telling. John’s Gospel is the latest of all, and scholars think it is already a reflection more of the developing Christian community than a direct narrative of the life of Jesus. John may have chosen his themes in function of the aims and beliefs of the first Christians.

The New Testament consists next to the Gospels also of the Acts of the Apostles and of a series of Epistles, the preaching of the first missionaries. The New Testament terminates on the 'Revelation to John', a mystic vision of the end of the world. The Gospel of Thomas was not added to the traditional Bible. This text was found in Upper Egypt in 1945. It was probably written around 120 to 140 AD and it presents mainly a Gospel of sayings.

The New Testament Apocrypha

The New Testament canon was established by the Church Fathers over a period of time out of a much larger volume of writings. The rest, the rejected writings, form what is called the New Testament Apocrypha. One of the best-known books was the ‘Protevangelium of James’, written in the second century.
The Apocrypha contain more stories of the infancy of Jesus, and of the life of Mary. They contain more epistles and accounts described as ‘apocalypses’ or revelations. There are very many apocryphal texts compiled from the second century to the late Middle Ages. Many of these stories were widely known in the Middle Ages, especially the ones that were copied into the ‘Golden Legend’ or ‘Legenda Aurea’, so that most of the scenes represented by painters can be found documented in written form in this ‘Golden Legend’.

Painters depicted scenes from Jesus’s life, from Mary’s life and from the lives of the Apostles, which were not narrated in the New Testament, so for which there were gaps in the Gospels, but which were described in the apocryphal texts. The apocryphal texts that interest us most are those that give narrations of Jesus’s early childhood, of the period after Jesus’s childhood, of the early and late life of Mary and of the martyrdom of the Apostles.

The basis for stories on the early life of Jesus was the already mentioned ‘Protevangelium of James’, dating from the second half of the second century. G107 . The word ‘Protevangelium’ refers to pre-evangelistic narration, to stories of before Jesus’s public life. Various other apocryphal texts relate events that are presented in the Protevangelium. The Protevangelium comes from Eastern sources. The ‘Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew’ was inspired by this Protevangelium, and was more used in the West as a source for images.

The ‘Gospel of Nicodemus’ covers the period after Jesus’s death. This text goes back to the fifth or sixth centuries. G107 . The document consists of two parts, one being the ‘Acta Pilati’ and the other the ‘Descensus ad Infernos’. The ‘Acta Pilati’ provides the life of Pontius Pilatus. The ‘Descensus’ tells of Jesus’s descent into the underworld to release the souls of the just that died before his act of redemption. This act is called the ‘anastasis’.

Many of the stories of the early life of Mary come also from the ‘Protevangelium of James’. This inspired other apocrypha, such as the ‘Gospel of the Birth of Mary’. The stories of Mary’s parents, of Mary’s education in the Temple and of her betrothal to Joseph originate in those texts. Still other documents relate the ‘Death of the Virgin’, the earliest written around the fourth century. One of these is the Greek ‘Discourse of Saint John the divine concerning the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God’.

There are five main apocryphal ‘Acts of the Apostles’, of John, Paul, Peter, Thomas and Andrew. But very many other apocryphal texts or fragments of texts remain on the lives of the Apostles. To these should be added medieval texts such as the ‘Acts of Andrew’ by Gregory of Tours.
The ‘Golden Legend’ was a compilation of the lives of Jesus, the Virgin and the Saints as assembled by Jacobus de Voragine (circa 1230-1298). The books were written around 1260. The ‘Golden Legend’ was compiled from more than a hundred thirty sources going back from the second century to the thirteenth G49 .
De Voragine was born in Varazze near Genoa, hence his name. Jacobus or Jacopo de Voragine was a Dominican friar who became the Archbishop of Genoa in 1292. He wrote several books of sermons, a chronicle of Genoa, and the Golden Legend also contains a short history of the Lombards, though handled from disparate and religious stories.
The ‘Golden Legend’ was originally only called ‘Legenda Sanctorum’ or ‘Readings on the Saints’, but it was widely known and received its final name already during the Middle Ages. The ‘Golden Legend’ was at first copied by hand into thousands of manuscripts, later printed in its original Latin by the young printing industry. The book was immensely popular in the Middle Ages. It was translated in many languages and became an important source of symbols in art. It must have been the only book of the Middle Ages to be as widely read as the Bible. Painters of later ages read the 'Golden Legend' eagerly, so that many medieval painted images can be understood only when one knows well the sources in the ‘Golden Legend’. The texts were translated in English by the American Father William Granger Ryan, the book we used was published in 1993.

Christian art

The words and the teaching of the Gospels spread over Europe in the early centuries. The Roman Catholic Church encouraged the representation of scenes of the life of Jesus Christ. Mosaics, frescoes and tempera painting techniques were used before the discovery of oil painting. The pictorial representations were most proficient of course near the seat of control of the Church, which was in Rome and in Italy. Wonderful mosaics that have been cherished and preserved can be found in the Baptisterium in Florence and in the Saint Marc Basilica of Venice. Other centres of early art developed where the seats of lay power were established, in the first place in Constantinople. Constantinople was the capital of the East Roman Empires who developed a society as powerful in wealth and military force as in spiritual brilliance. After the fifth century, power shifted in Western Europe and other centres of power established, such as for instance in Aachen in Germany, where the first Frankish Emperor Charles the Great, Carolus Magnus, resided in the ninth century. Charles was the first new Holy Roman Emperor re-entitled by the Popes.

It is something of a miracle that European Christian art produced pictures at all. The Decalogue, the Law of the Covenant written down in the Book Exodus of the Bible states, ‘You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God and I punish a parent’s fault in the children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren among those who hate me; but I act with faithful love towards thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.’
The Jewish and Muslim religions take the first phrase literally. They do not consider it as having been written purely in the context of the next phrases. Therefore, the Jewish and Muslim religions prohibit representations of humans and of animals. Christianity prohibited worshipping other Gods, but it was lenient towards making pictures and sculptures of Bible scenes. Pope Gregory the Great can be credited with allowing pictorial arts in the Western Christian Church in a definite way, around 600 AD.

Pictures were made almost exclusively for religious aims in the first millennium until the seventeenth century. The Church needed to instruct, and there was no better way to teach than to show. The faithful could actually see the scenes of the lives of Jesus, of Mary, and of the Saints as illustrations of what they heard the preachers talk about. They could keep these images in their mind while at home. They could pray to the Saints with a sense of intimacy that would otherwise have lacked. This use of the visual arts was recognised and emphasised at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. The monks and priests could use pictures to prove the truth of the Word. When oil painting developed, after the mosaics and the frescoes, this religious tradition continued. Pictures could be paid for only by the wealthy and by the Church. The Church could pay, for to her flew the funds that the crowds gave. Similarly, large works of architecture such as the Italian basilicas and the Gothic cathedrals were mainly the results of communal activities organised by leading citizens, by the nobles or by the towns’ guilds. These buildings were erected to the honour of their beliefs. The altars of the cathedrals needed grand pictures.

Since the majority of images were used by the Church to teach, and since Christian beliefs pervaded society, the wealthy did not change the tradition of religious pictures in their palaces and mansions. At best, individual portraiture developed, as well as pictures of battles, all for private and secular uses. Later only, very slowly, started the painting of landscapes and of still- lives to decorate the villas or town palaces. Gradually, images were freed from the influence of religion. Throughout this evolution, however, though art was a community act, paintings aalso the pictorial works were developed for the wealthy individuals. Art thus reflects the visions of the commissioners, the noblemen, the merchants, the princes of the church and the leaders of the monasteries, as much as the visions of the individual artists. And the commissioners preferred conservative views instead of revolutionary art.

In the history of painting from the beginning of the thirteenth to the end of the sixteenth century, religious paintings meant for Europe scenes of the life of Jesus, of the Apostles and of other figures around Jesus. These form the overwhelming majority of all images made. The history of painting until the seventeenth century is mainly religious and Christian. For a person or historian who dislikes religious art, these centuries must seem very frustrating indeed. Religious art simply cannot be avoided for these centuries.

The countries in which painting flourished were Italy, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, Hungary, Poland and Czechia. Frescoes and oil painting were far less developed in England and Scandinavia. The pictures made in these last named countries were painted by famous artists of other regions, mainly the Netherlands and Flanders, but for England also by German painters. To some extent this was also the case for Spain, where the Flemish influences, Flemish imports of paintings and emigration of Flemish artists, were important. The reason for this Flemish influence in Spain was both the far advanced stage of Flemish art, and later the special links between Flanders and Spain, for these two countries were part of the same Empire.

This book is dedicated to themes in religious pictorial arts. We will however not treat neither the art of the Byzantine Empire nor the scenes of the Greek Orthodox Church. We include in the latter art the pictures made for the Christian cult in the Ukraine, Russia and the Lithuanian regions.

The evolution to secular art

Paintings of non-religious, that is secular, themes seldom accompanied pictures of religious themes. In the early centuries up to the seventeenth century, sacred art formed the major part of the artistic production. The advance to a more secular output has to be projected against the background of the concentration of attention on individual man. The long road to democracies and to confidence in man as the centre of the universe began earlier than the Italian Renaissance, so that this evolution can be traced back to the very beginning of art.

The first images were as sacred as their subjects were. The early icons are still venerated in the monasteries of the Orient and of Eastern Europe, as if they had captured some of the Holiness of Christ and the Saints. A legend that we will talk of later in this book states that the very first icon that was preserved was the imprint of Jesus’s face on the Holy Shroud. Thus the first icon contained the spirits of Christ himself. Later, pictures were believed to carry some of the essence of the portrayed figure. From that starting point on, pictures would only be of the grandest spiritual elevation.

The purest pictures of modern spirituality of Europe were to be found in Byzantium-Constantinople, then in Italy and especially in Flanders from the thirteenth century on, in International Gothic art. But as early as these times, the images were drawn inexorably closer to man. In Catholic, very pious Flanders, the genius Jan Van Eyck began to use mystic images subtly for playful diversion. He introduced new combinations and meaning of symbols, sometimes on the brink of disrespect, always hidden as private puzzles. The ambivalence between apparent and hidden meaning was used ever more by other, later painters like Jean Fouquet. This was the continuance of an old tradition that had its sources in the Gospels and even earlier Jewish texts. Jesus and the Evangelists talked in aphorisms and parables, also hiding meaning. Van Eyck merely added new symbols and combined them to arouse still more interest in his pictures and to lend them more spiritual content, trying thus to emphasise the mysterious power of pictures.

The earliest Christians had imagined Jesus as the victorious God and King of the Heavens. For images of Jesus they groped for concepts they were familiar with. The splendid courts and unlimited power of the Roman Emperors appealed most to their imagination. The first Christians absorbed these tangible concepts of total, mysterious power, and brought them over on the image of Jesus to depict him in all this triumph over humans and nature. They had the hope for an ideal world of political and religious power in which the social justice and the egalitarian society of humans that Jesus had preached would be realised. But this world still needed to be brought by a King or Emperor. Hence the magnificence of the early mosaics of the throning Jesus and his Saints.

The pictures of glorious, throning Jesus and Virgin Mary softened very gradually. Giotto introduced human emotions, and pictures of humble Madonnas became the most popular representations of Mary. Later in the evolution, various painters showed common people as direct witnesses in pictures that were otherwise reserved for the Holy Family or the saints. One of the first artists to do this was Hugo van der Goes. Pieter Bruegel continued this tradition. Bruegel placed the scenes of the life of Jesus solidly in Brabant’s country villages. Lucas van Leyden and Jan van Scorel evolved these tendencies further to genre pictures in which they drew Jesus in the midst of households and showed Him as the poor wanderer. Ultimately, the Holy Family itself would become depicted as ordinary people such as one might expect everyday in the streets. But when John Everett Millais did this, openly and crudely, in as late as the nineteenth century, his ‘Carpenter’s Shop’ met still only criticism and refusal.

Jan Van Eyck hid many symbolic elements in his pictures. This which was wholly in the air of his times. In the Middle Ages, symbols and numbers were part of spiritual mysticism. But Van Eyck proved that one could side step from the pure presentations of spirituality. Van Eyck very hesitatingly moralised with his undertones. Moralising is a very human characteristic. Sandro Botticelli also dared to moralise openly in the Sistine Chapel. This moralising evolution grew, until it became devoid of its religious content. It would reach its zenith in the early nineteenth century with the sometimes pitiful, sometimes ironic and always terrible images of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.

Landscapes were introduced in paintings, first as backgrounds to the Christian scenes. Then, the themes of the New Testament were blended into the landscapes and the landscapes became the principal theme. It is interesting to note that this trend was begun with painters that originated from regions of luxurious forests and deep river valleys. These painters were Joachim Patenier and Henri Blès, both of the river Meuse valley.

The nude also entered the visual arts first through religious pictures. The baby Jesus was often drawn nude in pictures of the Madonna. Mary also in certain pictures was shown as the Virgo Lactans in the act of giving milk from her breast to the baby Jesus. Masaccio painted the baby Jesus older and with the beginning of a splendid young, well-muscled body. Pictures of Saint Sebastian nude against a column and pierced with arrows were an ideal occasion to show a painter’s skill at the male nude. This evolution ended in pictures that glorified the body of man. There is no better representative of that art than the great Michelangelo. Michelangelo also painted man in all possible stages of emotion, the continuance of the evolution that had started with Giotto in the Arena Chapel of Padua.

The movement towards secularisation of pictures accelerated without diminishing the religious output. The Reformation from Catholicism to Protestantism in the sixteenth century can also be seen in view of this human-centric evolution. The crossing point of the two tendencies was reached in the seventeenth century. The evolution passed through a stage in which imagery was still very religious, but with emphasis on the human emotions in the figure of Jesus and other participants in the stories of the Old Testament. Tiziano showed Jesus’s human suffering in all its poignancy. But also many other painters of the Baroque period played openly upon emotions in their pictures, and upon the emotions they hoped to induce in their viewers. A pivotal artist in this passage was Caravaggio, who drew the final conclusions. He not only used living models, common people, to depict Jesus in suffering, but also did not try in any way to transcend these images. Before his time, most images of Jesus were sublimated, elevated, stylised to symbols of spirituality, even with Tiziano. For Caravaggio, Jesus was a suffering human and nothing more. His images were direct and crude. Caravaggio’s spirituality was very different from past concepts, but it was still very much present, and then with unrivalled poignancy.

Examples of the end of these evolutions were the pictures of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Holman Hunt, Manet and the abstract painters. Goya painted religious scenes, but more than any artist he drew attention to the suffering of individual man without reference to Christian religion. Millais showed the Holy Family as ordinary people in a carpenter’s shop. Manet merely was interested in the style elements of Christian art and used these elements. Abstract art was based on the purest spirituality that could be found in the oldest images, but took away the figurative references and all content matter. Nevertheless, Christian spirituality survived in rare painters such as Georges Rouault, the Expressionist religious artist.

The seventeenth century

The seventeenth century was the time when the seeds of the Reformation of Luther and Calvin, as well as of the movements of the Humanists like Erasmus, started to mature. The main emphasis of the visual arts continued to be on religious scenes in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Flanders and the Eastern European countries. But in France and foremost also in England, portraiture was more popular. Religious painting never reached a stage of similar importance in England as on the continent. Also, the painting of themes of antiquity, stimulated by the Renaissance, gained a place next to the Christian themes.

Painting in the Netherlands knew an exceptional blossoming in the seventeenth century. Marine painting, landscape painting and genre painting of intimate household scenes were in prominence, whereas religious painting receded.
The Calvinist teachers of the Netherlands did not encourage religious painting anymore. Their churches were devoid of decoration and the devotion to images and sculptures was denounced as idolatry.
In the Netherlands moreover developed a government based on a broad class of city merchants with middle-class standards and principles of living. The Netherlands’ cities and counties were largely independent. They explicitly chose their leaders, instead of acknowledging automatically the supremacy of inherited monarchy, even though this choice went most of the time to the one nobility Dynasty of Orange.

The Netherlands evolved into an economic powerhouse with a society built on the hard-working and enterprising individual. As Protestant traders and guildsmen, they honoured austere ethics. Whereas the Italian city states of the sixteenth century had gone through a similar evolution, their closeness to the Papal States and the mere fact that they had been most active in the first evolution, kept them solidly linked to Catholic spirituality. The Netherlands was the first country with an art that tore itself loose from the Catholic tradition. The art of the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent the English pictorial tradition, is thus of great importance for the evolution of European art, because it formed the example that could be taken up fully by the neighbouring countries.

The Northern Low Countries of the Netherlands merged into a Republic. They freed themselves from the Spanish domination in 1579. The Dutch painters gradually abandoned religious themes as their main subject in favour of scenes from everyday life. They painted genre scenes of intimate interior house life. They also painted burlesques and even brothel scenes, which could be considered humorous by a certain audience. They painted the vast landscapes of their flat country. They painted marine views of ships at sea, exalting the overseas commerce that generated the wealth of the Netherlands. Mythological scenes from classic antiquity also remained popular. In order to decorate the rich houses, they painted flower bouquets. Finally, the Dutch painters turned to the economic life of their country in portraits of merchants, military leaders, and of associations of guildsmen. The Netherlands was therefore the first country in which a more secular art developed openly so that it became the main production.

The worldly art of the Low Countries surpassed in volume the works of religious themes. However, besides this secular art flourished religious art as ever. Scenes from the Old Testament found grace even with the most austere Calvinist preacher. The town of Utrecht had for instance a large Catholic community. Utrecht painters who continued to paint Catholic religious scenes in the Italianist ways were Abraham Bloemaert, Hendrik ter Brugghen, Gerard van Honthorst, Jan Both, Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Dirck van der Lisse, Claes Berchem, and Jan Baptist Weenix among others. Scenes from the Bible remained overall popular. It is typical that the greatest of the Dutch painters, Rembrandt, proved his original and very individual mind in painting in so many religious works. We also have to note that the still lives, which were extremely popular, very frequently contained profound spiritual meaning. These pictures were full of symbols referring to Christ’s passion and in their ‘Vanitas’ subject matter emphasised the transience of life and the virtues of morality.

Religious art after the seventeenth century

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries religious painting remained predominant in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Flanders, and the Eastern European countries. The seventeenth century humanised sacred art completely. Caravaggio stressed with his pictures of the beginning of the century the realism of human suffering. He rejected the use of symbols and the aesthetically elevated representations of Gothic and Renaissance religious art. He rejected also the visions of the powerful, victorious God. The trend to further humanisation of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the apostles was not to be stopped.

In the eighteenth century of course, the tendency shifted and other kinds of painting grew in importance of production. First and foremost there was more portraiture. But also landscapes, genre pictures and pictures of scenes of antiquity were part of the larger output.

This trend in art was part of the general evolution of the times. It was the accompaniment of progress in the sciences and in the evolution of philosophic ideas. The eighteenth century was the century of Enlightenment for the sciences. It was the age of the French Philosophers Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau. The advances of chemistry and physics raised the hope that man alone, without the help of a deity, could ultimately not only discover the secrets of nature but also dominate nature as only a God could have done. Small circles of intellectuals challenged the idea that the Bible was literally true and was the one and exclusive revealed truth. The French Revolution of 1793 finally, radically proved that man could make his own fate, without a King who reigned by the grace of God, and without a political constitution directed by religious rules of law. The Roman Catholic Church had been a powerful hierarchy whose influence had been disputed by Kings and Emperors. The new-founded republics did not tolerate any other power of the citizens but their own. If Christian religion was tolerated, the Church hierarchy was to be subdued to lay political power. This happened not without reaction. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, art and people were split in blatant anticlericalism on the one side and Christian conservatism on the other.

In the eighteenth century began the first investigations into the real nature of the historical Jesus. The pictures of Jesus as the triumphant Son of God that were still doctrine and had been taken for granted until the seventeenth century, were criticised. Scholars became interested in the Jesus of before the Resurrection. The awareness grew that just maybe the Gospels were not only the literal account of the events and words of Jesus, but also the interpretations and the hopes of the early Christians.

In the nineteenth century, religious painting was replaced by various new representations. This was the era of more widespread wealth. The cities grew. Economy and industry boomed. T; there was less concentration of wealth and more freedom of spirit. Yet, through the various movements such as Romanticism, Realism, Victorian art and other that developed in this century, painting of scenes of the life of Christ continued to be a source of more than occasional inspiration. Finally, in the twentieth century, abstract painting of course banned all figurative representation. But in Expressionism and in very individual paintings, religious images remained to be in favour.

Robert Motherwell wrote in 1944 that, ‘The social condition of the modern world, which gives every experience its form is the spiritual breakdown, which followed the collapse of religion. This condition has led to the isolation of the artist from the rest of society. The modern artist’s social history is that of a spiritual being in a property-loving world.’ G86 . Thus the crisis of religion and of religious painting was a crisis of the artists also. Yet, religious Christian painting lived on and offered clear spiritual images that invited to other spiritual searches. Early modern abstract art was such a search for spirituality and a sense of transcendence and mysticism can be regularly remarked in later manifestations of abstract art.

Religious themes

All themes of the life of Jesus were depicted in the glorious years of religious painting. This book is dedicated to those themes. Some scenes were more popular than other for various reasons, sometimes even for merely local reasons. One or other painter would eventually put any event, parable and miracle of the Gospels into image. But some scenes were more popular than others. There was an effect of fashion. And each painter liked to show his skill by making his own version of such popular scenes. Thus the Nativity, the Adoration of the Kings, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Wedding at Cana, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, The Descent from the Cross, the Pietà, and the Resurrection are themes that can be found in hundreds of major and lesser paintings. Other themes such as the Parable of the Vineyard, the miracles of various healings, also the Preaching on the Mountain, are less depicted.

Not just pictures of the life of Jesus were popular. The life of the Virgin Mary was painted in scenes, which were not described by an Evangelist but which were taken from apocryphal writings and from legends. The lives and especially the scenes of martyrdom of Saints became popular. The last part of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles and the ‘Golden Legend’ could be used as a source of inspiration. And Mary Magdalene also was a beloved subject of painters. Amongst the Apostles, Peter and Paul, Andreas and Philip, Matthew and Mark were the most popular. Added to these pictures came representations of the Holy Trinity and of the Assumption of Mary Virgin.

The meaning of Christ

Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, a town of Palestine. Palestine was close to the Mediterranean, the centre of many cultures. Jesus’s parents did not live at Bethlehem; they were merely called to this town because of a Roman census. Jesus lived a private life until he was thirty years old, of which little is known. Then he led a public life of maximum three years and maybe as few as two years G40 . It is remarkable what an influence these two to three years had on Europe, since Christianism became the most adhered to religion of the continent. Christianism founded the Church or congregation of people who believed in the teaching of Jesus. The Church as an organisation needed a clergy hierarchy of Pope, Cardinals, Bishops and priests. These had an overwhelming role in the politics of the individual countries for many centuries. Next to the Church and its hierarchy, Christian monks founded monasteries, which under the direction of the two major ones of spiritual influence, Cluny and Citeaux, also were of the first importance for the economical and cultural life in Europe, from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance periods. Some of that importance continues till our days.

Jesus differed strikingly from the many other teachers who founded religions or philosophical movements, like Buddha or Mohammed. Jesus explicitly claimed to be the Son of God, to be God. This was of course considered presumptuous and even blasphemous in Jesus’s own time by the Jewish establishment. It was tolerated because considered harmless and preposterous by the Romans who occupied Palestine. Nevertheless, Jesus was executed for proclaiming to be God. But exactly this message, which sounded so preposterous, appealed to the masses of Europe by its daringness, consistency, originality, and force. According to Jacobus de Voragine, God came to us through Jesus in four ways. He came in the flesh, in the hearts, at death, and he would come to judge humans in the Last Judgement. All these were very intimate to humans, and appealed to them directly.

It is remarkable how the Christian religion could spread so rapidly in Europe although the man Jesus was apparently so inadequate. He was not understood in most of his preaching, even though He used much imagery in parables to illustrate his messages. His closest disciples did not understand him, and He said so repeatedly, as if to repel them. Only fishermen at first followed him. He was always disconcerting, almost never agreed with anything the people around him thought, so that in the end they only interrogated him. He was a disturbing radical who rarely stayed in one place and travelled around as the poorest among the excluded. He was betrayed, captured, tortured, ridiculed in public, ignominiously nailed to a cross and killed. The elite of his own country refused him when given the choice of clemency by the Romans, and preferred to let a bandit live. Finally, his message was put in writing but then in many versions out of which the Catholic Church chose four as its Canon. Jacobus de Voragine said that humanity was in need of a teacher, a redeemer, a liberator, an emancipator, an enlightened man, and a saviour G49 . Jesus Christ impersonified these roles.

Jesus’s message was impossible to realise. Only so very few people could come near to fulfilling it, that the Catholic Church gave these the particular name of Saints, the few sanctified. The message was one of love, in a world where struggle and violence were the daily necessities to survive for individuals and for communities. Yet the message conquered Europe. We cannot understand the almost only and complete art of more than four centuries and the cultural influences that continue to be generated by Christianism without trying to understand at least partly the man Jesus and his message. Maybe we could try by following the most famous painters. These were some of the most intelligent and deepest feeling individuals of their times. These might teach us how to grasp the reasons for the importance of the Christian message.

It is impossible to understand the mystery of the existence or not of a God from mathematics or logic. Piero della Francesca tried geometry, the science of perspective and of numbers, but he did not come up with a definite answer. Philosophy and theology might lead to answers, but again these disciplines of the mind remain the application of logic reasoning. We have to turn to men and women of heightened sensitivity, to the geniuses of art, to discover some of their intuition of the necessity of man to believe in a God. Maybe that same God induced this inherent need in man. The artists probed, reflected upon the questions of the meaning of life. Not just the painters of religious images did so. Many painters sought answers for the existence of mankind in other places but a deity. But we will follow the painters of religious scenes with particular attention to these questions. This remains a very private and intuitive journey. Each of us has to draw his or hers own conclusions.

A spiritual journey

The evolution of Christian visual art is the result of the advance of the ways of thinking of European man, of his philosophies and of his views on religion. The teaching of Jesus provided a ready and coherent answer to man’s most fundamental, existential questions. What is the meaning of life? What are the most important values of life? How should I behave to other men and women? What are the criteria to distinguish between good and right, what creates morality? In the teachings of Jesus humanity obtained a revealed truth that was miraculously offered as immutable, universal and eternal.

European man never accepted simply to live and let live. Acceptance of nature and events as they were or happened without apparent aim was the basis of Oriental philosophies. European man, however, was destined to strive and to search. He sought transcendence, to ever surpass himself and to become greater than he was. European man never accepted his banality. When faced with his smallness and his solitude, he sank into depression. However pathetic and limited, European man desperately looked for external truths and for objectives greater than himself. Christianity offered the framework of values and the hope of reaching the ultimate transcendence of being united with a God, the ultimate victory over oblivion and death. Unfortunately, it also allowed Christians to commit the worse crimes against humanity in the name of the message.

It was no coincidence that Christianity took such firm hold in Europe, whereas so many Apostles and disciples were sent to the East and the South to convert. Isolated grains of the Word fell in small communities and thrived there until our times, but Christianity did not become strong elsewhere but in Europe. Was it a coincidence that the most powerful disciples, Peter and Paul, came to the West? Of course, here was Rome and here lay the core of the power of the Mediterranean, but Peter and Paul did strike at that core and founded in their turn by their martyrdom a spiritual Empire that remains unequalled. The acts and the teaching of the disciples who went east and south practically disappeared in the desert, overwhelmed by Islam.

In the first centuries, a concept of the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-victorious Jesus as God emerged, which was accepted by the developing hierarchy of the Christian Church and turned into immutable doctrine. By the thirteenth century, from which date the first paintings of this book, this process was complete.

The Revealed Truth was not just targeted at an elite, but at all men and women, including the lowest classes. Its wisdom was based on the most appealing of all emotions, love. For centuries, the sacred message of love of Jesus as told in the Gospels pervaded the lives of people. The emphasis on love between humans and between humans and a Deity caught the sympathy and never relenting support of intellectuals and artists. Even modern man has to acknowledge that if it all was an illusion to believe in a submissive way in a God, it was the grandest, most splendid and most fertile illusion of history.

The fundamental question was since old: is this message true? Were Jesus, his words and acts and especially his miracles part of real history? Or were certain events of the life of Christ true history but other parts just stories generated like symbols of the deepest wishes and urges of our minds in their longing for transcendence? This interrogation also occupied the painters that we will encounter. They did not have a scientific proof of whether Jesus was truly God or not. This belief remained an act of faith. However, their acts of faith are compelling. If one gives credence to intuition, feelings, emotions, and testimony, then the answers that come from the centuries are a sound ‘yes’. And the answers are definitely a ‘yes’ to Jesus’s values and to the need for the spirituality he preached.

Artists of the thirteenth century started with an established view of Jesus. The answers were all defined for them to use. The search for the true nature of Jesus and the quest for the real meaning of religion came later. In this way, the history of religious painting is the history of the breaking down of elevated images and established views, instead of a process to form an elaborate image from nothing. The early ideas were adapted, however, until a new understanding and a new basis of representation of religious faith arose.

With the growing confidence in man, the Revealed Truth that the Catholic Church saw as the ‘Veritatis Splendor’ imposed from the heavens, became more and more oppressive to the inquisitive mind. Man wanted to be delivered of all bonds, also the most holy. Externally enforced religion was rejected several times on the long path to deification of European modern man. But the need for transcendence of European man remained always very strong. When religion was fought, man sought other ways to become greater than himself and to create meaning to his life. Communism can be considered as one of these ‘new secular religions’. These apparently lacked a God image, but the masses and the common good readily assumed the aspirations for transcendence. Many men and women offered their own life for love of this transcendence. Today, when hearing the speeches made by Corporate Executive Officers of the large commercial corporations, one cannot but have the impression that the ‘marketplace’ and the ‘shareholder’ have assumed the image of the invisible God. Substitution comes in many flavours.

Christianity offered spirituality to artists. Without spirituality, art has it difficult to exist and to be admired. This was a problem for the Impressionist painters. The French Impressionists made marvellous pictures of nature, and wonderful portraits. But their images were rarely aimed at dense spirituality, nor did they show the way for man to surpass himself. Theirs were contemplative images. Their art remained one-layered. In the end, their art was replaced by Symbolism that offered a new emphasis on the mind and on myths. We forget easily that the first great early abstract artists like Frantisek Kupka, Kasimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondriaan were drawn to abstract patterns out of the mysticism of spiritual theories such as Theosophism.

Representations of religious figures gradually became less sublimated over the centuries. Representations of Jesus and Mary as King and Queen of the Heavens turned slowly into images of suffering and warm-feeling humans. After this evolution, religious pictures almost disappeared. Spirituality and transcendence that had inspired so many artists shifted. Religious art lost its dominance entirely to portraits and landscapes, to scenes of classic antiquity and to historical scenes, then to representations of emotions.

But the need for spirituality was far too powerful to be denied. At the end of the twentieth century, the Symbolists and later the first Russian abstract painters, brought it back to the foreground. Spirituality is the realm of the mind, the mind without the necessity of a body. The abstracts brought art entirely in this realm until pictures were pure productions of the spiritual, intellectual mind. At that point however, the only thing that remained were abstract patterns and forms that could be easily combined but that ultimately lost their original meaning. Kasimir Malevich understood this well, when after having made ‘White Square’ he declared having proved all. He reverted to figurative painting. Pure spirit and its manifestations in art seem an illusion without the images of the body or of the forms humans can recognise. The artists of the centuries we will pass offer the most understandable images of spirituality, because they combined their ideas with the tactile forms of our and their lives.

We discover in art and in the representation of religious themes the growing consciousness of the individual. When man rejected the authority of the Revealed Truth, another Truth was sought from within man. This was his immanent truth. In the final stages of the evolution, in our own times, man finally admitted that the fundamental values of Christianity such as love, hope, charity, forgiveness, and equality were necessary as much as the water of life itself to realise a modern compassionate welfare society that aspired to a new form of transcendence. Transcendence and spirituality again were sought as precious values. Thereby the interest in Jesus grew and a new thirst for spirituality and Christian values was on the move. Christians of course add to these the love for the Creator and the belief that Jesus was sent to give testimony of these values, which were laid down in the Gospels.

The themes of this book

It is the subject of this book to present the main themes of the New Testament. Painters have used these themes from the thirteenth century on to our times, not just to show pictures of Jesus, Mary and the apostles, but also to communicate spirituality. Not all themes can be handled in the scope of this work. Many more themes than those presented herein have been painted at one moment or other, by one painter or other. For each theme we present in this book, one or more examples are discussed in terms of lines, forms, composition, colour and technique. Not always the finest example has been chosen; often the most interesting painter or picture was preferred. The book is thus not an exhaustive list of themes and the examples do not follow a historical timeline.

There are three further threads that underlie the main subject of this book.

One thread is the evolution of representations of spirituality. We already talked about this evolution in the way painters looked at religious subjects and how they evolved from pure religious, elevated spiritual depictions to human-centred visions.

The second thread is the individual genius of the artist. Painters captured the ideas of their contemporaries and transformed them into evolution of art. The artist was immersed in his tradition. But being more finely tuned to the perception of changes in the thinking of his fellow men, he or she often modified traditional representations or even dramatically broke with tradition. Whether these changes were subtle advances or great leaps forward, all great painters contributed to the evolution.

The third thread is the search for the genuine Jesus, the Man. This is the search for the historical Jesus from before the Resurrection and for the learning, teaching, healing and wonderful man that continues to fascinate us. We will recognise the significance of the transition from the figure Jesus, as He is shown in the Gospels, to the medieval images of Jesus in his majestic reincarnation of God. After the Gothic times we will find the slowly growing awareness of Jesus as He was before the Resurrection: a Jewish peasant, a human person. It is as if the Godly qualities that were laid upon Jesus until the thirteenth century were peeled off again, layer by layer until only the suffering and not even the mythical man remained. Painters tried to understand how the man Jesus felt during his suffering, how He talked to people, how He was as a wandering preacher and how He loved. The one image that strikes the mind in this respect is Caravaggio’s ‘Christ at the column’.

The method of this book

We will look at paintings with Eye, Mind and Heart.

With our eyes we will look at the visual effects of the colour areas, the lines that create static or dynamism in a picture and symmetries or asymmetries created in the volumes of composition.

With our mind we will try to understand why a painter made a particular picture and how his life’s period influenced his representation. We will also situate the painter in his century and in the historical events of his environment. For some paintings we will elaborate on history to obtain a glimpse of understanding of the rich framework of events that formed the background for the lives of the painters and their art at any period of time.

But foremost we will look at pictures with our heart, and let the emotions communicated by the overall view come to us. We may be overwhelmed with forceful emotions, or suffer and have pity. We may be outraged or stand in revulsion. We may be touched in our souls by the spiritual elevation of a transcendental view of a Christian theme. And finally, we may admire the incredible genius of representation of the painter, look in awe and respect, and feel close to the artist. This communication of emotions that have come from centuries past, the intimacy of artist and viewer is one of the mysteries of paintings that we will constantly experience.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.