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Art and the Bible

Early Art.

Stories from the Bible had become the subject of a developed narrative art by the middle of the third century CE in the synagogue discovered at Dura‐Europos, where dozens of biblical scenes are depicted in frescoes; the Christian church there from the same period also has paintings representing both Old and New Testament subjects. In the sixth century, mosaics in a number of synagogues also represent biblical subjects, such as at Gerasa (modern Jerash), from the fourth or fifth century, where the procession of animals into Noah's ark is depicted, and from the sixth century, those at Beth Alpha (the sacrifice of Isaac), Naaran (Daniel in the lions' den), and Gaza (David as Orpheus). Other early illustrations of the influence of the Bible on Christian art are the mosaics in churches throughout the Near East and especially the sequence of paintings in the Roman catacombs that extend chiefly from the third to the fourth centuries CE. The purpose of these fresco paintings is not primarily to illustrate biblical material but rather to interpret them. The subjects are those that could be typologically linked with what “fulfills” them in Christ: Moses striking water from the rock, Noah delivered from the flood, the three men escaping from the fiery furnace, Daniel saved from the lions' den—all are juxtaposed or depicted in such a way as to indicate their anticipation of the saving, healing, releasing power of Christ as exhibited in the healing of the paralytic, the woman with the issue of blood, the Samaritan woman at the well, the miracle of the loaves, or the raising of Lazarus. No attempt is made in this painting at descriptive realism, to represent how the incident looked when it happened. Christ and the other figures are taken from contemporary art; indeed Christ is sometimes presented as a new Orpheus or Hercules, and if he appears as the good shepherd he is depicted in terms of the Hellenistic models of the day. Early Christian art is a symbolic language, and this gives it a certain indirectness; only the Christian initiate would be able to decipher in full its powerful inner meaning.

The move toward a comprehensive theological program by typological juxtapositioning of material from the Old and New Testaments is developed in the relief sculpture that began to appear on the sides of sarcophagi particularly after the Edict of Milan (313 CE). The unifying theme of these works is again salvation through Christ, and again it is treated cryptically and indirectly. On a sarcophagus in Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman forum (third century CE) Christ appears unobtrusively as the good shepherd and as a young boy being baptized; the key to the whole work (Christianity as the new philosophy of salvation, here being pondered by a seated philosopher figure) is indicated by the extensive treatment of Jonah, reclining like the Greek god Endymion, as a type of the saved soul. This presentation of Christian salvation does not use the crucifixion. The same kind of typological arrangement, but more substantial and integrated into an artistic whole, is seen on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus in the Vatican Grottoes (fourth century CE). In two panels, Christ (enthroned or entering Jerusalem) is flanked by the sacrifice of Isaac (See Aqedah), Adam and Eve, the sufferings of Job, Daniel in the lions' den. The only scene from the passion of Christ is the trial before Pilate; again, there is no crucifixion.

A particularly mature and instructive treatment of the theme of salvation, with allusions to the crucifixion, is to be seen on a Vatican sarcophagus of the middle of the fifth century CE. In the center a plain Greek equal‐armed cross is surmounted by the chi‐rho monogram which is encircled by a laurel victory wreath. There is no body of Christ on the cross, but on either side of it below are sleeping soldiers. To the left of the center panel are the episodes of Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross and the mock crowning of Jesus by the soldiers. To the right a double panel is devoted to the trial of Jesus before Pilate. In this sequence the artist has integrated the themes of crucifixion and resurrection. This ability to present two themes simultaneously is one of the great strengths of visual art. The crucifixion is present in this sculptural program but only indirectly; in organic relation to the resurrection it comprises the real, though hidden, crowning of Christ in contrast to the vicarious cross‐bearing of Simon, the simulated crowning of the soldiers, or the trial before Pilate—where Christ is, despite appearances, the real king who judges.

With the development of church architecture following the Edict of Milan, art soon becomes an important vehicle linking the Bible and liturgy. This is particularly the case with mosaic decoration that is organically related to its architectural setting. The best example of this is to be found in the cluster of fifth‐ and sixth‐century Christian buildings at Ravenna, particularly the church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. In this early Byzantine church, along the north and south sides of the nave, a series of mosaic panels uses episodes from the Gospels in relation to the eucharistic celebration, which would be focused in the apse of this basilica. On the north side are scenes from the life of Jesus (including the parable of the Pharisee and the publican) leading up to the miracle at Cana of Galilee (John 2.1–12) at the edge of the sanctuary. The series on the south side starts with the Last Supper and goes through the story of the passion (omitting the crucifixion) ending with the episode of doubting Thomas (John 20.24–29). It is likely that the choice of these subjects was determined by the liturgical calendar in use at the time. As in the catacombs and sarcophagi, the unifying theme of the whole program is the salvation brought by Christ, with particular emphasis on martyrdom as the response to this in human life. The historiated panels just described are closely linked with two very lively processions of male and female martyrs making their way to the sanctuary; the mosaics convey a vivid sensation of movement. Martyrdom as the classic expression of following in the way of the cross is also the theme in the two baptisteries in Ravenna (of the Arians and of the Orthodox). The crucifixion is not given as a separable episode, but its meaning is diffused, so to speak, throughout the whole scheme, indicating the source of the life of the Christian martyr‐follower. In the apse of the church of Sant'Apollinare in Classe (just outside Ravenna) the crucifixion is again obliquely presented, this time in the context of the transfiguration, implying that it is not an episode only of the past but is reenacted sacramentally in the eucharistic action performed in the body of the church.

Another vivid presentation in mosaic of typological themes in relation to the Eucharist is to be found in the sanctuary of the sixth‐century church of San Vitale in Ravenna. On the north side, there is an integrated scene comprising Abraham receiving the three heavenly visitors (to what looks like a eucharistic meal) and the sacrifice of Isaac, a common typological pointer to the sacrifice of Christ. Above this are Moses receiving the law and Jeremiah with a martyr's crown and scroll. On the south side the prefigurations of the Eucharist are Abel offering his sacrificial lamb, and Melchizedek. Above are Moses as shepherd and at the burning bush, and Isaiah with martyr's crown and scroll.

The Ravenna mosaics throw light on early Christian attitudes to biblical history. The historical incidents are sketched in such a way as to suggest their permanent significance, and through the liturgy these past events become present realities.

The Middle Ages.

During the Middle Ages, two very significant phases take place in the development of art: Romanesque and Gothic.

Romanesque is a term that covers the art and architecture of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which developed from various and very different sources: classical, Byzantine, Islamic, and Mesopotamian. It thus became an art admirably equipped to express both the narrative and the symbolic requirements of a Christianity based on the Bible. Perhaps the best surviving fully articulated biblical and theological program in the Romanesque tradition is the sculpture on the royal portal of the cathedral at Chartres. The central tympanum has the seated Christ in glory surrounded by the symbols of the evangelists (Matthew: young man; Mark: lion; Luke: ox; John: eagle) and the seated elders. This derives from the visions of the book of Revelation and is very prominent in Romanesque sculpture and painting. The adjacent bays are given over to the ascension and the incarnation. The latter is deliberately designed to stress the incarnation as itself God's act of self‐sacrifice (the child lies on an altarlike structure and the presentation of Christ in the Temple is over an altar); no doubt this reflects eucharistic preaching of the time. As well as being a divine sacrifice, the incarnation is presented as the crown of human culture and the key to the universal meaning of all time by having the liberal arts and the signs of the zodiac in the archivolts. Somewhat in the manner of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, a series of historiated capitals giving episodes from the life of Jesus binds the three bays together. The biblical antecedents of the New Testament story are suggested in the pillar figures of kings, queens, priests, and prophets on the columns of all three bays. Other outstanding Romanesque sculptural treatments of biblical themes in France are to be found at Vézelay, Moissac, Arles, and St. Gilles‐du‐Gard. The tympanum at Vézelay is especially interesting for the way it blends into one scene Christ's mission charge to the apostles with scenes of all kinds of strange and deformed creatures drawn from early medieval fables and bestiaries, thus making a very striking interpretation of the universal Christ. In Spain, the sculptures in the cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos also relate Christ to biblical history and to a strange, somewhat surrealistic, natural world of birds with animal heads. Particularly profound at Silos is a sculptured relief that, in a way reminiscent of the Vatican sarcophagus, works into one artistic whole both crucifixion and resurrection.

The Romanesque period also saw a marked development in the use of biblical themes in painting, both in illuminated manuscripts and in fresco painting in church interiors. Some extensive examples of fresco painting are to be found in France at St. Savin‐sur‐Gartempe (with an impressive series of scenes from the Hebrew Bible on the ceiling of the nave), at Vicq and St. Chef; in Spain at San Isidoro in Leon; in Italy at Sant'Angelo in Formis; and in Germany on the island of Reichenau.

Extending from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, the Gothic period is the high‐water mark in the evolution of medieval art and architecture. In comparison with Romanesque the tendency now is toward greater realism in representation. This is well illustrated if one compares the Romanesque royal portal at Chartres with the sculpture of the north and south porches. Not that this means that the motive has become solely to illustrate the biblical narrative more strikingly by showing in more detail how the event actually happened. Rather, the typological and allegorical relating of Old and New Testament subjects still predominates, and the aim is to present as a unified whole an encyclopedia of Christian doctrine and ethics. France, where the Gothic style originated, again supplies the best examples. Chartres is the finest remaining example of this attempt to integrate architecture, sculpture, and stained glass into one comprehensive scheme. Bourges and Laon are other notable examples. The typological treatment of subjects from the Hebrew Bible remains basically that of the catacombs: biblical anticipations are juxtaposed with their fulfillment in the birth, passion, and death of Christ. The more realistic treatment of scenes from the Gospels does not indicate an interest in history for its own sake; in fact, the use of material from the Gospels in the Gothic period shows a surprising austerity compared with previous centuries. Healings, hitherto very common (the paralytic, the woman with the issue of blood, the blind man), are conspicuously absent in the Gothic period. Incidents from the life of Jesus prior to the passion story are confined to the baptism, the temptation, the sign at Cana of Galilee, and the transfiguration. This is true of illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and sculpture. Remarkable, too, is the paucity of parables that appear in the art of this period. The emphasis falls on four parables: the good Samaritan, the ten virgins, the prodigal son, and Dives and Lazarus—all of which were christologically interpreted in patristic and medieval preaching. Artists were not intent on giving a fully illustrated version of the biblical story, but rather on providing an accompaniment to the liturgy and on embodying the teaching of the preachers and theological commentators. The motive is still to make a doctrinal point, but not until the Italian Renaissance do we find anything like a descriptive treatment of the nativity. Throughout the Gothic period, the scene of the nativity is mysterious and troubled: the mother of Christ lies apart from her son who appears not in a manger but on a sacrificial altar.

The Renaissance and Reformation.

As far as the influence of the Bible on art is concerned, the Renaissance and the Reformation are best considered together. The early Italian Renaissance led to a fresh development of the classical tradition in art, already discernible in the Gothic sculpture at Chartres, and to a renewed emphasis on humanism and textual studies. As the Reformation proceeded, the authority of the Bible became more isolated; there was also a revival of the aniconic principle found in the Ten Commandments, so that the visual arts were regarded at best as unnecessary decoration to the biblical text and at worst as a misleading distraction. The Counter‐Reformation saw a deliberate attempt to restore the position of the arts as ancillary to the Bible and subject to the rules laid down by the Council of Trent in 1563.

The great change noticeable in the use of biblical subjects at the Renaissance is the move from a largely two‐dimensional hieratic art to something more realistic and more three‐dimensional in perspective. Byzantine and medieval art as a whole had presented biblical subjects in their transcendental and theological perspective, especially in the light of the Last Judgment. Renaissance art, while not denying this reference, gave more prominence to the natural and the human. The change of mood is well illustrated by the sequence of biblical scenes by Giotto (1266/7–1337) in the frescoes of the Arena chapel at Padua. Such scenes as the betrayal or the lamentation have a depth of human feeling and a realism that herald developments to come in Renaissance painting. This new accent affected the treatment of New Testament subjects. One can say that a certain kind of “quest of the historical Jesus” began in art in, for example, a painter like Masaccio (1401–1428?) in his frescoes in the Brancacci chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. These, whether the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden or The Tribute Money, show a new kind of bodily realism and a new interest in the happening for its own sake rather than its symbolic, didactic, or doctrinal significance. A compellingly realistic treatment of the resurrection by Donatello (1386–1466) in San Lorenzo, Florence, has also great religious depth. It succeeds in linking resurrection with crucifixion; the austere Christ who emerges from the slime of the tomb is a risen Christ who has really suffered and really died. This is in great contrast to the crucifixion of Raphael (1483–1520) in the National Gallery, London, where the interest of the artist is more in classical harmony, design, and symmetry. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) is more successful (e.g., in his Madonna of the Rocks and The Last Supper) in combining technique of design with religious depth. Michelangelo (1476–1564) shows the late Renaissance exuberance in the human body and composition on the grand scale. His treatment of creation and Last Judgment in the Sistine chapel in the Vatican contrasts sharply with the handling of these themes in Romanesque art.

Something of Luther's realism in Christology (“You can't drag Christ down too deeply into our human nature”) finds its way into the work of an artist who was much influenced by his teaching, Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), especially his woodcuts and engravings. His series on the passion, in which he sees himself involved in the situation of Christ, is very Lutheran in feel. Equally striking are his woodcuts on the book of Revelation, with their realistic detail and the way Dürer contextualizes the apocalyptic scenes in contemporary society. Dürer's contemporary, Mathias Grünewald (ca. 1470/80–1528), was also influenced by Luther, and his famous Isenheim altarpiece of the crucifixion in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France, marks a turning point in the iconography of that subject. It is a crucifixion that in its grim detail would not have been possible in the patristic period, when the victory of the crucified Christ was emphasized. While Luther, too, saw the atonement in terms of a great divine victory over death and sin, he felt that such a theology of glory could play down the stark realities of human life in its suffering. Grünewald's Isenheim crucifixion, with its gangrenous‐looking flesh and clawlike hands, is a powerful statement of what Luther would have called a theology of the cross. Grünewald's crucifixion is not only realistic representation but it also retains symbolic elements with its unusual introduction of John the Baptist to the scene (against a background of the text: “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3.30]) and the lamb with the vexillum of victory.

The Reformed tradition attains its most considerable expression in art in the work of Rembrandt (1606–1669), who must be classed as one of the great artistic commentators on the Bible. Biblical events and personalities were for Rembrandt more than a source of material for dramatic illustration, as they tended to be for Rubens. Rembrandt came to see in the biblical history his own and everyone's personal story. His painting of subjects from both testaments have a deeply felt interior quality, and his biblical work as a whole embodies a profound sense that the Bible is not only past history, but also present and universal experience. This is particularly true of the paintings and etchings of his later years, for example his crucifixions, where, like Dürer, he sees his own tribulations as a participation in those of Christ. The Hebrew Bible for Rembrandt is important in its own right and not simply as a preface to the New Testament, and no artist had hitherto entered with such intensity into the spirit of such subjects as the sacrifice of Isaac (before this time treated for the most part typologically), Joseph interpreting his dreams, or the relations between Saul and David. Memorable New Testament subjects are Christ healing the sick, the return of the prodigal son, the crucifixion (especially those of his later years), and Christ at Emmaus.

The Modern Period.

The eighteenth century did not produce many works of significance for appreciating the use of the Bible in art. The biblical paintings of Tiepolo (1695–1770) are on a rich and dramatic scale but remain primarily decorative. Idiosyncratic as may have been the personal religion of William Blake (1757–1827), his watercolors and etchings of biblical subjects have a sweep and intensity of great power. Especially worthy of mention are his engravings for the book of Job.

The nineteenth century, however, saw a new attempt at authentic realism and feeling in the work of the pre‐Raphaelites and the painstaking attempts to reproduce accurately the Palestinian scene in the work of systematic illustrators of the Bible, such as James Tissot (1836–1902).

The twentieth century has proved to be a creative period for the use of biblical themes in art, and especially of new interpretations of the crucifixion. Graham Sutherland (1903–1980) has said that no one in the twentieth century can conceive of the crucifixion apart from Auschwitz. His crucifixions in St. Matthew, Northampton, and in Coventry Cathedral fuse event and symbol in a way that is reminiscent of Grünewald.

The two most significant artists in the twentieth century influenced by the Bible are Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall. Rouault (1871–1958), in his portraits of Christ and especially in his scenes from the passion, draws on the Byzantine tradition of the icon, and in his “biblical landscapes” he makes an innovative attempt to convey the nature of salvation in terms of landscapes, which, while they appear threatening to human life, nevertheless contain space for human beings to experience the accompanying presence of Christ.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985) is an outstanding commentator in art on biblical subjects. Drawing on both Jewish and Christian traditions and developing, like Blake, his own personal mythology, his work in painting, etching, and stained glass constitutes a uniquely important interpretation of the Bible. No painter since Rembrandt has so entered into the spirit of the Bible. Examples of how he relates, for example, creation and crucifixion are to be found in the series Message biblique housed in the Musée National in Nice. Chagall is also a significant figure in the evolution of the iconography of the crucifixion. He combines the suffering and hope in a new and compelling manner by relating the Torah and the crucifixion of Christ. In a way reminiscent of Rouault's biblical landscapes, Chagall's volcanic and tumultuous scenes yet suggest the possibility of deliverance and hope, in, for instance, Obsession (1943), by the insertion of a green crucifix, recalling very effectively the cross as the tree of life in medieval art.

See also Illustrated Bibles


John Tinsley

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