There is an unfortunate, albeit common, misunderstanding that there is little religious about modern and contemporary art. The misunderstanding has at least two sources. The first is clearly the gaze of historians and critics, journalists and essayists, who have presumed the secularization thesis to be true in spite of massive evidence to the contrary. The second may be linked to the professionalization of art history as a valid discipline. What follows will briefly look at the critical gaze that has made “religion in modern art” appear to be an oxymoron and then will turn to show the wide variety of ways in which religion, specifically biblical subjects, has been pervasive throughout modern and contemporary art.

“Modern art,” as noted here, is understood to have begun around the 1860s and continues in various ways up until the present. Terms like “postmodern” art have been used for work done after the 1960s, though it is beyond the scope of this essay to assess the differences between modern and postmodern. Hence, what follows uses the more general terms “modern” and “contemporary,” leaving the intricacies of the variances to others. For the sake of space, too, we will focus here on what tends to be called “fine art” or “high art,” the kind that might end up in museums, galleries, and collectors’ rooms, which means ignoring a vast array of religious visual culture in the modern and contemporary period.

On the Critical Disjuncture between Religion and Modern Art.

In 1979, one of the late twentieth century’s most influential art historians, Rosalind Krauss, called the split between the “sacred” and “secular” to be an “absolute rift” (p. 54). In an influential essay titled “Grids,” Krauss noted what many had before (e.g., Hegel, Goethe, Nietzsche) and after her (e.g., negatively: James Elkins; positively: Suzi Gablik)—that art was something of a “secular form of belief.” Not only did art and religion become separable spheres of existence in the modern age, they became competitors as well. This leads ultimately to Krauss’s statement: “now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence” (p. 54). From the art historical perspective, religion became anathema. For the most part, this has continued today.

The scholar of religious visual culture Sally Promey ably summarizes the problems in the modern secular mindset in approaching religious themes in art: “In twentieth-century scholarship, the marginalization of religion has been reinforced by prevalent modernist intellectual assumptions concerning religion’s restriction of creative individuality, its responsibility for an inferior aesthetic or taste culture, and its presumed universal proclivity toward conservative, sectarian, and ideological obsessions” (2003, p. 585). The late twentieth century saw a series of conservative political-theological attacks on art (the “Christian Right” took on Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Chris Ofili, and others), and so this split was sometimes understandable. Perhaps unfortunate was that the critics simply understood the fundamentalist reactions to be the stance of all religion.

Against this backdrop, at the turn of the twenty-first century Promey noted a “return” of religion in art scholarship. Her focus was on American art history, but her extensive historiography finds a thread of new studies that are taking religion seriously as imbedded in and inextricable from various currents in sociopolitical life, and thus also it is naïve to separate religion out from art historical analyses. She concludes by suggesting that “approaching religion as something other than the academy’s last permissible primitivist attraction will yield significant new understandings in the scholarship of American art history” (2003, p. 598).

Just after Promey’s work, James Elkins published a little book called On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (2004)—the secularist art-theoretical establishment at the time could only scratch its head and wonder about what to do with religious and spiritual themes in contemporary art. While teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago, Elkins kept coming across students who were fascinated by religious and spiritual themes and who kept incorporating them into their art as a way to deal with their own past, to tap into vast resources of visual symbols, and/or to dismiss religion. Elkins ends the book with an uncertainty: “It is impossible to talk sensibly about religion and at the same time address art in an informed and intelligent manner: but it is also irresponsible not to keep trying” (2004, p. 116).

Elkins did keep trying, and as he formed a series he called “The Art Seminar,” he made sure one of the topics was art and religion. A collection of essays and a transcript of a conversation was published in 2009 as Re-enchantment, edited by Elkins and the religious visual culture scholar David Morgan. Elkins still suggests that “most religious art … is just bad art,” in contrast to the assertion that “ambitious, successful fine art is thoroughly non-religious” (2009, p. 70). Many others in the collection argued differently, with many solid objections. But it was clear that those in the “art history” side of the seminar were dismissive of religion (though they generally equated religion with a high theology), while those on the “religious studies” side pointed out that there is less of a discrepancy than believed.

To discuss the relation of art and religion, then, one must also understand something of the discourse that surrounds these relations. One thing that scholars attuned to the practice of religion have come to realize is that it is difficult to discuss “art” as a separate category when so many religious people do not make such distinctions. This is one of the reasons the category of “visual culture” has emerged in the last two decades, as it shifts the focus and shows the everyday nature of visual imagery. Scholars trained in art history, but with a strong knowledge of religious studies, like Promey and Morgan, have been instrumental in showing how the old categories of art can be usefully broken down. Nonetheless, that is an issue for another essay, and here we will move back in time to reaccount for the place of biblical themes in modern and into contemporary art.

From Impressionism to Expressionism: Distorting the Figure of Jesus.

The standard—though not always agreed upon—art historical view is that modernism began with the Impressionists in the 1860s in France, particularly with the work of Édouard Manet, along with Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. Post-Impressionism followed, and in many ways it was this movement that shifted art away from its naturalistic and realistic representational concerns. These movements were synchronous with the development of the photographic camera, and so interest in painting or sculpting “realistically” became less of an issue. The camera could do that better, so artists wanted to explore the specificities of their own medium, hence the turn toward paint itself and the two-dimensionality of the surface. Brush strokes became broader and self-aware, landscapes were flattened into collections of color. Even so, the subject matter retained importance, and artists turned to biblical themes as ways to work out their new styles. Whether or not these were piously painted or ever intended for use in religious devotional settings is beside the point for now.

Though the Frenchman Paul Gauguin, the Belgian James Ensor, and the German Emil Nolde were separated by decades and styles (Gauguin a post-Impressionist, Ensor a precursor to Expressionism, and Nolde typically classified as Expressionist), they all came at the subject through paint. That is, they were exploring the flat spaces of the canvas that the Impressionists had opened up and used the traditional biblical subject matter of previous centuries. At the same time, their two-dimensional renderings simultaneously turned the mythological biblical characters into “one of us”: Jesus as Everyman.

Gauguin, in his travels and attempts to recover something of the noble savage, also found a noble savage in Jesus, and two paintings of the Crucifixion (The Yellow Christ and The Green Christ, both 1889) have Jesus in the French countryside, dying among the peasants in the fields. At the same time, Ensor’s large-scale Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888) is still somewhat shocking in its portrayal of Jesus on a donkey in iconographic “entry into Jerusalem” mode, here all but swallowed up by the ruckus of carnival. Emil Nolde turned to biblical subject matter from around 1909 through the end of his life in the 1950s. Nolde’s works depict Jesus and other biblical characters, but his early depictions such as Pentecost (1909), Christ among the Children (1910), and especially the nine-part Life of Christ (1911–1912) were painted with a grotesquery that startled viewers and caused a fair amount of controversy, resulting in his work being rejected from shows. Nolde himself felt he was painting something deep and spiritual. This disjuncture is seen again and again through modern art, as the artist claims one version of personal spirituality and the audience sees something wholly other, offensive, and repugnant.

The German Expressionists from the 1910s through 1930s saw things against the backdrop of war, and hence Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Otto Dix protested against suffering by depicting Christ’s suffering. Beckmann’s Descent from the Cross (1917) shows an emaciated, pale-fleshed Jesus being taken down off the cross, and one of the women at the foot of the cross, instead of holding the body, simply averts her eyes. George Grosz sketched Christ on the cross in 1928 wearing a gas mask and soldier boots, labeling it Shut Your Mouth and Keep on Serving, an act that brought charges of blasphemy and a trial. Otto Dix made many studies of the life of Christ through his life, and in 1960 he made 33 lithographs for the Berlin publisher Käthe Vogt’s The Gospel of Matthew.

Dix, Grosz, Beckmann, Nolde, and many other abstract artists at the time ended up in the Nazi-propaganda exhibition “Degenerate Art” in Munich in 1937. The catalog stated that degenerate art depicted “prostitutes, pimps, brothels, Negroes, South Pacific Islanders, idiots, cretins, paralytics and Jews.” It is not clear what Hitler, Goebbels, and the propagandists at the time were thinking, as it went on to become a blockbuster hit, with more than a million visitors in the first six weeks, making it one of the largest and most-seen exhibitions of modern art in the history of the world.

Modern and Contemporary Visual Art

Paul Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ (1889).

Erich Lessing/Art Resource, N.Y.

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Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, on the other hand, used the iconic image of crucifixion and turned it to other ends. Both of these artists were atheists, rejecting the Christianity of their childhoods and yet clearly still struggling with it along the way. Picasso’s 1930 Crucifixion portrays suffering and visually works as a precursor to his much more famous and important work Guernica (1937).

A 1933 painting by Bacon carries the title Crucifixion, though it is a ghostly shadow of a slaughtered ox reminiscent of Chaim Soutine’s Flayed Beef (1925) and Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox paintings (1643 and 1655). Bacon states: “I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. … I know, for religious people, for Christians, the Crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a non-believer, it was just an act of man’s behaviour, a way of behaviour to another” (Sylvester, 1975 p. 23).

Max Ernst also had little religious interest and enjoyed the provocation that surrealism supplied. His The Blessed Virgin Chastizes the Infant Jesus (1926) is hilarious in its depiction: the Madonna sitting in classic blue and red, but with the naked baby Jesus over her knee, halo on ground, buttocks red from being swatted by the Blessed Virgin’s bare hand. In spite of the shocking hilarity, it provokes sophisticated theological responses about what, exactly, people believe the infant Jesus to have behaved like. In this light, the Christmas-time “Silent Night” seems as far removed from reality (“no crying he makes”) as Ernst’s surrealist take. The contrast of the sacred and profane is taken up again, decades later, by Andres Serrano and others.

At the same time, abstraction became a way for artists to depict Jesus, in particular the Crucifixion, in ways that were both modernist and in keeping with an orthodox Christology. The twisted, angular shapes of Georges Rouault (Christ on the Cross, 1939) and Graham Sutherland (Crucifixion, 1946) turned crucifixion back into something it was: a twisted, suffering-laden attack on the human body. Both men were Christians and painted out of their religious convictions.

Responding to all of this was Salvador Dalí and his Christ of St. John of the Cross (1951), about which he explicitly stated he wanted a “metaphysical” Christ, in contrast to what Picasso and Bacon were doing, and explicitly in contrast to the sixteenth-century Matthias Grünewald and his gruesome crucifixion as part of the Isenheim altarpiece. Dalí’s painting is a replica of a small sketch by Dalí’s countryman, St. John of the Cross, in which the crucified Christ hovers above the earth. Dalí takes this image and beautifies it to show that while Christ may be on a cross, there is no blood and little indication of suffering in this perfected body.

While Jesus and the crucifixion was a primary subject matter, easily connectable to a Europe in the midst of world wars, other biblical scenes were taken up as well. Turning briefly to sculpture, Henry Moore, known for his “negative space,” in which figures are sculpted from stone with great gaping hollowed-out elements, has nothing about the negative in his 1944 Madonna and Child. The sculpture sits in St. Matthew’s church in Northampton, England, and the solidity of the figure is pronounced.

Also notable in this line is George Segal’s sculpture Abraham and Isaac (1978–1979). Segal was commissioned initially to create a “memorial” to the shooting of four students at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. When the memorial committee saw Segal’s subject matter, they rejected it, feeling it inappropriate. Today it sits along the side of Princeton University’s chapel.

Modern and Contemporary Visual Art

Madonna and Child (1943–1944), St. Matthew’s church, Northampton, England. Unlike other sculptures by Henry Spencer Moore, there is no negative space in this figure.

© Henry Moore Foundation. All rights reserved, DACS 2015/ Images. Reproduced by permission of the Henry Moore Foundation

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From Nonobjective to Abstract Expressionism: Erasing the Figure but Keeping the Religious Themes.

Another tradition developed in the early twentieth century and ran through mid-century—the move toward nonrepresentational, nonobjective art. The artists most associated with this move were the Russians Wassily Kandinsky and Kasmir Malevich and the Dutchman Piet Mondrian. With Mondrian, we can see a progression from roughly 1905 to 1920 through his paintings of trees—at first quite naturalistic, by 1911 becoming abstracted (yet still recognizable as trees), and by the late 1910s, all suggestion of a tree is erased, save some suggestive titles. Significantly, it is not just the profane “tree” that is painted, but that tree becomes a series of crossed lines. For Mondrian, under the sway of the mystical mathematician M. H. J. Shoenmaekers, these crosses are a mystical figure of union, a meeting of the vertical and horizontal. Likewise, Malevich sought to get rid of all natural, political, and social connotations with his art, and curiously enough, the figure he alights on is a cross.

Crossed, rectilinear lines get taken up in the architectural styles of Le Corbusier, Adolf Loos, and Mies van der Rohe (and his famous exclamation “less is more”) and ultimately in the minimalism of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Agnes Martin in the 1960s. These crossed lines become “grids” in a quest for the minimum markings needed to be “art.” In this stripping down, this “purifying” (as Mark C. Taylor would put it; see Taylor, 1992) we find art that pretends to be free from social, political, and theological connections, and yet the figure is the near-universal figure of a cross, seen across religious traditions, but especially seen in Christianity. And it is with the “grid” that Rosalind Krauss begins her analysis of contemporary art, using it as the point to configure the problematic relations between religion and modern art noted at the start of this essay.

Kandinsky operated in similar matter, though along the way created a series of fascinating paintings on glass with apocalyptic themes. Under the influence of theosophy, Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), a quasi-mystical manifesto that seemed to believe in art’s ability to save the world, if only we could understand the colors (like blue and yellow) and shapes (like triangles and circles) that offer universal significance. The old age is ending and a new one is beginning, “The Epoch of the Great Spiritual,” and artists might be the prophets to lead the way. At the same time, Kandinsky was from a Russian Orthodox background, so the subject matter for some of his early forays into these “end times” were often based on Christian and biblical themes such as Noah, Jonah, and a passage from the book of Revelation. In 1910–1912, he painted a series of tempera-on-glass works with apocalyptic themes, including Horseman of the Apocalypse and The Last Judgment, which visualize imagery from the book of Revelation, a not uncommon theme in painting. At the same time, Kandinsky was working to make his paintings “nonobjective,” having no connection to the objective world, utilizing titles such as Improvisation 28.

The formal and spiritual inheritor of the first wave of nonobjective painting was the postwar, New York–based movement that came to be known as Abstract Expressionism. The founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred H. Barr Jr., along with the theologian Paul Tillich and others, saw in Abstract Expressionism a kind of spiritual “authenticity” that allowed religious connection, even though in nontraditional ways. The shift from the sacred space of the church to the museum is made evident here. Figures, often refugees from war in Europe, such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Jackson Pollock continued the general “spirituality” of the nonobjective works of Kandinsky and Mondrian, but they, too, indicated numerous biblical references within these frameworks.

Newman’s large-scale “zip” works (monochromatic paint with one line “zipped” down the canvas) intended to create a connection between artwork and viewer, and as the zips went in a vertical direction, there were many implications of this connection paralleling the relation between God above and viewers below. In Newman’s works Eve (1950) and Adam (1951–1952), there is no reference figurally to the Genesis characters, save the titles, but critics have pointed to these paintings as being about the act of creation itself: God’s work replicated in the artist’s work. The prominent critic Arthur Danto wondered whether Newman was escaping the Second Commandment proscription against graven images by painting in this way. With these works, seen through Genesis 1, the active dimension of separation (God separating light from dark, waters, land, and sea) might be invoked through the separating process of the zip line.

Rothko also worked through careful attention to paint on canvas, doubling this through titular reference to the colors used (e.g., Orange and Tan or White Center). He was certain that the deep emotional/spiritual “expression” he used to put into his paintings would be repeated in the body of the viewers, who, he liked to note, would break down and cry in front of his work. Rothko has referred to the Akeda, or “binding,” of Isaac by Abraham (via Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling) and compared the sacrifice implied there to the sacrifice of the artist. The biblical references may be most prominent in a series of paintings he did toward the end of his life that are today housed in the Rothko Chapel outside Houston, Texas. The 14 paintings in the chapel are dark black, with barely a sense of painting indicated, but the fact that there are 14 paintings, and the chapel is in the shape of a Greek cross, shows a clear correlation to the traditional Stations of the Cross found in chapels, churches, and cathedrals around the world. Rothko denied the connection, but it seems a difficult thing to deny. From 1958 to 1966, Barnett Newman also worked on a series called The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, 14 blue-grayish pieces with zips incorporated into them.

Rothko and Newman, like several other modern artists, had Jewish roots that were left behind in Europe (Rothko’s birth name was Rothkowitz). Others, like Emmanuel Levy and Marc Chagall, retained their Jewish heritage while exploring visual art and sometimes painting Christian themes. Levy’s 1942 Crucifixion and Chagall’s well-known White Crucifixion (1938) come to mind. Chagall also did a number of stained glass windows that are filled with biblical imagery, both Christian and Jewish. He said, “To read the Bible is to perceive a certain light, and the window has to make this obvious through its simplicity and grace” (quoted in Harshav, 2003 p. 145). His glassworks were made for Jewish synagogues and Christian cathedrals alike. Interestingly, these “Jewish” artists worked with figural imagery in spite of certain believed restrictions against this in the Second Commandment. Following in these traditions, with a formal dose of the surrealist work of Dalí, Samuel Bak has continually incorporated biblical themes into his paintings.

Contemporary Art.

The term “contemporary” implies something recent and up to date, as does “modern” (from the Latin modo, meaning “just now”). ”Postmodern” also indicates something about time, and the fact that the “modern” is in the past, and we are “post” that. If anything characterizes these broad sweeps of history over the past century-and-a-half it is that art wants to be seen as new. As we continue to see, what is new never quite ignores what is past.

A striking way to note the continued presence of religious, spiritual, and biblical subjects found in contemporary art is to look at a series of art exhibitions at major museums since the 1990s. When the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago opened its doors in 1996, its first exhibition, “Negotiating Rapture,” contained works by Rothko, Newman, Bacon, and Agnes Martin, as well as more contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Bill Viola. Heaven (Tate Liverpool, 2000), Iconoclash (Karlsruhe, Center for Art and Media, 2002), 100 Artists See God (independent, traveling 2004–), and Traces du Sacré (Centre Pompidou, 2008) contain references to multiple religious and spiritual traditions, with frequent reference to biblical subject matter.

Smaller exhibitions such as “Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden” at the Museum of Biblical Art in 2014 included several well-known contemporary artists using the biblical themes of Eden to rethink ongoing concerns with desire, temptation, paradise, and environmental devastation. Barnaby Furnas’s The Fruit Eaters (2013) places Adam and Eve in a surreal pop landscape, while Jim Dine’s Garden of Eden (2003) resituates the mythical place in his own childhood, and Naomi Riess’s Vertical Garden: Weeds (2007–2008) displays an attempt to recreate an exotic paradise within a modern architectural environment.

Meanwhile, major retrospectives of individual artists bring out a range of subjects in ways that uncover biblical and religious dimensions. Anselm Kiefer’s Between Heaven and Earth (2006) provided a significant view of the contemporary German artist’s large-scale artworks, featuring his mixing of various mythologies, including Hebrew scriptures and Kabbalah. Likewise, the exhibition Night and Day (New Museum, 2015) displays the British artist Chris Ofili’s work over the past three decades, including his controversial 1996 work The Holy Virgin Mary.

Photography has provided a medium to review the approach to figuration and abstraction as well as personal engagements with the material. The Jamaican-born photographer Renee Cox made Yo Mama’s Last Supper in 1999, inserting herself, naked, into the place of Jesus. Andres Serrano famously submerged a mass-produced crucifix in a jar of urine with light pouring through. The result is a stunning image, highly attractive when seen across a gallery space, but garnering controversy when the title is added: Piss Christ.

One of the most prominent video artists, Bill Viola, has continually maintained a religious outlook with his works, from Sufism to Zen Buddhism to Medieval Christian spirituality. In works such as The Greeting (1995) Viola displays the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1, though seen through the sixteenth-century Mannerist painting The Visitation by Jacopo da Pontormo. In Viola’s reconfiguring, the “greeting” is slowed down to a point where one has to look twice to see it is a moving image—the effect being an expansion of time and the ability on the part of viewers to investigate fine nuances of people’s connection. Likewise, Walter Verdin’s video installation Sliding Time (2009) takes an old painting of a biblical subject (in this case Rogier van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century Descent from the Cross) and remakes it by cutting Rogier’s image up and, through video, rearranging the components. Both Viola and Verdin retell the Bible, but via other media. They offer attempts at remythologizing, updating the stories and imagery for a new age.


A question remains: Are these biblical subjects? Even if the artists never spent any time reading the Bible, some sense of the “Great Code” may be in play here. But we are still left with a series of questions about the relations between Bible and art. A brownish canvas has a line through the middle of it, signifying nothing specifically until the title “Eve” is placed on it. The Riders of the Apocalypse are just abstracted figures on horses. Some artists are using biblical subjects to provocatively rethink religious tradition, while others are using them to rethink artistic tradition. And then there are the viewers, who may “get something” spiritual from an atheist artist depicting Jesus, while a pious artist might be considered blasphemous. The attempt to delineate piety and parody, critical viewers and devotional artists, becomes an impossible task to pin down. Studies in a variety of artists, artworks, and their reception become necessary to understand the ways in which art works on the lives of artists and art lovers.

One would be remiss not to mention again the central role that a shift toward “visual culture” has played in the relations of religion and modern-ity. If we get out of the “high art” complex (with which this essay has been concerned), we find many ways to make the connections between religion and art. It is significant that scholars like Promey, Morgan, and many others have been utilizing this term, and in ways that broaden our interests beyond iconographical readings of “art” or biographical narratives of the “artist.” To understand religious relations to art, as well as biblical dimensions, we have to move toward broader contexts in which art moves and works in the modern and contemporary age, as well as whatever age we are entering.



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S. Brent Plate