The Face of Christ: Part 3 – The History of Christian Art

In the previous installments of this series, we addressed the foundation for this discussion, the ethnicity of Jesus, and the Gospel message. As always, there is a necessity to understand history, and that is what we will discuss in the following. The last section began that discussion by speaking a little on Jesus’ earthly ethnic history concerning the Jews. This section will address the history of Christian religious art from around the world and why it is essential to understand and appreciate that history. As I said before, my hope is to offer information in this series so as to shine a light on the history and purpose of religious imagery, especially art that depicts Christ. Also, I hope to instill in people a better appreciation for the magnificent and unique art from all cultures, not just a select few, in order to keep such art around for the generations to come (1).

I think many people struggle with how to appreciate art in general, let alone religious art. Should we keep art that we feel doesn’t fit with our current culture? How can we appreciate art made by bad (or rather, sinful) people? This struggle is not only found with the visual arts, either. People also take issue with books written in the past, especially when they are from a European perspective. Instead of pointing out what great works they are, and including them among the great works of world literature, many people focus only on their flaws and misconceptions. To them, such works are fit only for burning.

The “enlightened” modernist always condemns the people of the past, saying, “Why didn’t you have the standards I hold today?” This is a flawed perspective. In some cases, it is only because of the people that came before us that we hold the attitudes we do today. In fact, it is only because of Christ that we view all people as created equal in the eyes of God. But if this idea of “the past needs to hold my present standard” is used evenly across the board, the outcome is to ignore or destroy any and every piece of art, writing, or music that didn’t exist before the modern age because it was created by the “unenlightened.” I wonder if any art of the modern era is to exist at all, too. How do we react to such destruction?

I mentioned briefly in the first installment that this is a form of iconoclasm fit for the modern age. But what is iconoclasm? First, the word iconoclasm comes from two Greek words: eikon, meaning image, and klastes, meaning to break (2). Thus, an iconoclast is one who breaks images (2). Now, there are two main definitions of the word iconoclasm, but the main idea is that people break (destroy) images, typically religious in nature, in rejection of those beliefs either for political or religious reasons (3,4,5).

While the idea of destroying religious images existed long before the Christian era, the practice of iconoclasm with Christian art began largely in the 8th and 9th centuries. Both support for and against iconoclasm came from the popes, though people had been suspicious of images depicting Christ and even the saints for centuries. During this time, Christians saw depictions of Christ and saints as idolatry. In some cases, they were right, but it is difficult to justify their actions and judgments. In response to these feelings and beliefs, much art was destroyed in the Byzantine Empire for over a hundred years. It is astonishing that we have any Christian images from before that time. Some of those remaining images will be included in the following installment of this series. This is a sad and disappointing period for both Christians and art historians. So much art and history were destroyed at this time, and there is no way to get it back.

As the East destroyed their art, many artists moved west, especially into the Germanic nations (5). But under Basil I, the icons were restored, and the practice of destroying images was made heretical. Such restorations began with places like the Hagia Sophia cathedral and spread throughout the rest of the Church. In the following centuries, creating beautiful art became a part of what the Church funded for society and Christians in general. It was also during this time that there came to be a noticeable distinction between Eastern and Western Christian art, and that distinction is still seen today.

After the iconoclasm of the Byzantine era, there have been a handful of notable occasions when iconoclasm has reared its ugly head. Some instances were for religious reasons; others were for censorship against ideas contrary to the popular opinion at the time. An example of the latter can be found in the French Revolution (6). But the Church has been guilty as well, and especially the Protestant denominations. In fact, in the period following the Protestant Reformation, there was widespread Christian iconoclasm throughout Europe, and many reliefs and stained glass windows, among other art, were destroyed (7). The sad part of all this was that while the Protestants recognized that we should worship God and not the images, they failed to see the art for what it was. This art was created for the beatification of the sanctuaries where God is worshiped and for the teaching of Scripture, especially for those who could not read. Furthermore, such images of Christ are a reminder that Jesus came in the flesh to die for us.

To deny that Christ can be portrayed in an icon is to deny that Christ was man, part of history. The incarnation lends justification to legitimate use of the icon. Icons preserve historical continuity with the early church (8).

As we now have people wishing to destroy (and are actually destroying) art, including religious art, we are once again dealing with iconoclasts. And how is this form fit for this age? Well, I say this because though the form it takes is not really for Christian religious reasons, the current iconoclasts take offense at what is contrary to the religion of secular humanism. Thus, if it is of a religion not their own, or is contrary to their beliefs, it must be destroyed lest other people enjoy and learn from it. But keep in mind the many periods of iconoclasm in history. We no longer have art and culture from a variety of ages of history to the detriment of scholars, admirers of art and history, and all of us. Shall we make the same mistakes today?

Again, referring back to all I have said and especially that last quote, “the incarnation lends justification” to images of Christ (8). I think this can extend to variations of those images as well. As I mentioned in the second installment, we don’t actually know what Jesus looked like. And if there is nothing wrong with depicting Christ, we have little to no reason to destroy variations of those images for our own petty reasons. Thus, our reaction to the destruction (or talk of the destruction) of images is to learn and understand the truth. In this case, it is the history of religious art pertaining to Christ and Christianity.

So then, what is the point of Christian religious art? The point of most Christian religious art is for “decorations,” “use in the acts of the liturgy,” and “individual and communal expression of a faith life” (1). Christian art comes in various forms. One might say it comes in as many styles as there are cultures. Once the Church was no longer in hiding and had some influence and monetary backing, for better or worse, the Church became one of the main sponsors of art, especially in the West. This is why most of the Christian art we think of is from the West, with a significant number of works from the Renaissance.

The Church, however, was creating art long before that time. The art varied from place to place in appearance, subject matter, and purpose. For example, much of the art in Rome’s catacombs incorporated pagan imagery, both to disguise it from those who would wish to betray them and to integrate known symbols from the culture for teaching. Much of this art was also symbolic, and it was more of a writing system to teach than to be aesthetically pleasing (1). And this is, in general, true for most Christian art. It was not until the later centuries, especially in the West, that a greater emphasis was put into making art beautiful and for advancing the technique of the artist – not to mention fulfilling the requests of patrons, religious and secular. Most Christian art was designed to teach, depict scenes from Scripture, and to glorify Christ.

There was also the extensive use of icons in the Christian Church, especially in the East and Orthodox communities. These icons were part of religious devotion, and they typically depicted Christ, Mary, and various saints. Similar icons, or icon-like images, are found extensively in Eastern art from Greece to the furthest coast of Asia. Like the Roman Christians before them, the art of the East often incorporated designs, symbols, and form structures that were similar to the pagan culture around them. However, many images found in the East, and the world in general, usually depicted events from the Old and New Testaments. Though there were many images of Christ, and possibly more of the Virgin Mother and Child, most art was used to tell a story from the Bible and to teach. Wherever the Gospel went, the people there made unique art from the Bible for their homes and churches.

The goal of this too-brief history of Christian art was to get to this point: few people creating this art were genuinely concerned with the ethnicity of Christ. Why mention this? Because that has become a topic of conversation in recent weeks. See, at the beginning of the Christian Church, Christians were unconcerned about race (though it took the Jews some time to realize that Jesus really meant go into all the world [Acts 1:8, 11:18, 13:47]), and they were even less concerned about the race of Christ. They were much more concerned with spreading the Gospel and not dying (well, not-dying for the most part, anyway).

As Christianity spread, they took their art with them, for Christian art has existed in some form through all the ages. And as they went into the world, their art was influenced by the various cultures of those who created it (1). In fact, it is to the shame of modern churches, especially the Protestant denominations, that the Church has abandoned art to the secular culture. It was the Church that funded the visual and physical arts in addition to other pursuits for centuries, benefiting all areas of society and culture. While there are arguments to be made that some of that money was ill-gotten, and there were many people in power that used their power wrongly (if they should have had it at all), we cannot discount the tremendous good the Church did in the arts. Especially in the West, the Church put art in every place there was a church. They built beautiful sanctuaries and funded paintings and sculptures that people could appreciate both then and in the future. Compared to that time, it is a wonder that we now construct churches like warehouses and leave our walls bare of even a cross in some buildings.

Wherever the Church went, there the Christians who created the art “brought some element of its own artistic heritage,” and this often meant the place the Christians were originally from (1). For example, most of Western art was influenced by the Greeks and Romans, as well as the pagan art of northern Europe (1). In the East, there was a strong Greek Orthodox, Orient, and Middle Eastern influence in the art (1). Thus, the artists would depict the biblical characters, including Christ, as they were used to depicting people or as the people of their area looked. With time, their characters only became more distinct, but possibly not for the reasons many people of our current age might think.

These people did not depict Jesus as they did, making him look like the people around them, for racist reasons. (Side note: I am sure you can find examples of that too. For example, the Nazis tried ridiculously hard to erase the fact that Jesus was born to the Jews. This is not to say that all Germans did this or all Christians, or even that all German art is therefore racist. People are evil, and their sinful nature seeks to distort God and His message. But that is a discussion for another time.) Artists of the past depicted Christ the way they did because 1) that’s what they knew how to do, 2) following that same logic, most of their examples (the people around them) would look like them and be thus depicted in their art, 3) the point of the art was to create images from the Bible for the enjoyment, edification, and understanding of the viewers, and 4) they didn’t know (or care) what Jesus looked like ethnically.

Not only did the appearance of Jesus change with the culture He was depicted in, but so too did the emphasis on certain symbols or teachings change. Even the types of art changed. Some created stained glass, others statues, and still more made paintings or carvings (1). The point, however, is that the style of art they made depended on the culture it was created in and for no other purpose than it was typical of the culture. This is true for the types of art and the represented ethnicity of Christ. This was not done with the intention to exclude others. Instead, artists, either consciously or not, created art similar to the culture so that those who utilized the art would recognize those depictions and symbols—nothing more, nothing less.

The good news is, there is nothing wrong with appreciating good art, regardless of its culture of origin. This is, in part, why it is so important to learn and know history before making judgments. In the next part, we will go through examples of artistic depictions of Christ from around the world and appreciate them for the magnificent and unique art that they are.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig


Works Referenced

  1. “Art, Ecclesiastical and Religious.” Christian Cyclopedia. Edited by Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson. Concordia Publishing House. 2000. G. G. Coulton, Art and the Reformation, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1953); K. M. McClinton, Christian Church Art Through the Ages (New York, 1962); E. Male, Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1963); E. Male, The Gothic Image (New York, 1958).
  2. Iconoclast.” The Online Etymology Dictionary.
  3. iconoclasm.” Lexico.
  4. iconoclast.” The Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  5. Kleiner, Fred S., and Christian J. Mamiya. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Vol. 1, edited by John R. Swanson, Stacy Sims, Amy McGaughey, and Brianna Brinkley, 12th ed., Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2005, pp. 340-41, 523.
  6. Idzerda, Stanley J. “Iconoclasm during the French Revolution.” The American Historical Review, vol. 60, no. 1, 1954, pp. 13–26. JSTOR.
  7. Felix, Steven. Pentecostal Aesthetics: Theological Reflections in a Pentecostal Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics. BRILL, 2015, pp. 22-27.
  8. Iconoclastic Controversy.” Christian Cyclopedia. Edited by Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson. Concordia Publishing House. 2000.E. W. Benz, The Eastern Orthodox Churchtr. R. and C. Winston (Chicago, 1963); E. J. Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy (New York, 1930); E. R. Bevan, Holy Images (London, 1940); G. Ostrogorski, Studien zur Geschichte des byzantinischen Bilderstreites (Breslau, 1929); Der byzantinische Bilderstreit, comp. H.-J. Geischer (Gütersloh, 1968).

One thought on “The Face of Christ: Part 3 – The History of Christian Art

  1. Pingback: The Face of Christ: Part 4 – Christ in Culture and Art – Madelyn Rose Craig

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