Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498. Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 460 x 880 cm. Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

Evolution of Holy Art

Exploring the evolution of art that is inspired by the oldest story of time, one that established many age-old Western traditions, does provide an interesting opportunity to see how interpretations of Christ have changed through time. Many a biblical scene has been depicted by artists through the ages, and is done in style that reflects the time and culture from which the interpretation is founded.

The expanse of religious art produced in the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, indicates that depicting conventional Christian scenes was in vogue.  This period we now recognise as the Renaissance, did yield some monumental images of Christ in art. Take da Vinci’s Last Supper as a famed example.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498. Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 460 x 880 cm. Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1495-1498. Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 460 x 880 cm.
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

The Last Supper is a revered event in the life of Christ. Aspects of this image – the central and glorified position of Jesus Christ, the light indicating a halo around the holy figure, along with the scale of painting’s existence on the wall of the Convent of Santa Maria, all emphasise the importance and reverence of this biblical event. This would imply that, at this time, biblical tales were understood as literal accounts and that the figure of Christ was hugely important, respected, and worshipped.

A comparison between da Vinci’s portrayal of Christ, with more a modern work of art can show how interpretations of Christ and the bible have evolved.

In the modern world, biblical tales are understood less literally, more metaphorically. Otto Dix (1891-1969) portrays Christ as a more relatable figure in his abstract Temptation of Christ. Does this art encourage contemporaries to think differently, perhaps question and engage with biblical morals in a different way? This abstract image reflects the evolutionary understanding of Christ and the bible in the modern day.

Otto Dix, The Temptation of Christ, 1960: Lithograph, 29 x 23 cm.
Otto Dix, The Temptation of Christ, 1960: Lithograph, 29 x 23 cm.

In Dix’s image a man battles his demons in the form of a dark, looming, gothic figure reminiscent of a cartoon beast. Modernity is implied in the urban background and reminds us that Christ can be figuratively ever-present, and evolving for an ever-modernising world.

Through these images, it becomes plausible that Christ is, in the modern world, considered a symbolic figure rather than an exact being as was understood centuries ago. His image in art is nevertheless respected through time and still relevant to life in the present day as a strong character to take inspiration from. Christ is now an adaptable figure and his image has evolved over centuries to teach and motivate contemporaries of any given era. As this image during the Renaissance may have encouraged people to live righteously as did Christ, His presence in the modern day is likewise one that can inspire goodness in a different and changed world.

If you’d like to find out more about changing impressions of Christ through time, pick up a copy of one of our latest books, Christ in Art.

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