The Stories Behind Religious Paintings from Famous Artists

Until about the 17th century, religious movements, including Christianity, used paintings to communicate with their followers. Many people in those times couldn’t read, but they could look at a painting and see what it showed. Thus, Biblical paintings created during that period were always telling a story. Visual art was a very usable and powerful “tool” to emphasize certain Biblical stories. Even today, many religious paintings are created to tell a Biblical story.

Especially during the Renaissance, artists focused on religion as their central theme. As a result, most of the famous Biblical paintings created in that period were commissioned by important Roman Catholic figures. For example, the Pope, who heads the Roman Catholic Church and is considered by many to be Divine, commissioned Biblical paintings. Thus, all Biblical paintings convey a Biblical “story”. But the stories behind the paintings are just as interesting!  

In this article, let’s look at some of the most famous Renaissance Biblical paintings and not only briefly discuss the Biblical story depicted in the painting but also find out more about the exciting history and stories behind the paintings.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous and historical Christian paintings in Renaissance art.

The painting depicts the scene of Jesus’ last supper with the twelve apostles, as told in the Gospel of John. It shows the moment just after Jesus announced that one of his apostles would betray him.

Leonardo da Vinci worked on this masterpiece from 1495 until 1498. It was painted on the back wall of the dining hall of the Dominican convent in Milan, Italy. With this mural, he experimented with pigments which he put directly on the drywall.

Unfortunately, because of this technique, the paint flaked off the wall. Even before it was completed, the mural was already suffering from paint flaking. The damage has been repaired repeatedly, but it has kept crumbling over the years. Troops also damaged the mural painting during the Napoleonic wars; in 1943, during World War II, it was bombed. So what you see today are mainly repairs.

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

In the painting “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee”, Rembrandt van Rijn told the Biblical story of Christ calming the waters on the Sea of Galilee when his disciples were terrified by a storm. Rembrandt depicted the boat with a sail ripped and waves beating on the bow, with the disciples panicking and one even vomiting over the side. To convey the message that Christ knew He had the power to calm the sea, Rembrandt depicted Jesus as the only calm person on the boat.

The disciple who is looking directly out at the viewer is a self-portrait of Rembrandt. He placed himself in the story.

Interestingly, this painting was stolen with 12 other artworks in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum during the most significant art theft in U.S. history. Unfortunately, the painting is still missing, but fortunately, documentation, photos, and replicas are still available.

The Transfiguration by Raphael (1483-1520)

This painting has been regarded by many art historians and commentators from the late 16th century until today as one of the most famous religious paintings in the world.

Two biblical themes are combined in this extraordinary oil painting. The transfiguration of Jesus is combined with the Biblical story of the healing of a possessed boy. 

Raphael’s last painting was one of his most ambitious works – a huge canvas that took him years (1516-1520) to complete. The work was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII.

Some art historians and scholars believe that Raphael’s pupil, Giulio Romano, and his assistant, Gianfrancesco Penni, painted some background figures in the lower right half of the painting. There is, however, no real evidence of that.

Doubting Thomas by Caravaggio

The painting tells the story of Thomas sticking his fingers inside Christ’s wound to determine whether it is Jesus standing in front of him. Christ and only three disciples are in the painting, but it zooms in on Christ and St Thomas. All four are staring intently at the finger as it penetrates the flesh of Christ’s side. You can see the amazement in the disciples’ faces as they realize that Christ’s flesh is as real as theirs.

Nobody before Caravaggio depicted this biblical story with such a focus on Christ’s wound. The work was painted in 1601/1602 as a private commission while Caravaggio was in Rome. It was an unusual commission as Rome had no tradition of devotion to St Thomas. Of all Caravaggio’s artworks, “Doubting Thomas” has been copied the most. 

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

The painting depicts a moment in the Biblical creation story when God breathed life into Adam, the first man. The painting depicts two figures: God on the right and Adam on the left. Michelangelo depicted God as an elderly yet muscular male with grey hair and a long beard. Adam is shown as not very enthusiastic with his response to God. Adam’s body echoes the form of God’s body, as suggested in the Book of Genesis.

The “Creation of Adam” was painted in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. It was completed in 1512. The priests’ candle smoke was so intense over the centuries that it actually damaged the painting. Nowadays, the fresco is dark and shadowy due to the effects of the candle smoke.

It was restored in 1980, however, many art historians find fault with the restoration. According to some, the restored version is different from the original.

Conclusion

Although some painters are still creating religious paintings, the Renaissance period was the period when Biblical and Christian paintings bloomed. And it is always good to know a little bit more about the background of a painting. So we hope this article will entice you to have a new look at religious paintings over the centuries.

Huynh Nguyen

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