Chasing Inspiration – How Western Art Moved Away From Christianity

Timothy AspeslaghSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

During the last seven centuries, the history of painting has been marked by a series of liberations – some intentional, others accidental. As the art world, through these upheavals, became what is now called ‘fine art’, the world of traditional medieval art became increasingly remote. If we want to understand what happened, we have to understand the medieval art that was left behind. We have to try to see the world the way medieval people did. It is easy to wander around in Art History, exploring the countless art movements that succeeded each other. For our purposes though, we will have a general look at three major periods: The medieval period, the Enlightenment period, and the Contemporary period. To get a grasp of what the art world is doing during these periods, we will take a look at two movements that mark a transition from one period to the other: The Renaissance, that departs from the Middle Ages into the Enlightenment; and Impressionism, that started the contemporary art movements. The Medieval PeriodBefore we continue, we will need to carefully define the term ‘form’. It is a term that has come to mean several things in the world of art. In the context of this article, we will use the word to refer to the essence of a thing; an abstract ideal that the thing participates in, albeit imperfectly. This will become clear with the example of a circle. A drawn circle will always be an imperfect expression of its mathematical form. The less perfect a drawn circle is, the more deformed it becomes.

We can never make a pure expression of the form of the circle because a mathematical line has no width and can therefore not be observed.

For the Christian artist, receiving patronage from the Church, the goal was to express God. Before Christ, this was impossible and prohibited, and for good reason. Strictly speaking, God is beyond form, in that He gives rise to forms in general. He’s not limited. That the Christian artist could now express God, was possible because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God became flesh. The form of forms, beyond all forms, took human form. The Incarnation thus allowed Christians to express God both in their own life and in art. To cite Vladimir Lossky, an Eastern Orthodox theologian:

“One knows that the defenders of the holy images founded the possibility of Christian iconography on the fact of the incarnation of the Word: icons, just as well as the Scriptures, are expressions of the inexpressible, and have become possible thanks to the revelation of God which was accomplished in the incarnation of the Son” 1

When the artist paints icons of the saints, he paints them in their ideal divinized form, participating in Christ while still retaining their particularities, their facial features.2 Saints truly were painted as they lived, for they are considered to be living icons of Christ. As the late Ananda Coomaraswamy, philosopher of eastern and Christian art, puts it:

“The traditional image is that of man as he would be at the age of resurrection, in an ageless body of glory”. 3

The icons look otherworldly for a reason. They are continuous with our world, but point to the next one4. But towards the end of the middle ages, that was about to change.

Detail of a mosaic of The Last Judgement in the Torcello Cathedral, 12th Century. Christ Pantocrator in the middle, with the Theotokos and St Peter on his right hand, and St John the Forerunner and St Paul on his left.
The Renaissance

It is in this context that the first emancipation occurred, which arguably started with Giotto di Bondone, a Florentine artist born in the mid-13th century. Giotto’s paintings look much more like a window into an ‘earthly’ scene than the imagery of Byzantine art. To mention just a few things, notice first that his figures appear three-dimensional, which creates an illusion of depth. This was achieved with new techniques like foreshortening and perspective. Another thing is that by studying people’s expressions, Giotto also sought to convey emotions such as grief or joy in more expressive detail than they had been conveyed previously.

The Lamentation of Christ in the Scrovegni Chapel, made by Giotto di Bondone circa 1305 AD

The zeitgeist moved in Giotto’s favour, and the Renaissance took off. Florence became one of the leading cities in the quest for the mastery of these techniques. Depictions of saints now were much more drawn according to how the artists perceived the outward appearances of people to be.  As mentioned, one part of this is the use of linear perspective. This technique allows artists to convey an illusion of a 3D space by letting lines converge into ‘vanishing points’.

Notice how the rails of these train tracks seem to converge into a single point, the vanishing point. Since the lines are actually parallel, this point would be located in mathematical infinity.

One reason why Byzantine Art does not make use of this kind of perspective could be that it suggests a point ‘far away into infinity’, which would make no sense if the scene we are looking at is already a depiction of the infinite.5 But in the 15th century, soon after Filippo Brunelleschi had developed a systematic approach to linear perspective, linear perspective came to be used by almost every Italian painter. In the 16th century, Renaissance artists like the Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti received commissions from the Roman Church to make prestigious altar paintings. Michelangelo’s work displayed his mastery of anatomy, which he perfected by dissecting corpses and drawing from models. One of his most famous works, a painting of The Last Judgement for the Sistine Chapel, shows an ambivalence of adherence to tradition on one side, and innovation for the sake of aestheticism and detail on the other. It is this ambivalence that characterizes the Renaissance as a transition period between the Middle Ages and early modernity.  

The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, finished in 1541 AD by Michelangelo Buonarotti. Notice also how much nudity is used compared to previous depictions of this event. This opened the door for eroticism in art to return in the coming ages.6

In traditional composition it is very important to have Mary, the mother of God, and St. Peter at the right hand of Christ. It is the side of the good thief who repented on the cross next to Christ. This hand symbolizes a gathering of the sheep into Paradise. But as it is the side of St. Peter, who is the right hand of Christ, it also shows a proclivity for pride. It was St. Peter who boasted that he would not leave Christ, before denying him thrice. At the left hand of Christ, traditional composition would have St. John the Forerunner and St. Paul. This represents the preaching of the gospel to the outside world, the world of death. St. John embodied this by shouting ‘Repent!’ in the wilderness, before becoming a martyr. St. Paul also preached to the outside world, by having become “All things to all people”. 7 As per tradition, the painting shows a gathering of the blessed on the right hand of Christ, and a descending of the wicked on his left hand. But the placement of the saints also shows a departure from tradition, as Saint Peter is now depicted on the left-hand of Christ, next to Saint Paul. Close to Mary, on the right-hand side, is a figure clothed in animal skin, who would arguably be Saint John the Forerunner.8 This arrangement was made with more thought for a pleasing composition than for a coherence to the form, which is expressed in right-hand left-hand symbolism.  What is also absent in the image is the entry into paradise in the lower left corner. In this way, Michelangelo’s image corresponds more with the modern conception of heaven as a place in the clouds where you go when you die, as opposed to the image of the new Jerusalem in Byzantine art. By moving away from the traditional composition, Michelangelo thus introduces an imbalance to his image.

Detail of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. At the utmost right hand of Christ is arguably St. John the Forerunner (1), on his immediate right is the Mother of God (2). At the utmost left hand is St. Peter (4) holding the Keys to Eden. Right next to St. Peter is St. Paul (3).

While Michelangelo was working for the papacy, waves of iconoclasm surged in major European cities.9 Drawing on the prohibition of idolatry in the ten commandments, mobs of Calvinist Protestants set themselves to the destruction of Catholic art in riots known as the “Beeldenstorm”.10 The intricacies of the debate on icons11 are beyond the scope of this article, but it is worth noting that Protestantism brought about the emancipation of the artist from the Church. This was especially the case in the Netherlands, where the lack of patronage from the Calvinist Church provided the scene for the Dutch Golden Age of art to emerge. To make ends meet, the Dutch artists made portraits on commission. Those that did not want to pursue making portraits sold their landscape paintings for a much rougher audience, the general public. Throughout the following centuries, art movements came and went. What stayed constant, though, was the quest of the artist to create the illusion of life in their work. In 1860, the Parisian art scene became the catalyst for the culmination of this quest that had started five centuries earlier.

The Impressionists

The established Académie des Beaux-Arts could call itself the preserver of the traditional French painting standards. It’s preference for Neoclassicism, a revival of classicism, was so strong that bold innovation was stifled. Neoclassical paintings represented bodies in a much more realistic fashion, and typically depicted moments from Greco-Roman history or mythological scenes. The scenes and poses were still, in a way, iconographic. The images still compressed reality into a mythological representation.

La Mort de Socrate, 1787, Jacques-Louis-David. The way these figures stand reminds of actors acting out a drama. The scene is distilled into its most important elements.

A new movement, the Impressionists, saw that the academic painters had become like Pharisees, mechanically sticking to the old conventions.12 Through their newfound inspiration, the Impressionists were able to paint things as they appeared to them. Instead of painting a model under the soft artificial light of a studio lamp, Impressionist painters like Édouard Manet would paint their subjects under the harsh conditions of outdoor sunlight. Going yet further in the direction of realism, they were drawing realistic people in realistic scenes. Even though clearly continuous with the momentum of Western Art at the time, it came as a real shock to the academy.

Le balcon, 1869, Édouard Manet. What appears as a regular ‘academic’ painting to us was shocking to the French academy. Manet painted faces in full sunlight, which caused contours disappear. See for example the nose of the girl on the right, which has almost no shadows and looks flat.

To achieve the goal of painting everyday perceptions, the artist had to be emancipated from the studio. Only by painting outdoors, in front of their motifs, could they really capture the fleeting impressions of the moment. Because these perceptions were so elusive, the Impressionists opted for quick brushstrokes.  The Pharisees of the academy were outraged at this blatant heresy, but they were fighting a losing battle. After bitter controversies that lasted for two decades, Impressionist painters started to become financially secure. Their artistry had been recognised by their contemporaries.

Eugène Manet à l’île de Wight, 1875 AD by Berthe Morisot

Just as with the art of the Renaissance, Impressionism exhibits a strange ambivalence. It is undeniable that artists like Manet took on the same question that other artists had struggled with for centuries on end: How do I paint what my eyes see? Or rather: How do I convey the illusion of life? At the same time though, after the Impressionists gave their answer to this question, the art world no longer busied themselves with making ‘snapshots’ from life. Aiding in this emancipation was the advent of photography, which could paint a realistic picture with the push of a button, rendering the traditional need for portraits obsolete. If artists still wanted to mean anything, they had to reinvent themselves. When we compare Impressionism with Medieval art, it becomes clear why Impressionism was such a fitting closure to the Enlightenment period. The Byzantine artist wanted to draw the eternal, The Impressionist wanted to draw the fleeting moments.  Out of Impressionism came three distinctive modern movements: Primitivism, which borrowed from non-western primitive works of art; Cubism, which sought to deliberately deconstruct and deform their subject so as to present them from multiple points of view at the same time; and Expressionism, which sought to express the form of emotions. 13 With modern art, the emancipation from traditional rules of perspective and harmony followed soon. After all, where is the harmony in an emotion like anguish?

Skrik, 1893 AD by Edvard Munch. Munch still used compositional techniques to guide our attention, but the senses of the viewers were to be stirred, not pleased.
Recovering Tradition

Nowadays the contemporary artist has been emancipated from pretty much all limitations on his self-expression. Because of this, art history is seen as a story of progressive refinement. This refinement was carried out by the Greeks and Romans, but had dozed off in a dark, primitive sleep following the fall of Rome, until it was woken up in the Renaissance. Western art did change when germanic tribes migrated into the remains of the roman empire. These tribes brought with them their own artistic tradition.  But we should not overlook the fact that Byzantine artists in the east remained connected with classical techniques, even through periods of iconoclasm. Similar to what happened with Dutch Calvinist artists, the quality of artistry could be maintained through secular commissions. Moreover, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans by the pope in the year 800, he took it on himself to revive the roman art style as to legitimize his title. To achieve this goal, he borrowed heavily from eastern roman art.

The Palatine Chapel, consecrated in 805, built by Odo of Metz for Emperor Charlemagne. The architectural style and mosaic dome shows a clear byzantine influence.

The contemporary prejudice on Medieval Christian art also presumes that the traditional artist was really wanting to do the same as a contemporary one. In other words, we cannot criticize a traditional work of art for not being ahead of its time, when the artist tried to do the opposite: to infuse his work of art with a timeless quality. He did not want to draw things as they appeared, because what was expressed in the outward appearances of nature was accidental, not eternal.  Instead of self-expression, the artist tried to express that which was, before the incarnation of Jesus Christ, inexpressible. Because God has taken on flesh in the womb of Mary, the artist could now let his canvas be a womb in which God could be manifested. Just as the Holy Spirit visited Mary to tell her she was going to bear the Christ-child, so too the Holy Spirit came to the artist so he could bear fruit.

Theotokos of the Sign, Mary at the moment she says ‘Amen’ at the Annunciation. Religious art like this has a fractal nature, as the painting represents what it is: A frame for the divine to manifest itself in.

By being in the Holy Spirit, ‘in spiritus sanctus’14, the artist could prevent himself from getting stuck in a Pharisee-like copying of both truth and accidental error. This allowed him to make his art beautiful. With this he did not mean that its composition or colours are aesthetical, or in other words, stimulate or comfort the senses. His work was not merely entertainment to be hung on a wall and looked at. His work served a higher purpose, which could be discovered by using the intellect to explore the chosen form. He would call his work beautiful to the degree that it accomplished its purpose.  Now that our perspective is closer to the traditional lens, we can attempt to judge works of art. To start our judgement, we must first participate in it. It is not enough to be pleased with what we see, we need to bring in us the form that the artist wanted to convey. Then we can judge the reason for the painting’s existence by asking, did the artist choose a good form? Was it moral for the artist to start expressing this? Once we are satisfied with our answer, we can ask a second question: Did the artist express his form beautifully? Is it truthful to the form?  The contemporary art world has done its best to stand removed from these questions. After all, hasn’t it been emancipated from beauty and form? The artist, calling himself truly free, has to maintain his freedom by keeping tradition at bay. A good work of art these days is one that critiques established values. But it seems that the artist has fallen into another pitfall. It begs the question, what would it be like if we emancipated the artist from this trap? Or in other words, what if the artist sacrificed the last hurdle to true self-expression, his own ego?    

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. Lossky, Vladimir. “The Meaning of Icons, at 14. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989
  2. Compare this with Jonathan Pageau’s conception of Love as “The capacity for unity within diversity” – Pageau, Jonathan “The Christian Definition of Love and its connection to Memory”, at 1:33. Youtube, February 2019
  3. Coomaraswamy, Ananda. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, at 44. Dover publications, 1956
  4. Compare this with how Orthodox churches are often continuous with the buildings around them, but also have this exotic aspect that points to the world to come. See Jonathan Pageau’s interview with Andrew Gould:
  5. You can read more on this in Daniel Mitsui’s wonderful article “Heavenly Outlook”
  6. Leaving the more chaste christian art behind, it could be seen as a parallel from the fall from Eden, which was also a fall into flesh.
  7. More on the symbolism of right and left can be found in Jonathan Pageau’s series of articles on the subject:  
  8. This figure is also identified with Adam wearing garments of skin, but this still doesn’t fit on Christ’s right hand, as Adam wore garments of skin when he was moving away from Eden, into the outside world.
  9. Ironically, the protestant revolution of that time was not only about church imagery, but also about the sale of indulgences, a practice that funded Michelangelo’s work for the church
  10. see
  11. A good article on iconoclasm is ‘Visual Heresy’ by Jonathan Pageau
  12. As Vladimir Lossky puts it, “One cannot belong to the Tradition while contradicting the dogmas, just as one cannot make use of the dogmatic formulas received in order to oppose a formal “orthodoxy” to every new expression of the Truth that the life of the Church may produce. The first attitude is that of revolutionary innovators, of false prophets who sin against the expressed Truth, against the Incarnate Word, in the name of the Spirit to which they lay claim. The second is that of the conservative formalists, pharisees of the Church who, in the name of the habitual expressions of Truth, run the risk of sinning against the Spirit of Truth.” – Lossky, Vladimir. In the Image and Likeness of God, at 165. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974
  13. It is interesting to note that Cubists like Picasso used Primitivist motifs to aid in their mission to deconstruct the established notions of art. Compare this to what Jonathan Pageau says about Primitivism here or what he says on Archeology and Egyptology here
  14. inspired means exactly that, being ‘in spiritus’

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