When we think about religious art, we have a tendency to think of it in terms of a single genre--that which draws its spirit and content from the Bible. But it doesn't take a Bible scholar to tell you that there are two parts to the Bible and that in spirit and content they differ greatly from one another. The Old Testament is filled with prophecy, the history and lineage of Christ's forebears, and examples of the godly and ungodly. The New Testament deals with the life, times, and teachings of Christ along with additional examples of the righteous and UN-righteous. There's also an element of prophecy in Revelations, but with the exception of Last Judgements, it's not been well covered by artists. In any case, it's not surprising therefore, that a similar dichotomy also exists in religious art. For the most part, that art which was commissioned by the church drew its inspiration from the New Testament. The one notable exception to this is the headstrong Michelangelo's choice of Genesis for his church-sponsored Sistine ceiling frescos over Pope Julius II's original commission for "prophets and assorted and sundry decoration."
However rich a store of inspiration the New Testament may have held for artists and the church officials directing them, it was only a fraction of the gold mine of content contained in the much broader Old Testament. Moreover, while the strictures of the church may have held artists' depictions within fairly tight bounds in rendering scenes and themes from the life of Christ, the same artists found restrictions much looser as they sought to interpret Old Testament scriptures. Beyond that, artists have always been fond of scenes of dramatic confrontation, violence, and nudity. The Old Testament is rife with such scenes. And as church patronage for the arts tapered off in the seventeenth century, more and more artists found secular patrons willing to pay well for "religious" art from a much broader stream of inspiration--that stemming from the Old Testament. Artists as diverse as Rembrandt, Rubens, Andrea del Castagno, Michelangelo, and Artemisia Gentileschi turned to the "other" part of the Bible for their content, and in so doing, opened up a rich vein of "new" images while remaining safely sheltered from moral critics beneath the broad umbrella of religious art.
It was a whole new world of heroes and heroines the Old Testament presented to Post-Renaissance artists determined to excel beyond their classical masters. And the Baroque period was the perfect time and environment for such work. Even as early as 1450, Andrea del Castagno and others had latched onto the Old Testament story of David and Goliath--a strong, attractive, teenage hero battling and beheading an ugly giant ogre. Sounds like a perfect TV mini-series (indeed, filmmakers have loved depicting the story of David). Castagno chose a ceremonial leather shield for his version of this Old Testament hero.
Peter Paul Rubens chose the subject of fratricide. His 1608 painting of Cain Slaying Abel depicts a villainous, bearded, semi-nude wild man the moment before he strikes the killing blow in murdering his nude brother. On an altar in the background burns the rejected offering that triggered it all. Michelangelo would have loved the tense, writhing mass of muscular male anatomy Rubens no doubt borrowed from his Sistine ceiling. The Mannerist style had spread from Rome and was alive and well in Antwerp where fifty years earlier Pieter Brueghel had peered into the Old Testament and built his own Tower of Babel on canvas.
Rembrandt had an even greater taste for blood and gore. His The Blinding of Samson from 1636 depicts the Philistines holding the shorn hero at bay with a spear, one eye already gouged out with a dagger, the other about to be. Delilah is seen fleeing the scene with shears and the majority of Samson's all-powerful hair. It's not exactly church decor. In fact, it's by far the most violent painting of Rembrandt's career. Artemisia Gentileschi and Caravaggio both chose an even more obscure Old Testament scene as Judith and her maid behead the Assyrian general, Holofernes, in a murderous orgy of spurting blood and wanton violence. And Gentileschi's version is by far the bloodier of the two. The Florentine painter, Rosso Fiorentino, looked to Exodus (2:16-18) for his less bloody, but no less violent struggle between Moses, as he defends Jethro's seven daughters, and a group of shepherds preventing them from watering their father's flock. His 1523 Moses and the Daughters of Jethro, while bearing strong Mannerist colour tendencies, also borrows heavily from the style of Michelangelo's newly completed Sistine ceiling, adding a taste of early Baroque naked contortionism. Though still during his lifetime, it was far in excess of anything Michelangelo might have wrought.