- Gallery - Themes in Art
HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Periods Alphabetically Nationality Topics Themes Medium Glossary

Sort by Period
Sort Alphabetically
Sort by Nationality
Themes in Art


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics

Saints and Church Figures

We all enjoy looking at old photographs and laughing or cringing at how much we and our family members or friends have changed over the years. Sometimes the changes are for the better but usually not. We grow older, greyer, balder, fatter, and wrinklier. We also grow wiser, but photos aren't too good at showing that. If all of this is true of individuals, the same is true of mankind in general. Of course I'm not talking about physical changes, though old photos tend to indicate we're now taller on the whole, and probably somewhat heavier than were our ancestors who didn't eat as well and no doubt worked harder. No, I'm talking about the role art, particularly painting, serves in illustrating how mankind has changed in the ways in which we think and act during the past seven or eight hundred years in which painting has developed and become an effective, plentiful form of art.

Recently I've been writing on the way art and religion have changed over this somewhat arbitrary period of time, particularly how our Christian worship has changed. Art has been a key element in illustrating and exemplifying these changes. But beyond that, it's also key to showing how people have changed. For example, there are few content areas of art that have simply disappeared over this time. History painting has practically died out (to be replaced by a more viable medium). I wrote on the painting of martyrs a short time ago which appears to be a lost art and, along the same line, no one paints paintings of miracles anymore either. There are probably a few others but let's stop there. Today when we use the word "miracle" we talk about medical miracles or miracle drugs and perhaps a miraculously lucky event or chain of events. But even so, few of us really believe in miracles as such without knowing in the back of our minds that these fortunate occurrences can mostly be explained by modern science and technology - or plain dumb luck - as opposed to divine intervention. And in any case, even when our most devout prayers appear to have been answered, painting a picture depicting it never once occurs to us. That's how much we've changed.

No one is saying miracles no longer occur (or at least that's not what I'm saying). But we are no longer so superstitious as to see them at every turn of events either, nor are we likely to pray for them, as did our ancestors. And in the realm of religious practice, we no longer think of them as being somehow "magical." Gentile da Fabriano's 1425 painting, St Nicholas of Bari Preventing a Shipwreck is a small scene from the predella of an altar in a Florentine church dedicated to the fourth century bishop. It depicts the heroic spirit of the deceased cleric swooping headfirst down from the sky like Superman, dressed in red, white, and blue robes, shrouded in a golden glow, saving a small sailing ship from destruction while in the water, a mermaid swims by. Despite its supposed religious significance, the whole scene seems rather comical to us today. This posthumous miracle of St Nicholas even rings up humorous associations with Santa Claus. We wonder where might be the reindeer. That's how much we've changed.

Gentile Bellini's solemn Procession in the Square of St Mark, painted in 1496, depicts a similar, though less dramatic, miracle. In fact, the miracle is so much less dramatic it might very easily be missed in the hundreds upon hundreds of ecclesiastical figures and bystanders and architectural minutiae the artist has so adroitly included in the scene. The event portrayed is that of a feast day procession of a relic of the true cross (which speaks volumes right there). The wooden splinter is housed in a gold reliquary carried beneath a flamboyant canopy while just behind it a red robed believer kneels in prayer for his son who has fallen and cracked his skull. Because of his father's prayers to the relic, his son (unseen in the painting) reportedly recovers. The pomp and circumstance, the belief in the miraculous power of relics, the almost infinitesimal detail in the painting - that's how much we've changed.

In the next century, Jacopo Tintoretto's reputation as an artist was largely made through his The Miracle of the Slave painted around 1548. The highly manneristic painting, based upon an episode from Golden Legend, depicts a slave being tortured for his disobedience in leaving on a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of St Mark. He's about to have his eyes poked out and his legs broken. In a grand entrance he must have learned from St Nicholas, St Mark swoops down headfirst from the sky to rescue the hapless pilgrim amidst the expected pandemonium such a "miracle" might have caused.

By the early seventeenth century, in the shadow of the Reformation, the church began to take this business of sainthood and miracles a lot more seriously. Paintings of miracles were even being used to promote claims of sainthood, as in Rubens' The Miracles of St. Ignatius Loyola. Here, in this enormous Baroque extravaganza, Rubens portrays the priest at an altar with his Jesuit companions (who stood to gain from his canonisation) to his right and a sampling of his purported miracles to the left, before him at his feet. Ignatius seems to have been big on the exorcism of demons. In any case, he was elevated to sainthood three years later. That's how much we've changed.

Each of these paintings is a snapshot. Each depicts a place, a time, and a unique insight into the way those living and painting at the time thought about art and life. We find amusing their clumsy attempts to depict the undepictable, to promote tourism through the veneration of relics, to foster hero worship, to hype the reputation of past leaders, and to impress the impressionable with their artistic virtuosity. But we dare not laugh too hard. Five hundred years from now, I'm sure art historians will find no small amount of amusement in the transparency of our own parochial thinking as seen in our use of the various art media today for similarly shallow purposes - consumerism as patriotism - for example.

contributed by Lane, Jim

27 November 2001

Related Artists Related Articles
Michelangelo de Buonarotti
Giotto's St. Francis
St. Matthew in Early Art
Religious Solitude
A Mere Sculptor
Santa Claus
Religious Solitude
Announcement of Death to St Fina (Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi (Ghirlandaio))
Feast of Herod (Giotto di Bondone)
Goodnight (Arthur Hughes)
Grand Odalisque (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)
Joan of Arc (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)
Joan of Arc in Prison (Howard Pyle)
Madonna in Glory with the Child and Saints (Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci (Perugino))
Madonna with St. Jerome (Antonio Allegri Correggio)
Magdalen (Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci (Perugino))
Meeting of St. Erasmus and St. Maurice (Matthias Grünewald)
Napoleon (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)
Odalisque with a Slave (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)
Renunciation of Wordly Goods (Giotto di Bondone)
Saint Andrew and Saint Thomas (Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini)
Saint Dominic Adoring the Crucifixion (Guido di Pietro (Fra Angelico))
Saint George in the Forest (Albrecht Altdorfer)
Saint John the Baptist (Leonardo da Vinci)
Saint Luke as a Painter before Christ on the Cross (Francisco de Zurbarán)
Saint Onufri (Jusepe de Ribera)
Saint Philip the Apostle (Albrecht Dürer)
Saints in Glory (Corrado Giaquinto)
Serena (Arthur Hughes)
Sermon to the Birds (Giotto di Bondone)
St Andrew (Jusepe de Ribera)
St George and the Dragon (Paolo di Dono (Uccello))
St John the Baptist and St Francis (Domenico Veneziano)
St Nicholas (Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto))
St Peter (Jusepe de Ribera)
St Peter Healing the Sick with his Shadow (Tommaso Cassai (Masaccio))
St Sebastian and Three Cherubs (Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini)
St. Catherine of Alexandria (Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael))
St. Francis (Francisco de Zurbarán)
St. George and the Dragon (Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto))
St. George and the Dragon (Paolo di Dono (Uccello))
St. Matthew (Giorgio Vasari)
St. Sebastian (Andrea Mantegna)
Sts Jerome and Peter of Alcantara (Giovanni Battista Pittoni)
The Ascention of St Rose of Lima (Aubrey Beardsley)
The Conversion of St Paul (Girolamo Francesco Mazolla (Parmigianino))
The Ecstasy of Saint Therese (Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini)
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio))
The Lying-in-State of St. Bonaventura (Francisco de Zurbarán)
The Marriage of St Catherine of Siena (Bartolommeo di Pagola del Fartorino (Fra))
The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (Hans Holbein (the Elder))
The Martyrdom of St Erasmus (Nicolas Poussin)
The Martyrdom of St Matthew (Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio))
The Miracle of St Mark Freeing the Slave (Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto))
The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (Antonio Allegri Correggio)
The Sermon of St John the Baptist (Pieter Bruegel (the Elder))
The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark (Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto))
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (Leonardo da Vinci)
The Vision of Saint Anthony of Padua (Giovanni Battista Pittoni)
The Vision of Saint Helena (Paolo Caliari (Veronese))
The Vision of St Jerome (Girolamo Francesco Mazolla (Parmigianino))
Virgin with the Child (Fra Filippo Lippi)


Terms Defined

Referenced Works