Christianity and art have always been intertwined. God creation of earth was a work of art, as was his creation humanity. The first mention of art as a craft in the Bible is in Exodus 31. In this the Lord is instructing Moses to fashion a tent for the ark of the covenant. God mentions several artisans whom He chose to create “artistic designs” to decorate the tent. The Lord says, “In the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skills”. We see two things about God’s view of art in this passage; He likes it, and He is also the source of it. God wants man to create beautiful things, and their skill in doing so is from Him. Thus, art is a gift from God, and God is the most gifted artist. The aim of this paper is to examine multiple artworks and their Christian significance. This paper begins by touching on Rembrant’s painting “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”, and the ten commandments. It then goes on to address the importance of Baptism and the crucifixion, relating them to Verrocchio’s “The Baptism of Christ”, and the “Giotto di Bondone”. Christian art is diverse in meaning and medium. Focusing on a piece of art as well as its religious significance changes its meaning entirely.
Rambrandt was a Dutch Baroque painter and printmaker in the 17th Century. He was also one of the greatest storytellers in the history of artistry, possessing the exceptional ability to render people in their various moods and demeanors. Rembrandt is also known as a great painter of light and shade, and this can be easily observed in many of his works (The Night Watch, The Blinding of Samson, The Kitchen Maid, etc.). Rembrandt was keen to favouring uncompromising realism. This lead to many critics labeling him as an artist who chooses ugliness over beauty. “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”, a painting done by Rembrandt only ten years before his death in 1669, is in my opinion one of his most profound works. The large size of the canvas (reaching 5 feet tall), unusual for a single subject, the striking expression on the face of the elderly Moses and the indecision evident in the way he is lifting the tablets with the Ten Commandments all come together to make this a particularly moving, enigmatic painting. The work depicts Moses’s indecision over whether to destroy the tablets, when, on his return after receiving them from God on Mount Sinai, he finds the Jewish people worshipping the Golden Calf. This work connects to Exodus 32:19 in sacred scripture; “And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount”. The look on the face of Moses in Rembrandt’s painting is less of anger, and more of realization. For a moment Moses considers whether he should smash the tablets, the sorrow in his face is evident due to his lifted brow and a slight frown highlighting his disappointment. Soon after the people of Israel crossed the red sea after fleeing Egypt, they camped under Mount Sinai. This mountain is of great significance, because it is where Moses spoke directly to our Lord and was given the ten commandments. After Moses asked God not to destroy the Isrealites, and he sees their corruption for himself, I can only imagine the degree of his anger. He then broke the tablets and burnt the golden calf, grinding it up into a fine powder, mixing it with water, and then having the Isrealites drink it. This interaction between God and Moses, as well as Moses and the Isrealites, expounds the significance of obedience to God and the importance of the ten commandments.
As humans we have the natural inclination to seek certainty and guidance. While the Isrealites were driven by this rather than sheer malice, they still became corrupt and disobey God in the process. As God states in Exodus 19; the Israelites are “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6), he sets them apart. Just as the Isrealites were, we too are called to be set apart for God as a holy nation abiding by the Ten commandments.
The ten commandments were sent by God to the Isrealites to implement societal order. When the Isrealites disobeyed God whilst he was speaking to Moses, God proposed to destroy them. Moses asked the Lord to give them another chance, claiming they are his chosen people, and God agreed. It is important to remember that we must take responsibility when disobeying the Lord’s commandments. “God gives law not as a measure for human goodness or as a test, but to show Creation what it must do in order to live as part of the divine household. In that way, it is humans who bring ruination on themselves when they try to live out-side the law, and not God who imposes punishments arbitrarily.”(1). If Christians did not have these rules to abide by, we would constantly be creating golden calfs of our own.
Along with following the ten commandments, the sacraments are something we should all participate in for our salvation. The Baptism of Christ was commissioned by the monks of San Salvi in Florence Italy. It was created by the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea del Verrocchio and is generally credited to him, as well as his student Leonardo da Vinci. Holy Baptism, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church; “is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua),4 and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.”(2). This baptismal painting depicts John the baptist pouring a small amount of water onto the head of Jesus. Above Jesus’ head are God’s hands surrounding a dove, and beside Jesus are two angels. The vibrancy in the beams exuding from the holy spirit along with the softer details in Jesus’ face leaves this painting without a focal point. Many viewers of the painting have pointed out how the angel holding a garment stands out over more than the other figures, and most attribute this fact to the painter of said angel being Verrocchio’s student Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo incorporated his own style of painting, as well as a new medium (contrary to the common tempura) called oil paint. While this painting is scattered in style, the message still comes across clearly. While the idea of Jesus being baptized is beautiful, it arises the question; “If Jesus is sinless in nature why would he need/desire baptism?”. The answer is that he repents not in the sense of turning from sin, but in the sense of dedicating himself to follow his father’s will fully on earth. With this small fact, the confusion we (and John) have seems to slip away, because even as our divine saviour, the Son desires to be wholeheartedly obedient to God the Father. In this he must submit to God’s message of wholehearted devotion in baptism. Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s work in the world, he is the new covenant, the final goal and consummation of all God’s saving activity.
The Crucifiction of Jesus is one of the most important events in history, along with his resurrection, and what will be his second coming. Jesus’ body was given up for all of humanity from our father, so that we will not perish. It is important to be reminded of what Jesus accomplished while on earth. This is why people pray the rosary and look upon a crucified Jesus in times of contemplation. The Crucifixion is of course, the end of Christ’s earthly human life, but it was also the ultimate purpose of his life. According to Christian doctrine, human salvation is achieved by Christ’s death on the cross, which expiates the sins of humankind. Therefore the very essence of Christian belief revolves around his death, and his incarnation as a human being, which allowed him to suffer a human death. For this reason a focus on images of Christ’s dying and dead body is crucial to an understanding of Christian art. It is important to contemplate on Christs death, inso we can understand the weight of God’s sacrifice. “It is the power of the imagination that enables us to perceive something of the transcendent, to deal with and transform reality, to pray, and to disclose and discover glimpses of ultimate reality.”(3). The mass is not repeating the murder of Jesus, but participating in something neverending; God’s sacrifice of his son for our salvation. Seeing Christ crucified helps us to be present in realizing the amazing sacrifice that God made. One crucifix that is extremely old, as well as beautiful, is the “Giotto di Bondone”. It’s estimated that it was painted sometime between 1288 and 1289. The oldest known crucifixes picture Christ wearing a vestment, with his arms outstretched, not bending by the weight of his body. Giotto di Bondone was created in the Gothic period, where crucifixes began to point out the suffering Jesus endured. The message of crucifixes in the 10th and 12th centuries was to portray Jesus as king and priest, whereas in the gothic period the focus is on Jesus as redeemer. One objection that can be made against the crucifix, is “why look at a dead and suffering Jesus when he is risen?”. This is a very common objection, but this subject cannot be an either/or. We mustn’t only serve a risen Jesus or a suffering Christ, we should be able to do both. One cannot have Easter without Good Friday, just as one cannot have a risen Jesus and all of the benefits of life in Christ without carrying his own cross (as said in Luke 14). Another objection could be; “why put so much emphasis on the dying Christ, when you could focus on the love he brought into this world”. My response to that would be, all I see is love when viewing the crucified Christ. As stated in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.
This paper touched on three pieces of Christian art, their general significance, and the deeper meaning behind them. Rembrant’s painting “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law” expounds his discontent with the Isrealites after they disobeyed God, and reminded us of the importance of the ten commandments. This paper also expanded on the importance of Baptism and the crucifixion, relating them to Verrocchio’s “The Baptism of Christ”, and the “Giotto di Bondone”. In discussing baptism, I touched on Jesus’ reasoning for choosing to be baptised, saying that Jesus repents not in the sense of turning from sin, but in the sense of dedicating himself to follow his father’s will fully on earth. Then I spoke about the importance of viewing a crucifix, saying that according to Christian doctrine human salvation is achieved by Christ’s death on the cross, and this is why we should contemplate the crucifixion. From paintings to sculptures and everything in between, Christian art is diverse and abundant. As the Lord created us, he also expects us to create and grow in our knowledge.
- MLA (Modern Language Assoc.) Smith, Lesley. The Ten Commandments : Interpreting the Bible in the Medieval World. Brill, 2014.
- Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth. “Glimpses of Revelation: Faith, Beauty and the Arts.” Touchstone, vol. 36, no. 3, Oct. 2018, pp. 46–52. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLAiFZU181112001303&site=eds-live&scope=site.
- MLA (Modern Language Assoc.) Williamson, Beth. Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction. OUP Oxford, 2004.