For many years, religion has always been a major topic of discussion, whether that be within modern culture, or from its humble beginnings as early as second-century art. Within my essay, I intend to discover more about religion and the relevance it has in today’s society — through the exploration of both artistic and photographic mediums.
The second-century saw the birth of Christian art, also known as Paleo-Christian art or primitive Christian art, which involves a mixture of architecture, sculpture, and painting from the beginning of Christianity, until the sixth-century — focusing particularly on Italian and Western Mediterranean art. Christian art can be identified as early as second-century wall and ceiling paintings (see Fig. 1), found in Roman underground burial chambers. These catacombs were decorated in a specific sketchy style, which originated from Roman impressionism through the fourth century. The Romans gained their inspiration from a number of subjects, including animals, still life, portraits, and mythological creatures. Impressionism artworks consisted of visibly thin brush strokes, open composition, and emphasis on the accurate depiction of light in its changing forms. Other features include very ordinary subject matter and unusual visual angles. Roman impressionism provided an extensive record of the development of Christian subject matter within the art world. Much of the early forms of Christian iconography tended to be symbolic, for example, an ordinary depiction of a fish was adequate to allude to Christ, bread and wine referred to the Eucharist (Holy Communion), and early figural illustrations of Christ most often show him as ‘the Good Shepherd’ by directly adopting from the classic ideal (see Fig. 2).
Narrative structures tended to be typological, referencing parallels between the Old and New Testaments — mainly portraying Christ’s miracles. Imagery, such as the Crucifixion, Nativity, and Resurrection of Christ was avoided until Christianity became well established. This was mainly due to Christianity being identified as a mystery religion. Painters and sculptors were commissioned by Popes, religious and secular officials to illuminate a range of scenes from the Bible. Scenes were determined by religious diplomacies and the representation of the art form. Whilst not directly representing these Christian concepts, the themes of death and resurrection were enacted through paintings, which were derived from the Old Testament. All these could be seen to metaphorical imply the principal narratives of Christ’s life. Origins of Christian art date to a period in time when religion was a quiet, persecuted sect. It was only after 313, when the Christian emperor Constantine the Great decreed toleration of Christianity, that the religion began to flourish. The art during this period had its roots in ancient Roman style but soon evolved into a more abstract, simplified artistic interpretation. Its model was not identified by physical beauty but spiritual feeling. Human characters became types rather than individuals. Symbols were frequently used, with compositions being flat and hieratic, which allowed the artist to concentrate and visualise the main doctrine.
During the 18th century, a new era emerged highlighting tyrannical monarchs, whose reign was appointed by God, and based on the ‘Divine Right of Kings’. These monarchs, such as Louis XIV, the Russian Romanovs, and the Austrian Habsburgs, were concerned only with magnifying their secular status and developing their failing empires, in order to invest money in religious painting, sculpture, and architecture. In addition to this, the power of the Roman Catholic Church had been severely damaged by the destruction of its monasteries during the preceding two centuries. This devastating combination of secular and ecclesiastical vulnerability meant that during the 18th century there was a significant reduction in the cost of religious art. There was also a massive increase in the demand for portraiture and topographical landscapes from merchants and landowners during this time, which also hindered the value placed on Religious art. The 18th century ended with the French Revolution, which declared a shift in attitude across Europe. Art would now celebrate people, rather than deities. Even less religious art was produced during the 19th century. Due to the success of the Industrial Revolution, significant growth in financial status for nations and individuals was obtained — this was not invested in Christian art. Rather it went towards the development of social and public co-operation. Whilst a few painters continued to portray Biblical aspects within their work, the demand for spiritual artworks decreased.
However, it is not just religious art which has seen a decline during the past few centuries, Christianity as a whole has seen a decrease. Despite Ireland remaining a predominantly Christian nation, there has been a rapid decline in the number of residents who profess to be Christian. According to the 2016 Census by the Central Statistics Office, which covers overall population change, age, marital status, etc, there was a significant decline in the rate of those who adhere to the Catholic faith and other Christian denominations. Catholics who obtained up to 84.2 percent of Ireland’s population, now only make up 78.3 percent. As well as this, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Christian, Apostolic, and Pentecostal churches also saw a decrease in membership in the same census. On the other hand, those who identify themselves as having no religion saw an increase to 73.6 percent throughout the past five years. In Ireland alone, Christianity has taken a massive blow, so that leaves the question, does Christianity still have any relevance both within the photographic medium and today’s society?