Biblical stories of love and betrayal, creation and destruction, glorious births and violent deaths have inspired artists for centuries.
The stories were the subject of simple engravings in the catacombs, miniature drawings used to illustrate handwritten copies of the Scriptures and the magnificent frescoes and oil paintings decorating churches and chapels.
Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, said artists have turned to the Bible for material because it is “a marvelous repertoire of situations.”
“Just look at the story of David, the story of Job, the story of King Solomon. The Bible is an immense repertoire of dramatic situations – dramatic in the sense of drama, like you would find in the theatre or cinema,” he told Catholic News Service.
The task of an artist, he said, “is to represent human situations – extreme, dramatic situations,” and the Bible is bursting with them.
Sitting in his top-floor office in the Vatican, Paolucci narrated visually inspiring biblical scenes: “Mary Magdalene, this attractive blonde – artists have painted her as a blonde; you have to let artists use their imaginations – who begins to cry and wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.
“The Bible is full of these situations that are by definition artistic,” he said. The collections housed in the Vatican Museums are by no means limited to religious art, but obviously the place is a treasure-trove of sacred images.
Paolucci does not buy the idea that some works of religious art were motivated by a challenge to visually educate Christians in the faith and others were motivated simply by a search for beauty. “For Catholic artists, aesthetics coincides precisely with faith – they are the same thing,” he said. “Ancient artists, especially, were convinced that in order to recount the things of God, religious truths, one must use beauty.” The more beautiful a work, he said, the closer it comes to showing people something about God.
The most famous part of the Vatican Museums – the Sistine Chapel – is a perfect example of beauty placed at the service of education in the faith. “Because it was a papal chapel, it had to show how the church of Rome accepted the ancient Scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures, and joined them to the New Testament,” Paolucci said.
The frescoes on the chapel’s south wall depict scenes from the life of Moses, the giver of the law who led his people out of slavery in Egypt to new life in the Promised Land; the north wall frescoes illustrate parallel scenes from the life of Jesus, who revealed the new commandment and frees people from their slavery to sin, giving them new life.
The side walls were painted in 1481-83. “Then, in 1508 – 500 years ago – Michelangelo arrives and does the ceiling,” Paolucci said. “With that, the chapel presents a synthesis of the entirety of Christian theology: the law of Moses and the Old Testament on one wall; the new command of Christ on the opposite wall; the creation of the world overhead; and, in front of us, that which awaits us after death – the Last Judgment.
“The chapel is the synthesis of the catechism,” he said.
When pressed, Paolucci said his favourite Old Testament-themed art in the Vatican Museums is Sandro Botticelli’s “The Trials of Moses,” which is one of the panels on the south wall of the Sistine Chapel. The fresco shows several scenes from the second and third chapters of Exodus. “Botticelli’s work is very elegant, refined,” he said.
As for a work inspired by a New Testament story, Paolucci responded even before the question was finished: “I have no doubts. It’s ‘The Deposition of Christ’ by Caravaggio.”
The massive oil painting, executed at the beginning of the 1600s, shows the lifeless body of Jesus taken down from the cross by Nicodemus and the apostle John in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Clopas.
The face of the crucified Jesus is ashen, but his body – soon to be resurrected – is bathed in light.
In Christian art, Paolucci said, the two most popular themes are those surrounding the birth of Jesus and those surrounding his death and resurrection. “The Nativity scene and the crucified Jesus are everywhere in art throughout the world,” he said. “They are so popular because they are the synthesis of our religion: Jesus was born and died on the cross, offering his blood as a sacrifice for the salvation of all men and women.”
Christian artists are not the only ones who have found in the crucifixion the perfect symbol of the “terrible, dramatic” death of an innocent, Paolucci said. The Vatican Museums’ Collection of Contemporary Religious Art includes “Christ and the Painter,” just one of the crucifixion scenes painted by the Jewish artist Marc Chagall.
The contemporary collection is growing despite the fact that “there are not many world-famous artists today interested in religious themes,” he said.
The most prolific period for biblical-themed art was the Middle Ages, he said, because “it was a very religious time. People were really afraid of hell because of the Black Death.”