Editor's note: Portions of this column were previously published in Meridian Magazine.
Today our world is overwhelmed with an almost infinite number of images — too many are degrading or disgusting, others merely banal. Art in many of its forms has largely been co-opted by commerce and advertising in the never-ending quest to sell one more product. Yet throughout most of history, the vast majority of art has been based on religious themes and patronage.
The earliest evidence we have of human religious belief is found in Neolithic art, including carvings of gods or goddesses and paintings in sacred caves such as those of Lascaux in southern France. For thousands of years thereafter, attempts to represent the sacred through art have remained a fundamental element of religious practice in nearly all religions of the world.
All religions have non-verbal ways of unfolding the sacred, often including music, dance, ritual, art and architecture. When properly presented and understood, such activities are believed by many to have real spiritual power.
Religious art isn’t merely a symbol; it’s a manifestation of the divine. It can be seen as a language composed of a complex symbol-system — called “iconography” or less correctly “symbology” — that communicates important truths to believers who are able to understand and internalize the power of those symbols. Indeed, some religions maintain that the higher truths of the sacred can best, or perhaps only, be communicated through the symbols of art or ritual.
To understand the role of religious art in history, it’s important to remember that until the invention of printing — and indeed for several centuries thereafter — the vast majority of the people of the world couldn’t read. Although they could hear the sacred stories and teachings of their faith, their only aid to memory was art.
For medieval Christians, religious art was described as the “scripture of the illiterate.” The galleries and rooms of churches and temples throughout the world were often filled with artistic representations of scripture to be used as visual aids. Still today, images of gods or saints or sacred things are frequently treated as exceptionally holy, with people bowing and praying before images or icons and touching or kissing them.
On the other hand, some religions, such as Judaism and Islam (and Christian iconoclasm), have formal prohibitions on depicting the image of God in art. The Ten Commandments famously order that “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8). But even so, art plays an important role in worship in those religions — often in nonrepresentational ways.
Although the ancient Israelite temple contained no image of God, it was filled nonetheless with art depicting sacred trees and cherubs.
In Islam, the sacred is often depicted by complex interwoven abstract geometric patterns symbolizing the infinite power of God, or by intricate calligraphy depicting the words of God from the Quran.
Religious art often served as a gateway to unseen worlds, whereby the viewer could see into the sacred past or future, or even into heaven or hell. For example, Michelangelo’s glorious Sistine Chapel tells the sacred history of the cosmos from creation to the Last Judgment.
Art permits the great moments in sacred history that were actually witnessed by only a few — visions of God or of angels, for example — to be indirectly experienced by many. Indeed, some religious art was actually based on the personal visionary experiences of the artists.
In ancient religions, the artist was often seen as a conduit through whom and through whose art the power of God was made manifest. In fact, many ancient artists were priests, monks or nuns who worshipped God with their art.
Some religious art was said to have been made “without hands,” meaning that it was created by divine power manifesting itself in the artist, or even painted by an angel. The significance of the image wasn’t in the color and form, but in the spiritual power symbolized by and residing in the image.
From the ancient perspective, the religious artist didn’t create art by the power of her own talent and genius. Rather, she was blessed with a talent allowing the creation of a spiritual image in imitation — and as a manifestation — of God’s infinite creative power.
To the modern untrained eye, ancient and medieval religious art can sometimes seem stilted and repetitious. For those willing to inform themselves of the lost language and symbolic meaning of religious iconography, however, the study of religious art opens a fascinating window into the sacred.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books and major articles on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.