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Wednesday December 7th

Art Serves as Medium for Religious Motifs

Across the globe, different media and styles have been used to reflect spiritual beliefs. Much of the art of African tribes south of the Sahara has been sculpture. These pieces weren't just created as art for art's sake. While their aesthetic value certainly was taken into consideration, they also had practical uses, and they often had important functions in religious rituals.

The geometric designs associated with Islamic art suggest a continuity that can be linked to an infinite and unending God. Figures are absent from the designs, especially those that decorate mosques and other religious monuments -- idolatry is strictly forbidden by the Koran.

Technically, the same rule has applied to the Judeo-Christian cultures. The First Commandment prohibits the likeness of anything in heaven or on earth. As a result of this anti-iconic stance, early Judaic culture tended to refrain from portraying biblical or human figures in art. As time went on, however, different interpretations of the commandment grew to allow for artistic expression and decoration in synagogues and in illuminated manuscripts.

Christian art truly began to develop in the third century A.D. It was during this period that the portrayal of Judeo-Christian allegories became a real possibility for artists. The style of early Christian paintings ranged from light-hearted to heavily passionate in tone. A lot of this art was funerary -- used to decorate the tombs of those who could afford it.

Evidence from this same time period has shown that people began to decorate their walls with mosaic pictures of religious significance. Previously serving only to embellish and cover floors, mosaic in general began to incorporate more religious meaning when the Roman Emperor Constantine put forth his edict of tolerance of Christianity in 313 A.D. It is strongly believed that sometime during the next few centuries, workshops were built in major Italian cities to teach mosaic art. Increased use of glass and greater focus on chromatics are evident in preserved scenes from both the Old and New testaments.

The powerful images that sprang from Christianity eventually found their way into folk art, uncommissioned work created by nonprofessionals. Religious motifs could be found in homes, churches and streets. Combinations of religious and secular artwork could be found on objects like kitchenware and clothing.

Painting was just one medium in which artists could share their beliefs. In the world of sculpture, many of the most notable works were created with religious subjects in mind. In medieval Europe, churches were filled with sculptures that told different stories of the Bible. This type of art also functioned as a method of teaching those who couldn't read at a time when illiteracy was widespread.

With the onset of the Renaissance, Christian art underwent major evolution. Prior to the 14th century, painters didn't necessarily emphasize balance and perspective, and they didn't pay as much attention to detail and realism as they would later. During the Renaissance, they began to put Christ and Mary directly into their art, whereas previously they would stick to showing just what the figures represented.

A case in point is "The Last Supper," Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece depicting Jesus and his disciples, Judas among them. Should the painting have been created at an earlier time, it is likely that he would have been separated from them, symbolic of his imminent betrayal of Jesus. While da Vinci's own beliefs are still in question, the painting is prized as for its realistic portrayal of such important religious figures.

Another of the more memorable artists to have surfaced during the Renaissance was Michelangelo Buonarotti. His crowning achievement is considered to be the huge fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Pope Julius II had wanted him to paint the 12 apostles, among other things, but the artist's ambition left such a simple plan in the dust. By the time he was finished in 1512, Michelangelo had painted hundreds of figures as well as multiple scenes from the Book of Genesis, including the creation of Adam and Eve and the flood.

As the Renaissance was gaining steam, humanism was set in motion in Italy. This movement, intensely focused on human beings and their everyday lives, lasted long after the Renaissance had closed. The humanists gradually pulled emphasis away from celestial and biblical themes.

Of course, religion was by no means abandoned by artists. Rembrandt, perhaps the most famous painter of the following Baroque period, received many commissions to paint biblical subjects in his native Holland. William Blake, one of the more important Romantic figures, illustrated the Book of Job.

Religious expression moved away from the forefront of the art world as such styles as impressionism and modernism caught on. However, as long as its spiritual and historical significance remains intact, religious art will continue to fascinate and inspire.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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