Religious or sacred art uses religious inspirations and motifs. The goal is to uplift the mind to the spiritual. Most religious paintings have a recognizable moral narrative. But sometimes, even a simple image and idea can serve as a concept for religious paintings. What are the most famous religious paintings?
Well, religion has played a huge role in our life since the middle ages. Most of the religious paintings come from Italian artists. But there are others as well. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the most famous religious paintings.
Virgin Of The Rocks
This is the purest painting and work by Leonardo da Vinci. The painting depicts the apocryphal legend of the meeting in the wilderness between the young John the Baptist and Jesus returning home from Egypt.
There are two versions of the painting. But both show Mary and child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel Uriel. The painting works in a rocky setting, giving it the usual name.
Most historians believe that the Louvre version came earlier. The date is between 1483 and 1486. Leonardo did the entire work on this painting. And it is a bit taller than the London version.
According to many historians, Leonardo made the painting to fulfill a commission of 1483 in Milan. But the theory is that the privately sold the painting, and then made the London version to fill the commission.
Speaking of the London version, it has ascribed a date before 1508. There is a debate regarding the London version. Who painted it? Originally, historians thought that his assistants did most of the work. But an inspection between 2008 and 2010 showed Leonardo did most of the work. Yet, the debate continues.
Coronation of the Virgin
Diego Velazquez painted the Coronation of the Virgin that sits at the Museo del Prado. It depicts the Holy Trinity crowning the Blessed Virgin Mary, a common theme in Marian art.
According to historians, the painting got commissioned for the oratory of the court of Elisabeth of France.
The painting is a rare religious work by an artist famous for his portraits. Velazquez brought a fresh air of naturalness and simplicity to the concept you cannot see in Baroque religious painters.
Based on an inverted triangle, the composition gives a sense of great equilibrium. To the viewer, God the Father on the right represents a dignified old man, and on the left is the long-haired figure of Jesus. Together, they hold Mary’s crown above her head. A white dove represents the Holy Spirit.
Instead of traditional reds, Diego uses Venetian carmine thanks to the advice from his tutor Pacheco. He also uses blue and violet colors.
The Creation of Adam
Arguably the most famous and memorable religious painting. Italian artist Michelangelo painted it for part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
The painting illustrated the Biblical creation narrative from the Book of Genesis. In it, God gives life to Adam, the first man.
The image of the near-touching hands between Adam and God has grown to an iconic image of humanity. There are many reproductions of this painting, as well as many parodies.
There are many theories about the composition. One of them is that Michelangelo used his expertise in human anatomy. Another theory suggests it is a portrayal of the human brain. There are also theories about the portrayal of the birth process or the portrayal of Eve’s Rib.
Jean-Francois Millet painted The Angelus between 1857 and 1859. The oil painting depicts two peasants bowing in a field over a basket of potatoes to say a prayer. What makes this painting significant is the composition and the idea. Unlike most of the famous religious paintings, this one doesn’t use a motif from the Holy Book.
The ringing of the bell from the Church on the horizon marks the end of the workday. The painting got famous for driving the prices for artworks of the Barbizon school up to record amounts in the 19th century.
The imaginary served as a popular sentimental 19th-century religious subject. There are many paintings depicting people praying. But The Angelus makes our list for famous religious paintings.
The Last Supper
Make your pick, The Last Supper or The Creation of Adam. These two hold the title of the most famous religious painting of all time. There are many depictions of The Last Supper. But we will go with the original one, made by Leonardo da Vinci.
Historians think he started to work on the painting between 1495 and 1496 as part of a plan of renovations to the church and other buildings by his patron, Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.
The painting represents the scene of the Last Supper, Jesus with his apostles. It portrays the reaction of each apostle when Jesus told them one will betray him. Each apostle has a different reaction.
There are other controversies regarding the painting. For example, one theory suggests Leonardo tried to paint a woman in the painting, and make a subtle reference to Mary. That theory served as a topic for the book Da Vinci’s Code by Dan Brown.
As with other depictions of the Last Supper from that period, Leonardo sets the diners on one side of the table. That way, none has his back to the viewer. And unlike other painters that place Judas on the opposite end of the table, Leonardo makes him lean back into the shadows.
Another interesting fact. Da Vinci used the likeness of people around Milan as inspiration for the figures in the painting.
Italian artist Raphael made this painting. Some historians call it Sistine Madonna, others Madonna di San Sisto. Commissioned in 1515 by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto, Piacenza, it serves as one of the last Madonnas Raphael painted.
Today, many historians agree it is a truly rare and extraordinary work. Sistine Madonna had a large impact on the German and Russian art scene. Following World War II, it got relocated to Moscow for a decade before going to Germany.
The winged angels beneath Mary serve as a subtle and prominent element. In the world of art, such angels carry the name “putti”.
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
The Spanish painting from 1586 by El Greco illustrated a popular local legend of his time. And he managed to bring the local legend into the mainstream thanks to his talent. It is among his finest works.
Divided into two sections, a heavenly above and a terrestrial below, the painting gives an impression of duality. Historians and art scholars call it “inter alia”, or “one of the most truthful pages in the history of Spain”. It is a masterpiece of Western art and of late Mannerism.
The composition of the painting relates to Byzantine iconography of the Dormition of the Mother of God.
Here is another painting by Diego Velazquez. This one depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. Painted on oil canvas, the painting also belongs to the Museo del Prado.
For this painting, he followed the accepted iconography in the 17th century. There is no record of the date of the painting. But many believe he made it after his return from Italy, between 1631 and 1632. Historians point to the influence of Classicist painting by the calm posture of the body, leaning head, and the idealized face.
The spirituality of the painting has inspired many religious writings.
The Adoration Of The Shepherds
This is another religious painting that doesn’t depict a scene from the Holy Bible. It is a traditional subject, a painting by El Greco. He made it during the last year of his life. He made it to hang over his own tomb in the church of Santo Domingo el Antigue in Toledo. His signature in Greek stands in the lower-left corner.
Like all paintings from his last years, you can notice extreme distortion of the body. The infant Christ seems to emit a light that plays off the faces of the barefoot shepherds. They have gathered to pay homage to his miraculous birth.
Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Speaking of famous religious paintings, we finish off the list with the biggest of them all. Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1518. It is a cornerstone work of High Renaissance art.
The various painted elements form part of the larger scheme of decoration within the Chapel. There are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. Most people recognize The Creation of Adam. We discussed this painting earlier.
Michelangelo began working on the ceiling in the spring of 1508. After the revelation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, his reputation grew higher. Many called him “Il Divino”. At the age of 37, he got recognized as the greatest artist of his time.
At the time the Pope commissioned him, Michelangelo got recognized as a sculptor. He didn’t want to take on the work. But because the Pope insisted, he had no choice but to accept.
The Pope wanted to start in 1508, but because a war with the French broke out, Michelangelo fled from Rome and continued sculpting. In 1508, the Pope returned to Rome victorious and called Michelangelo, to begin with his work. He gave him a 3,000 ducats fee, an enormous amount for that time.
There are a total of 343 figures painted on the ceiling.