Art has always been a means to express belief and devotion. Religious faith has inspired some of the most impressive and wondrous works of art ever produced. This includes painting and sculpture, mosaic making, iconography, tapestry and carpet weaving. From India, China and the Middle East to Russia and Europe, sacred traditions are embodied, expressed and preserved in religious art. The following is a list of 25 of the most impressive works of religious art following a historical timeline. While this list is most certainly incomplete, and many more examples could be included, those presented below offer a diverse collection of the world’s most glorious and awe-inspiring religious masterpieces.
Ellora Caves (600-1000)
Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India
The Ellora Caves, also known as Elapura, located in India make up a collection of uninterrupted monuments to the history of Indian religion and culture. Thirty-four caves, extending over 1.5 miles, cut out of cliff face represent India’s major religions. Each cave serves as either a monastery or temple or both, and attracts numerous visitors and pilgrims every year. There are 17 Hindu caves, 12 Buddhist and 5 Jain. Common to all the caves is stunning religious art carved from the stone of the cliffs. The Ellora network of caves is unique in both its diversity of religious expression as well as the magnitude of its undertaking. The beauty of its thousands of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain carvings makes the Ellora Caves an impressive artistic example of the Indian values of harmony and tolerance.
Mosaics, Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyed Mosque) (705-715)
The Great Mosque of Damascus is located over the site of an ancient Christian cathedral that was dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Legend has it that the Baptist’s head is preserved at the Great Mosque, and a shrine to the the saint is located there. Considered by some to be the fourth holiest site in Islam, the mosaics of the Great Mosque represent the breadth and beauty of Muslim art. Attributed to Byzantine artists and artisans, the impressive mosaics present a vision of nature and its vibrant life and beauty redolent of passages in the Qur’an. Not only a religious site, the Mosque also functioned as a civic place of meeting, and its representations of trees, foliage and flowing waters all point to our common home and source of life in nature as well as nature’s Source.
Book of Kells (around 800)
Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels in Latin. The book is written on vellum or calfskin. The extent of the intricate artistry of the 340 folios (680 individual pages) is unbelievable and unprecedented. Though 30 of the pages are missing, the remaining pages are filled with mind boggling detail, depicting plants, animals and humans and is loaded with Christian symbols. Each of the 4 books of the Gospel have an introductory page that is lavishly decorated. The one pictured here is the introduction for the book of John. The Book of Kells was probably written in a monastery and kept at the Abbey of Kells for many centuries. It was stolen in the 11th century and the cover was ripped off, the thieves leaving it in the mud. In the 1600s it was sent to Dublin for safe keeping, and the bishop presented the manuscript to Trinity College in Dublin where it attracts half a million visitors a year. The book remains one of the most treasured works of art of Medieval times and is certainly Ireland’s most valued treasure.
John Bondol and Nicholas Bataille – Apocalypse Tapestry (1377-1382)
Commissioned by Louis I, Duke of Anjou in the late 1370s, the Apocalypse Tapestry depicts scenes from the biblical book of the Apocalypse or Revelation of St. John. The tapestry was woven at Paris and likely finished in 1382. It was divided into 6 sections, originally containing 90 total scenes. Each main section was 78 feet wide by 20 feet high, making the tapestry a massive undertaking. And, the total length of the tapestry would have been almost 470 feet long. Unfortunately, today only 71 of the original 90 scenes remain. At present the tapestry lines the walls of a large room of the Musée de la Tapisserie in Angers, France. Initially, the scenes were sketched by the Flemish artist John Bondol, which were then woven by by a team of artists and artisans under the direction of Nicholas Bataille. Estimates indicate that it would have taken between 50-84 man-years of labor to produce a tapestry of such size and detail. This indicates Bataille worked with a team. In the late middle ages, in the wake of the death and destruction brought on by war and plague, the Apocalypse was a favorite source of inspiration for writers and artists. With its vivid, yet symbolic, descriptions of battle, death and the forces of Satan and Antichrist, the Apocalypse resonated with the experience of people then living. However, the book ends with the victory of Christ over the forces of evil, both representing hope in times of upheaval as well as providing a biblical source for that same hope. The Apocalypse Tapestry is a marvel of artistic skill as well as beautiful workmanship. It depicts in florid and often lurid detail, the medieval realities of death and war, encompassed, however, in a broader hope that such evils would come to an end.
Claus Sluter – The Well of Moses (1395-1406)
Chartreuse de Champol, Dijon, France
Claus Sluter’s The Well of Moses is a large, almost 23 foot high, limestone sculpture, depicting biblical figures as they symbolically relate to Jesus Christ. The piece includes six prophets who had foreseen the coming of Christ and his crucifixion. These are Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah. A seventh figure, symbolizing the completion and fulfillment of the prophetic vision, was Jesus Himself, depicted as crucified. The crucifixion scene was placed on the top of the sculpture. Unfortunately, the crucifixion is no longer a part of the piece. This leaves the overall vision of Sluter incomplete. However, The Well of Moses remains an outstanding example of the best aspects of late Gothic sculpture as it transitioned into the northern Renaissance. Religious and humanist themes are harmoniously brought together, producing a work of impressive size, technical mastery and religious beauty.
Andrei Rublev – Holy Trinity (1408-1425)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
The Trinity Icon was created by Andrei Rublev, a famous Russian icon painter from the 15th century. It is recognized as the greatest icon ever created and is also the most famous Russian work of art. It has long been considered the greatest representation of the Trinity by Eastern Orthodox Christians. It is based on the visit of three angels to Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament. There is generally a deep and very spiritual symbolism portrayed in icons as they are considered to be not a literal representation of the world, like a painting, but rather a link between heaven and earth. In Rublev’s work every detail has a spiritual significance. The colors of each of the angels represent the unique aspects of the persons of the Trinity. The colors blue and green for the Holy Spirit signify his movement in sky, water and earth. Another example of this symbolism is the rods that the angels hold. Why do angels, with wings, need traveling sticks? It is to signify the entry of the angels into our slow journey on earth. As a traveler, God is shown to join us on our journey through life. Weary with traveling, he spreads a table of food that gives us a glimpse of heaven.
Fra Angelico – The Annunciation (1441-1446)
San Marco Convent, Florence, Italy
Fra Angelico’s San Marco Convent depiction of The Annunciation is not his only work on this theme. There are at least two other Fra Angelico works on the Annunciation. The San Marco version, however, is unique for several reasons. First, the painting is quite simple and subdued for Renaissance art. This is because it was commissioned for a religious community of which Fra Angelico was a member. Devotion and contemplation were controlling motives for Fra Angelico. Second, in terms of the fresco’s technical aspects, Fra Angelico, while maintaining an elegant simplicity, was able to represent spatial depth and use lighting in a way that brings the Angel and Mary to life and goes beyond Gothic artistic techniques. Third, the fresco was painted in a staircase, which had very little light. Fra Angelo used color and shading in a manner that suited this low light, seemingly providing the painting itself with its own source of light. The Annunciation is a work of art that continues to inspire reflection on the parts of religious believers, while remaining an impressive artistic triumph of Renaissance art.
Benozzo Gozzoli – The Procession of the Magi (1459-1462)
Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy
Located in the so-called Chapel of the Magi in the Medici castle, Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Procession of the Magi is a masterpiece of Renaissance art. Gozzoli was commissioned by Piero de Medici then head of the Medici family, the de facto rulers of Florence. The work itself is a massive undertaking, filling three walls of the chapel. Depicting a multitude, with brilliant use of color and lighting, Gozzoli shows the journey of the three Wise Men from the East who came to Bethlehem in search of Jesus. However, in an interesting iconographic move, Gozzoli does not have the procession of the Wise Men and their entourage arriving at Bethlehem. Rather, the journey ends at the altar, where Christians believe Christ is really present in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This seems to have signified that in each Eucharistic liturgy, “wise men” will find the incarnate Christ. The work has a strong dramatic effect upon its viewers. As was common in those days, Gozzoli incorporated many portraits of the family members of his patrons. The Procession of the Magi is a monument of religious devotion, coupled with a representation of social and political conditions of the day, presented in an artistic treasure.
Michael Pacher – St. Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-1481)
The St. Wolfgang Altarpiece is a marvel of shape and color, combining masterful painting with magnificent sculptures. The work was commissioned to be the focal point of the pilgrimage church of St. Wolfgang. As a destination for pilgrims, the Church received visitors from all over Europe. Although Austrian by birth, Michael Pacher combined Italian and Dutch techniques with his own Austrian heritage. This allowed his work to appeal to and represent the variety of religious inspiration and devotion of the pilgrims. The Altarpiece has movable wings that allow different scriptural themes to be presented for various liturgical seasons and holy days. The central sculpture, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, however, remains constant. This indicates that the unifying theme of the Altarpiece is centered upon Mary’s relationship to the Trinity and serves to symbolize the Marian personality of the Church. With its size, interweaving of various cultural and artistic techniques and values, the St. Wolfgang Altarpiece is an impressive treasure of religious art.
Voronet Monastery (1488)
Voronet, Suceava County, Romania
Voronet Monastery is the jewel of a network of eight churches in northern Moldavia that were built from the late 1400s through the late 1500s. These churches are unique in both world art and in Byzantine Orthodox culture. Located at a monastic site whose origins are unknown, the Voronet Monastery has been called the Sistine Chapel of Romania. Unlike the better known masterpiece of Michelangelo whose paintings are found only on the inner walls of the Sistine Chapel, the monastery’s outer walls function as murals of icons. The depictions are a against a brilliant blue background, representing a virtual heaven of saints and important biblical and historical figures and events. These paintings represent a full cycle of Byzantine religious themes, a kind of gospel history in colors and images. The practice of painting the outer walls of Church buildings in such careful detail and elaborate depth seems to have been a phenomenon unique to 15th and 16th century Moldavia. The murals are authentic and have received only minimal touching up in effort to preserve these original works of artistic genius.
Leonardo da Vinci – The Last Supper (1495-1498)
Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy
Leonardo’s The Last Supper is not located in a museum. It is a rather large fresco (29 feet by 15 feet) found on a dining hall wall in a Catholic monastery. At the time of its production the room containing The Last Supper was a mausoleum, and the painting was commissioned by a family called Sforza as a monument to their patronage. Although it is called a fresco, it is not a fresco in the strict sense. This is because Leonardo did not use wet plaster, but rather painted upon a dry wall that had been sealed with plaster and covered with a white undercoat. The work was stunning for its color and its perspective, almost drawing the viewer into the action depicted. However, because Leonardo did not use standard fresco techniques, The Last Supper has not held up against time, weather and war. At present almost nothing of the original paint remains. Preservation and restoration efforts, however, have preserved the order and perspective of Leonardo’s masterpiece even if Leonardo’s original brushstrokes are no longer present. The Last Supper remains one of the most impressive pieces of religious art that continues to fire the imagination and inspire imitation.
Michelangelo – Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512)
Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Sixtus the IVth for whom the chapel is named. It is certainly one of the most striking and awesome paintings of the Renaissance. Even now, over 5 million visitors come through the Sistine Chapel every year just to gaze upward at the intricate detail, variety of people and hidden secrets. Though Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and not primarily a painter, he produced one of the most impressive and inspiring paintings in the history of the world. The paintings depict stories of the Old Testament starting with Creation and ending with Noah and the flood. Since Michelangelo was first a sculptor, it has been said that he painted “sculptures.” Truly, the figures in the painting have tremendous strength and beauty. Goethe, the famous author, said, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
Raphael – The School of Athens (1509-1511)
Apostolic Palace, Vatican
The School of Athens portrays the greatest mathematicians, philosophers and scientists from different periods, all gathered under one roof. There are two reasons why it is included as a work of religious art. First, the building is in the shape of a Greek Cross, which symbolizes the unity of ancient philosophy and Christian theology. Second, the two main statues represented are Apollo, god of light, archery and music and Athena, goddess of wisdom. The two thinkers in the middle of the painting, Aristotle and Plato, have heavily influenced Western thought and both philosophies in their own way have been incorporated into Christianity. Aristotle’s hand is down showing that all we know is by what we see and touch. Plato points up signifying his philosophy that all we see around us is only a shadow of a higher reality. Grammar, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy, Rhetoric and Dialectic are all represented by different figures. It is said that nearly every Greek philosopher is included in the painting, but they are not always easy to identify. The School of Athens has been called “Raphael’s masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.”
Raphael – Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (1509-1511)
Apostolic Palace, Vatican
In the Apostolic Palace in the same room on the opposite wall from his School of Athens, Raphael’s Disputation of the Blessed Sacrament unveils a vision of triumph of Catholic religious belief. This massive fresco incorporates a multitude of important figures from the Bible and Church history, centering upon the Eucharist. Raphael places the Eucharist in the center of the painting as its focal point, linking together its various aspects. An upper portion of the fresco represents triumphant saints in heaven on either side of the Blessed Trinity. Important figures from the Bible and early church history are presented. In the lower portion of the painting important theologians, popes and other figures are presented as standing on either side of the altar. The entire work presents a vision of reality that sees itself as created by the Trinity and united in the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Christ is depicted as being in heaven with Mary and the rest of the saints, while also being present in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, for Raphael, heaven and earth are united. His incredible Disputation of the Holy Sacrament can be seen as his Christian counterpart and complement to his School of Athens.
Tiziano Vecellio – Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18)
Franciscan Basilica of S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Tiziano Vecelli, known as Titian in English, is widely considered the greatest artist of the Venetian School of the 16th century. His manner of painting was one of the most diverse among painters. He painted mythological and religious subjects as well as portraits and landscapes with equal skill. Although his colors are more subdued, his loose brush strokes along with shaded nuance of color were an unprecedented style. His work, the Assumption of the Virgin, is an altarpiece in Venice. It is the largest work of its kind in Venice and is considered the finest work of the Renaissance. Although it is over 22 feet tall, it isn’t just the size that gives it its marvelous reputation. Until this masterpiece by Titian, altarpieces were generally very still and statuesque. Titian’s work is full of life and movement and is bursting with energy. The three levels of the work represent heavenward movement and bring the earthly into the heavens which are filled with emanating light. The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova called this work the most beautiful painting in the world.
Maqsud of Kashan – Ardabil Carpet (1539-1540)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England
The Ardabil Carpet, or Medallion Carpet, was originally made to lie in the entryway of the shrine to the Iranian Sufi Saint, Safi al-Din Ardabili who died in 1334. It is universally recognized as the most important, beautiful as well as one of the largest of Iranian carpets. With dimensions of 341∕2 feet by 171∕2 feet, the Ardabil Carpet represents a high point in Islamic religious art in one of its most important and definitive forms of art. Its creators used a silk foundation and wool pile. The carpet has a remarkably high knot density: 340 knots per sq. in. as compared to current commercially produced carpets that have 80-160 knots per sq. in. The high knot density allowed for an incredible amount of detail to be woven into the carpet. The level of detail and the symmetry of its design require careful attention and lengthy observation to fully appreciate. However, even the casual observer cannot fail to recognize that the Ardabil Carpet is the fruit of intense care and devotion and is a marvel of religious art.
Michelangelo – The Last Judgement (1536-1541)
Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
Although the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is also included on this list, the impressive nature of Michelangelo’s work deserves a second look. Though the Sistine Chapel ceiling is complex enough to dazzle the harshest art critic, the Last Judgement is considered to be even more complex. The sheer number and variety of people represented along with the difficulty of showing their reactions and personalities was only possible with a genius such as Michelangelo. The work was commissioned by the pope nearly 25 years after the completion of the ceiling of the Chapel and took over 4 years to complete. The ultramarine color which is so prevalent in the painting is one of its striking qualities. The particular paint required for this color was only available in Afghanistan and was the most expensive paint to use. It was usually used sparingly, but in this painting it is used throughout to show the transition from earth to heaven. Unlike in most representations of the Last Judgement, Michelangelo shows the subjects stripped of rank and position. All approach the Judgement on an equal basis.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Babel Tower (1563)
Kunsthistorische Muzeum, Wien
Pieter Bruegel I, sometimes known as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, is considered the greatest of many generations of artists in the Bruegel family. He was highly innovative and creative in advancing the art of painting and was a great influence in the world of artists. Although his works give a feeling of simplicity and natural beauty, they are also highly complex and rich. This can be seen in his representation of the Tower of Babel. The painting depicts the story in Genesis of people who begin to build a tower “whose top may reach unto heaven”. The futility of such an effort can be clearly seen in the painting. Although the building is reminiscent of the Roman Coliseum and appears to be well designed at first glance, one can see after looking at the picture that it is leaning and rotating as though it is not stable. Bruegel was, himself, fascinated with the study of motion and employed the feeling of movement in many of his paintings. The details of this work are fascinating, showing also the futility of the building of the tower along with the pride of king Nimrod who is portrayed in the foreground.
Paolo Veronese – Nozze di Cana (1563)
Veronese was an Italian Renaissance painter from Venice. He was one of the leading painters of the 16th century and produced some amazing works of art, including the Nozze di Cana or the Wedding at Cana. This painting was based on the New Testament miracle of Jesus attending a wedding and astounding all of the guests by turning the water into wine. The details that are a part of Veronese’s style were quite intricate and impressive as can be seen from this painting. His use of color, also, was vivid and unique as is the number and variety of people present. There are quite a few aspects of the painting that aren’t noticed at first glance. First, none of the guests are speaking. Apparently, this is because the work was commissioned for a Benedictine monastery which observed silence. Another interesting feature of the painting are many recognizable guests. Among those thought to be present are: Suleiman the Magnificent, Emperor Charles V, Cardinal Pole, Sokollu Mehmet Pasa and others.
Tintoretto – Paradise (post-1588)
Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy
Paradise by Tintoretto (born Jacopo Comin) is the Italian painter’s greatest work. A massive piece measuring 74 by 30 feet, roughly the size of a tennis court and commissioned to cover a wall in the Doge’s Palace, Paradise overwhelms the viewer and cannot be properly appreciated in a single viewing. It is thought to be the largest work ever executed on canvas. The painting depicts a sea of persons on a scale so large that Tintoretto’s contemporaries thought it would be impossible to realize. Art critics have had varying and opposing views about Paradise. Some have viewed it as a failure of overreach, leaving the viewer to drown in a flood details. Others view the painting as a transcendent masterpiece displaying brilliant use of color, lighting, and manifesting a symmetry that draws the eye to the center of the painting and then upward to the figures of Jesus and Mary who are depicted in heavenly radiance. However one feels about Tintoretto’s Paradise, no one can disagree that the work is truly impressive and merits sustained attention to both its details as well as its entirety.
Diego Velázquez – Christ Crucified (1632)
Museo de Prado, Madrid, Spain
Christ Crucified by Diego Velázquez is one of the most famous and memorable depictions of the crucifixion. Though not overly large (roughly 8 feet by 5 feet) its stark realism and use of contrast by means of a solid black background is a masterpiece of artistry. Interestingly, Velázquez follows the iconographic tradition of depicting the crucifixion with four rather than three nails. Also, the halo surrounding the head of Christ appears as a kind of glow directly emanating from Christ, rather than as the more common symbolic crowns of light that are used to indicate sanctity in Christian religious art. In his use of contrast in lighting Velázquez betrays the influence of Caravaggio. And in its subdued mood and lack of extraneous detail, Velázquez’s depiction of the crucified Jesus conveys uncommonly little dramatic flair in comparison to contemporary paintings on the same theme. Christ Crucified, because of its realistic representation of the human form, its somber and dignified mood, coupled with the manifest religious devotion that went into its painting has served as an inspiration for religious believers and spiritual writers since its completion.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn – Belshazzar’s Feast (1635)
National Gallery, London
Belshazzar’s Feast is a painting based on the Old Testament story of Daniel and the king of Babylon, Belshazzar. In the story, there is a feast in which Belshazzar is demanding the gold and silver vessels taken from the temple in Jerusalem. In the middle of the celebration a hand miraculously appears and writes on the wall. The king is shaken and “his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.” Rembrandt, one of the greatest painters of all times and specifically of Dutch history, is known for his genuine, life-filled and accurate portraits. In this painting, he portrays, in a striking way, the shock and horror of the king. His horror, as so vividly shown by the great painter, is realized as we find out the rest of the story. The writing is interpreted. MENE: God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it; TEKEL: Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting; PERES: The kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians. That night, after the feast, Belshazzar dies. This is an impressive portrayal of an impressive story by an extremely impressive artist.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo –
The Three Angels Appearing to Abraham (1724-1729)
Palazzo Patriarcale, Udine, Italy
Tiepolo was an Italian artist who painted in the Rococco style. He worked in Italy, Spain and Germany. A great deal of his work is in wall and ceiling painting, and he is considered by some art critics as the greatest decorative painter of his age. Like Rublev’s Trinity, The Appearing of the Three Angels to Abraham, take its inspiration from the biblical passage in Genesis 18 where Abraham played host to three angelic visitors. Tiepolo actually painted three versions of this episode. In the example chosen the angels are set upon a cloud, symbolizing their close proximity to God. Abraham is depicted as showing great reverence towards his guests. Even though the subject matter of the painting is quite elevated, Tiepolo used bright colors to lessen the gravity of the work’s mood. One will also notice the coolness of the colors Tiepolo used as compared to his contemporaries. This served to create a more realistic sense of natural light. In his impressive use of color and light Tiepolo was able to create a masterpiece of art suited more to household ornamentation than the art gallery. Nevertheless, his artistic mastery and expression was not lessened but rather enhanced in succeeding to use art to enrich living space.
Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya (2005)
Nanshan Temple of Sanya, China
Guanyin is an Asian spiritual figure of mercy commonly known in English as the “Goddess of Mercy.” The name literally means “perceiving the cries of the world.” Some Buddhists believe that when they die, they are placed in the heart of a lotus by Guanyin and taken to the western pure lands. The three-sided statue, located near the Nanshan Temple, represents the bodhisattva venerated by Mahayana Buddhists. It is definitely impressive, standing over 350 feet tall. It is the fourth tallest statue in the world and the largest statue of Guanyin. The temple at which the statue stands was built in commemoration of over 2,000 years of Buddhism in China. Guanyin of the South Sea took over 6 years to build and was enshrined in April, 2005. The foliage and hills, flowers and peaceful setting of the temple are the perfect setting for this compassionate figure.
Spring Temple Buddha (2008)
Lushan County, Henan, China
At 682 feet tall, the Spring Temple Buddha (the statue alone is 420 feet) is the tallest statue in the world, and can be seen from miles around. Constructed between 1997 and 2008, this massive work of art cost an estimated 55 million dollars. Located over an active Buddhist monastery and temple built during the Tang dynasty (618-907), this engineering and artistic marvel rests upon a lotus-shaped pedestal and comprises over 1000 pieces of copper, weighing 1100 tons. The Spring Temple Buddha takes its name from a nearby hot spring that gushes water at a temperature of 140°F and is widely believed to possess healing properties. Situated in beautiful Lushan County, Henan, China, the Spring Temple attracts visitors and pilgrims of all religions and serves as an inspirational reminder and symbol of Buddhist faith.