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The Complementary Role of Artistic Expression in Religious Belief

Carla Frias

Kirk Sandvig

REL 115: Living Religions Of The World

“Art draws on emotion’s transformative, creative, generative power to shape reality as well as reveal it.” — Jessica Frazier

Humans have the capacity to sense, feel and react in a variety of different ways. This cognitive-affective component of the subjective self affects how we process information and interpret meaning both in a subconscious and conscious way. Through out time, art has been practiced that helps people visualize their innate nature of emotions, something that is sometimes hard to do understand using the rational mind. In this essay, we will be analysing the expressive role that art has played in religious belief and ones spiritual path. We will evaluate the complementary benefit that visual expressions have has had through out time and culture to communicate religious practices and interpretations of the Divine. To do so, we will navigate a diverse range of paintings drawn by the Christian, Hindu and Islamic communities, and compare the effect that these works have had in their respective grounds. The recurrent themes and techniques of each religion will also be analysed to discover the larger effect that these publication may have had to the greater public. Hopefully, this essay will reveal the extent to which paintings have been used to transform, shape and reinforce ones personal and communal understanding about the Divine.

As humans with an ever increasing curiosity for knowledge, we are always seeking for new methods to express and store our ideas. In ancient civilisations, when calligraphy didn’t exist, the practice of art and creativity was the primary medium to communicate religious ideas. Art served as an important utilitarian purpose that helped people, not only express themselves, but also their own meaning and interpretation of life. The creative medium of expression through singing, dancing and painting gave people the ability to “do” religion” rather than just “think” about. It found a middle ground between the external reality and the internal self. Humans were able to find connection with their human psyche was and, it was after a few generations that the practice became a philosophy of beauty, also known as “aesthetics” . Aesthetics have studied the tendencies of the human mind beyond rationalism and more towards the imagination. Historians then understood that art holds a deep value of information about historical insights and previous cultural, social, and credal themes. In the following paragraphs, we will analyze the artistic movements of the Hindu, Christian and Islamic art, and how the creative medium of paintings reveals the religious customs that each community holds. This will help us better appreciate the meaning of visuals in religious expression. As Synod at Arras describes it, art has been able to communicate what cannot be learned from the books.

Artistic paintings were one of the main sources of religious records that reflected people’s understanding about their own beliefs. This has been especially important for Christianity, where calligraphy wasn’t a viable source during the time when Jesus was alive. Despite the different schools of belief that have developed since the prophets appearance (like angelicalism and the lutherans), there seems to be a common theme reflected in their paintings: the idolization of Jesus of Nazareth and the need to reveal more about His life. This trend seems to first have began when the “Image of Edessa” was discovered in Eusebius; According to Christian legend, this archeiropoitai represented a holy relic of Jesus’ face that was miraculously imprinted in a rectangle of cloth. The image gave people feelings of hope that transmitted an unexplainable transcendental energy. Since then, Jesus image gained sacramental function where people could feel connected and holy. Believers and artists around Western Europe wanted to learn more about Jesus and began to extend the arts by interpreting biblical episodes though painting. Early Christian paintings like the the “Good Shepherd” (c.275) and “Christ Healing a bleeding woman” portray interpretation about the miracles and lifestyles of the prophet. Due to its demand, the recurrent images of Jesus gained a theological legitimacy which glorified the prophet as “triumphant” of truth and Divine.

By the medieval times, the role of Chrisitan religious paintings shifted. Art was no longer used for spiritual exploration, but rather an integrated component of the Western European elite. The monarchy took control of the what painting were and weren’t published in the Church. For example, the miraculous image of Black Madonna of Montserrat (whose time of creation is still being debated) was destroyed by Hussite raiders because it seem to pose a threat to cultural supremacy. Paintings began to be recognised as a status of belief and the Church could control what visual themes where being persuaded in the public. Important Italian artists like Massacio and Cimbabue were instructed to paint more pictures of Jesus in the crucifixion. This concept of the “risen Christ” became central to people’s faith even through the renaissance era. Paintings, like the Isenheim Altarpiece of 1512 for example (Appendix A), shows a picture of Jesus in pain and in the ground. These paintings reflects the recurring them of of suffering, horror and redemption that were communicated to the ever-growing community of followers.

The crucifix, in this sense, is thought to also hold a psychological component to them; The dismal visuals of blood and death that lower class followers prayed acted as a justification of the pain and injustice that they faced due to injustice. This raises concerns behind the true intentions of the artistic incentives that Christian elite had in alliance with the the Church. To what extend did the central themes of the crucifixion normalised pain and suffering in peoples life? Nevertheless, although the art in Christianity has also made an effort to acknowledge saints, apostles, divine angels and the firing Mary, Jesus has always seemed to maintain its central role of idolizaiton. The Sallman Head of Christ of 1940, for example, was given to US soldiers in World War 2 as an icon to pray and feel connected with hope. The image of Jesus, up until today, still holds a cultural value of adoration that reminds their followers of how much He sacrificed for us.

The artistic role of images of Jesus helped people support their spiritual adoration to Jesus and God. For the Hindu community in India, art took on a different trajectory. Art in this geographical area had always been recognised just as valuable and ancient as their sacred texts. The appreciation of the arts was based on the conditions of the early periods of Indians where people weren’t allowed to verbally express the teachings, so they used art to embody and convey their traditional language. Pantings like Dreams of Devanda were placed on roofs and walls of important temples and became to complementary to the sacred structures. Hinduism has always been more than just a religion, its a way of life. It’s is focused on finding the ultimate life of Release, the realization of the absolute within us (Moksha). Hindu followers have always used art to get closer to the nature of their religion and act as guide through their spiritual path. Just as prayer, panting was a sacred practice. The popularity of its use was even won its named as the Chitra Sutra; Common themes of nature, celestials beings and humans tied the exercise and helped people reflect about their existence in relation to the Divine. As described by scholar Stella Kramrisch, Hindu art “was neither religious or secular like Western dichotomy, but rather a representation of values in the physical and metaphorical realms”. Art in hinduism has been interpreted as the true intermediary between inner reality and outer world. It holds the the power to recognize the soul, let go of the ego, and slowly comes closer to the Divine.

The practice of art in Hinduism has held a fundamentally naturalistic role in society. Art is not only exercised as a religious practice, but also valued for its transcendental visual experience. In the Shrinathji temple, for example, there are many beautiful paintings of Siva and Vishnu where people can go to contemplate, pray and connect with their Gods as well as with other followers (See Appendix B). Rituals and worships are done before their image, and sometimes even flowers are placed under the visuals to pay their respects. Interestingly enough, this activity is also done in Christian traditions, where sacred images of Saints are used as central points of offerings and prayers. In this sense, paintings have the ability to transmute the sacred practice of creativity by stirring an emotion in other peoples life. As John Damascene describes, art contains ’a mystery and, like a sacrament, are vessels of divine energy and grace”. The visual cues of public paintings transform theology into a visual feeling that people can interpret on their own.

Furthermore, the communal practice of Hindu painting soon gained a global popularity, and after the 19th century, this art began to spread to different parts of the region. As a result, Hindu paintings adopted variations in styles and belief that were reflected by the different placement of Mudras (style of fingers) and symbols. Despite the alterations, the Chitrasutra has always placed an emphasis in the expression of the eyes, the true windows to the soul. It is as if the humanization of divine figures have helped people relate to them. Many works of art are even encouraged to be touched to practice their senses. In this sense, Hindu painting has given people a space to explore their spiritual journey, and create a sacred space of mindfulness. Its value is respected by religious practitioner as they explore their spiritual journeys through visualization of tangible thoughts.

As of now, we have explored the fundamental function of pantings in religious understandings and belief. One the one hand, Christian art has been mainly used to transmit specific religious teaching into society and, on the other, it has also allowed Hindu followers to practice their spiritual devotion of release. Nonetheless, when it comes to Islamic art, there seems to be a different approach of artistic creation. Islam is a monotheistic religion that recognizes Allah as the supreme creator. This religion is mainly differentiated by two main elements: their wide disperse of faith in multicultural lands, and the rigid religious norms that are greatly respected by their followers. Furthermore, despite its geographical variations, Muslims have maintained close ties by their basic standards of behavior, included and reflected in their art. Visuals from the seventh century have no figural drawings since the adoration of humans are not allowed and are believed to be a sin stated by the Qur’an. Instead, Islamic painting focuses on the development of rich and elaborate calligraphy and and designs embedded in the margins of their texts.

Islamic painting, nevertheless, has certain elements that can also reflect their spiritual understanding about the Divine. They fuse repetitive figures, also known as arabesque, to emphasises the geometrical patterns and symbols found in nature. This is also said to symbolize the transcendent, infinite nature of God, one which is not human, nor a physical state. The manuscript of The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp of 1501, for example, contains more than 250 paintings embedded in the classics of Persian poetry (refer to Appendix C) and gives a certain touch of divinity and mysticism to the words of their teaching. Ole Grabar describes this Islamic technique as an incredible representation of the “coexistence between nomadic and sedentary ideals”, fusing together the different cultures within Islam while also maintaining their values intact. Paintings, although not having a major role in the Muslim society, have still had a role to express religious norms while also enhancing the spiritual communication of their sacred texts.

Art and pantings have always been a tool for humans to express their internal self of reality. Art has specifically served as a complementary role for humans to express religious beliefs, values and customs, acting as an intermediate medium that connects one inner subjective reality with the outer world and beyond. It has given people the ability to portray, feel and connect with God in all of its forms, both as human and as mystical transcendental energies. In Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, artistic religion has been used differently depending upon the context of time, space and belief. As one person or community may use art to pray, others may use it explore further their spiritual journeys. even further, paintings have also allowed societies to confirm their religious concepts, and communicate to greater masses. That is the beauty of art, that it can change. By drawing on historical paintings, we are able to grasp a bigger reality of belief and behavior. Even in the modern times, we can analyse the visuals that are being circulated to better grasp the school of thought. In this sense, we must reconsider the elements that art plays, not only in transcendental practices, but in the understanding of our human nature. We are minds with limitless bounds of creativity and imagination that we shall not disregard.


Appendix A

Figure 1 — The Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grünewaldbetween 1510 and 1515. The piece was placed in the monastery of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim as a source of faith for people with diseases.

Hickson, D. Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece. Khan Academy. Retrieved from

Appendix B

Figure 2 — Painting of Krishna in the Shreenthji Temple showing the recurring themes of the nature, colors and mythological figures in Hindu art.

Kramrish, S. (1965). The Art of India. Phaeton Press:Great Britain. pp 43.

Appendix C

Figure 3 — Abstract of The Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp. A manuscript written in 1501 that reflects the use of calligraphy and drawings Islamic art.

Leone, F.(2008). The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. The Met: Los Angeles. Retrieved from


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