August 25, 2021 11 min read

Over the centuries, great artists have expressed their devotion to God through breathtaking works of art that we are still fortunate to see today. From da Vinci’s The Last Supper to Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment, we get to see monumental moments from the Bible and the life of Christ in all their glory, intensity, and sacrificial beauty.

Sometimes tortured souls themselves, these Catholic masters were driven throughout their lives to express their vision in beautiful religious images and sculptures.

Thankfully, history has also recorded some of their profound thoughts on how their relationship with their faith influenced their work. So take a step back in time and allow the words of these 8 artists to inspire your own life today …

1. Giotto, Italian Painter, 1276-1337

Giotto - Giotto di Bondone - is certainly one of the greatest artists in art history, as well as an appreciated architect. He was Cimabue's apprentice and really appreciated by his contemporaries, insomuch as Boccaccio described him as "the best painter in the world". He worked in Florence as master builder for Opera del Duomo, erecting the first part of the Bell Tower, named after him - Giotto's Bell Tower.

Giotto is considered one of the first artists who contributed to the Italian Renaissance. He was a very productive and estimated artist among his contemporaries. Among his most famous works there are the early frescoes of Assisi depicting the Life of Saint Francis and the Life of Saint Isaac in the Upper Church and the later works in the Lower Church.

Unfortunately, several works by Giotto have been destroyed or lost. Some of the remained ones are displayed in national and international museums such as the Louvre Museum in Paris and the MET in New York.

Ascension of the Evangelist

Every painting is a voyage into a sacred harbor - Giotto

Giotto illustrates the miracle of the ascension of John the Evangelist using the astonished, startled reactions of the group at the open tomb. The other group appears blinded and in the grip of a shock wave. The ascension takes place between these two groups: Christ, surrounded by heavenly hosts, appears above the building. He emits golden rays, which envelop the body of the evangelist. They transport the latter to a different sphere and seem like a materialization of the gaze with which Christ looks at John. We are given the impression that the energy, which overcomes gravity, lies more in the meeting of the eyes than in the coincidence of the gestures.

Christ, surrounded by heavenly hosts, appears above the building. He emits golden rays, which envelop the body of the evangelist.

2. Fra Angelico, Italian Painter, 1395-1455

Fra Angelico (original name Guido di Pietro) - Fra Giovanni da Fiesole and Beato Angelico - an Italian painter, florentine school, illuminator and Dominican friar.

His legacy passed directly to the second half of the 15th century through the work of his close follower Benozzo Gozzoli and indirectly through the production of Domenico Veneziano and Piero della Francesca. Fra Angelico was undoubtedly the leading master in Rome at mid-century, and had the survival rate of 15th-century Roman painting been greater, his significance for such later artists as Melozzo da Forli and Antoniazzo Romano might be clearer than it is.

Sacra conversazione

He who wishes to paint Christ's story must live with Christ - Fra Angelico

In art, a sacra conversazione meaning holy (or sacred) conversation, is a genre developed in Italian Renaissance painting, with a depiction of the Virgin and Child (the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus) amidst a group of saints in a relatively informal grouping, as opposed to the more rigid and hierarchical compositions of earlier periods. Donor portraits may also be included, generally kneeling, often their patron saint is presenting them to the Virgin, and angels are frequently in attendance.

The term is often used as a title for paintings to avoid listing all the individual figures, although the trend in museums and academic art history is now to give the full list. The name, which only appears as a title retrospectively in the 18th century, has been explained with reference to "their rapt stillness of mood, in which the Saints, scarcely looking at one another, seem to communicate at a spiritual rather than a material level". In Italian the term is perhaps used more often and more widely than is usually the case in English, for example covering in aria compositions in the tradition of Raphael's Sistine Madonna where the Virgin and Child hover in the air well above the saints.

3. Donatello, Italian Sculptor, 1386-1466

Donatello - Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi - was an Italian Renaissance artist best known for his sculptures such as the striking bronze figure of David now in the Bargello museum of his native Florence. 

Other works by Donatello which influenced later artists include his marble Saint Mark for the Orsanmichele in Florence, the shallow bronze relief panels for both the baptistery of Sienna and the altar of Sant' Antonio Basilica in Padua, and the Gattamelata equestrian statue in Padua. 

Donatello was particularly interested in both classical sculpture and linear perspective and both of these approaches influenced other Florentine artists in the 15th century CE during the opening phase of the Renaissance known as the quattrocento.

Donatello's Crucifix

Disappointed by the response to his hand-carved crucifix, the sculptor said: "If it were as easy to do a thing as to judge it, my Christ would not look like a peasant; but take some wood yourself and make one.”

Donatello’s Santa Croce crucifix was pursued through vivid realism and by making the sculpture “movable” so it could be taken down from the cross and used during the celebration of Holy Week. Donatello used pegs on the underarms to make arms movable, an innovation that would not have been tolerated during the Byzantine period. This way, his work becomes not just “figurative” but also “performative.”

But Donatello does not completely lose the focus on the divine aspect of Christ. Rather, he mixes elements of human suffering—blood running down from the crown of thorns — with perfectly sculpted features such as the arms and legs. This way he represented the co-existence of God and man in the figure of Christ.

4. Michelangelo, Italian Sculptor, 1475-1564

Michelangelo was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet of the High Renaissance born in the Republic of Florence, who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. Considered to be the greatest living artist during his lifetime, he has since been described as one of the greatest artists of all time.

Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Michelangelo is regarded as one of the three giants of the Renaissance, and a major contributor to the Humanist movement. He was a master at depicting the body with such technical accuracy that marble was seemingly transformed into flesh and bone. His adeptness with human emotionality and expression inspired humility and veneration. The psychological insight and physical realism in his work had never been portrayed with such intensity before. His Pieta, David, and the Sistine Chapel have been maintained and preserved and continue to draw crowds of visitors from all over the world. His lifetime achievements give credence to the title commonly bestowed to him of Il Divino (The Divine)

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling

The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection - Michelangelo

The Sistine Chapel had great symbolic meaning for the papacy as the chief consecrated space in the Vatican, used for great ceremonies such as electing and inaugurating new popes. 

The Twelve Apostles was planned as the theme — ceilings normally showed only individual figures, not dramatic scenes. Traces of this project are seen in the 12 large figures that Michelangelo produced: seven prophets and five sibyls, or female prophets found in Classical myths. The inclusion of female figures was very unusual though not totally unprecedented. 

Michelangelo placed these figures around the edges of the ceiling and filled the central spine of the long curved surface with nine scenes from Genesis: three of them depicting the Creation of the World, three the stories of Adam and Eve, and three the stories of Noah. These are naturally followed, below the prophets and sibyls, by small figures of the 40 generations of Christ’s ancestors, starting with Abraham. 

5. Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish Artist, 1577-1640

Peter Paul Rubens - Flemish painter who was the greatest exponent of Baroque painting’s dynamism, vitality, and sensuous exuberance. Though his masterpieces include portraits and landscapes, Rubens is perhaps best known for his religious and mythological compositions. As the impresario of vast decorative programs, he presided over the most famous painter’s studio in Europe. His powers of invention were matched by extraordinary energy and versatility.

His profound stylistic influence would span over three centuries from van Dyck to the Impressionist Renoir. In Italy, he influenced Baroque painters Pietro da Cortona and Luca Giordano. In Spain, he befriended and influenced Velazquez and in England, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds. The 19th century French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix wrote that Rubens "...carries one beyond the limit scarcely attained by the most eminent painters; he dominates one, he overpowers one, with all his liberty and boldness."

As stated by his biographer, Samuel Edwards, "...he is known to have produced more than three thousand works of art, doing all or the principal portion of each himself..."

Madonna in Floral Wreath

I'm just a simple man standing alone with my old brushes, asking God for inspiration - Peter Paul Rubens

Rubens takes on a very specific genre in this artwork - that of still life flowers along a religious theme (a style closely related to the Bruegel family). The combination of this with the figurative skills of this artist results in a truly stunning artwork which can now be viewed at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany as part of a large collection of his work.

Religious flower still-lifes are a special category, first developed by the Fleming Daniel Seghers, a pupil of Jan Brueghel the Elder. However, this can be traced back to Rubens's Madonna in Floral Wreath (with the collaboration of Jan Brueghel the Elder). This represents a picture within a picture with an authoritative religious significance, encircled by a floral arrangement and cherubs. 

Unlike Seghers, however, Rubens did not quote Mary and Jesus as historical traditions or pictorial relics. Instead he preferred to give the impression that they were physically present, even though the motif of a picture within a picture would have been ideally suited for illusionist stylization.

6. Leonardo da Vinci, Italian artist, 1452-1519

Leonardo da Vinci - Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer whose skill and intelligence, perhaps more than that of any other figure, epitomized the Renaissance humanist ideal. His Last Supper (1495–98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19) are among the most widely popular and influential paintings of the Renaissance. His notebooks reveal a spirit of scientific inquiry and a mechanical inventiveness that were centuries ahead of their time. 

He was a true genius who graced this world with his presence from April 15, 1452 to May 2, 1519. He is among the most influential artists in history, having left a significant legacy not only in the realm of art but in science as well, each discipline informing his mastery of the other. Da Vinci lived in a golden age of creativity among such contemporaries as Raphael and Michaelangelo, and contributed his unique genius to virtually everything he touched. Today, no name better seems to symbolize Renaissance age than Leonardo da Vinci.

Last Supper

Love shows itself more in adversity than in prosperity; as light does, which shines most where the place is darkest - Leonardo da Vinci

The Last Supper is Leonardo's visual interpretation of an event chronicled in all four of the Gospels (books in the Christian New Testament). The evening before Christ was betrayed by one of his disciples, he gathered them together to eat, tell them he knew what was coming and wash their feet (a gesture symbolizing that all were equal under the eyes of the Lord). As they ate and drank together, Christ gave the disciples explicit instructions on how to eat and drink in the future, in remembrance of him. It was the first celebration of the Eucharist, a ritual still performed.

Specifically, The Last Supper depicts the next few seconds in this story after Christ dropped the bombshell that one disciple would betray him before sunrise, and all twelve have reacted to the news with different degrees of horror, anger, and shock.

According to Leonardo’s belief that posture, gesture, and expression should manifest the “notions of the mind,” each one of the 12 disciples reacts in a manner that Leonardo considered fit for that man’s personality. The result is a complex study of varied human emotion, rendered in a deceptively simple composition.

7. Paul Cézanne, French Artist, 1839-1906

Paul Cézanne - French painter, one of the greatest of the Post-Impressionists, whose works and ideas were influential in the aesthetic development of many 20th-century artists and art movements, especially Cubism. 

Cézanne’s art, misunderstood and discredited by the public during most of his life, grew out of Impressionism and eventually challenged all the conventional values of painting in the 19th century because of his insistence on personal expression and on the integrity of the painting itself, regardless of subject matter.

A key figure in French painting, Cezanne's vision was exploited by a wide variety of modern artists, from Fauvists to Cubists. It was promoted in England by Post-Impressionist exhibitions organized by Roger Fry in 1912 and 1913. Cezanne's conception appeared from then on, and for a considerable time to come, to be the starting point for all pictorial analysis.

Ile de France Landscape

When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes it is not art - Paul Cézanne

In the 1880s, Cézanne tried to impose greater order in his paintings by systematizing his brushwork. Here, almost every part of nature is defined by the same close parallel strokes.

This is a landscape painting, it was produced in 1880 and the scene depicted is of Île-de-France, a region of France encompassing the north-central départements of Val-d’Oise, Seine-et-Marne, Seine-Saint-Denis, Ville-de-Paris, Hauts-de-Seine, Val-de-Marne, Essonne, and Yvelines. Île-de-France is bounded by the regions of Hauts-de-France to the north, Grand Est to the east, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté to the southeast, Centre to the south, and Normandy to the northwest. The capital is Paris

8. Salvador Dali, Spanish Artist, 1904-1989

Salvador Dalí - Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí y Domenech - Spanish Surrealist painter and printmaker, influential for his explorations of subconscious imagery. He is best known for his painting of melting clocks, The Persistence of Memory.

From an early age, Salvador Dalí was encouraged to practice his art, and he would eventually go on to study at an academy in Madrid. In the 1920s, he went to Paris and began interacting with artists such as Pablo Picasso, René Magritte and Miró, which led to Dalí's first Surrealist phase. He is perhaps best known for his 1931 painting The Persistence of Memory, showing melting clocks in a landscape setting. The rise of fascist leader Francisco Franco in Spain led to the artist's expulsion from the Surrealist movement, but that didn't stop him from painting.

La persistencia de la memoria

Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it - Salvador Dali 

This iconic and much-reproduced painting depicts a scene with watches melting slowly on rocks and the branch of a tree, with the ocean as a backdrop. Dali uses the concept of hard and soft in this painting. This concept may be illustrated in a number of ways like the human mind moving from the softness of sleep to the hardness of reality. In his masterpiece, Dali uses melting watches and rocks to represent the soft and hard aspects of the world respectively. The Persistence of Memory has been much analyzed over the years as Dali never explained his work. The melting watches have been thought to be an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time; as a symbol of mortality with the ants surrounding the watches representing decay; and as irrationality of dreams. The Persistence of Memory is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of twentieth century art. It is not only the most famous painting of Salvador Dali but also the most renowned artwork in Surrealism.

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