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7 Religious art forms and techniques

BY Susan Gray

18th May 2023 Art & Theatre

7 Religious art forms and techniques

From mosaic and fresco to woodcut and lithograph, these are artforms used by the Christian faith, often to depict images of St Francis  

Stained glass, sculpture and altarpieces are the artforms usually associated with Christian art and churches. But the National Gallery’s exhibition on the images of St Francis from the 13th century to the present day, offers an opportunity to see the full range of creative techniques developed to express Christian devotion.  

As images of St Francis were created even before his death in 1227 and distributed throughout Europe by Franciscan orders spreading their founder’s message, the saint associated with animals and radical poverty provides a mirror for religious art’s development from early Renaissance to the 21st century. 

Mosaic


Mosaic ceiling of the Florence Baptistery. Photo credit: Ricardo André Frantz

Depictions of Biblical scenes and characters through arrangement of small pieces of tile, stone or glass dates back to the fourth century, but Tuscan painter and mosaicist Cimabue (1240-1302) took a lead role in the transition from the medieval to modern era of Italian art.  

In a break with the flat schematic methods of the Byzantine painters, Cimabue's work pointed to the potential for pictorial three dimensions and more naturalistic representations, preparing the ground for the full rebirth of 14th-century Florentine art.  

Fresco


One of the panels at Assisi’s Basilica of San Francesco, Isaac rejects Esau

Painting on to a thin layer of fresh lime, using pigment without binding such as egg or glue, dates back to the Minoans in 2,000BC, and frescos can be found all over the Mediterranean.  

At the beginning of the 14th century, Giotto, apprentice of Cimabue, together with Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, created a series of narrative panels on the walls of Assisi’s Basilica of San Francesco, connecting scenes from the life of St Francis, along the lower row, with Biblical scenes above.  

"The creative interpretation of individual figures, crowd scenes, interiors and landscape, formed a crucible of artistic experimentation"

The creative interpretation of individual figures, crowd scenes, interiors and landscape, formed a crucible of artistic experimentation that continued to influence Italian narrative painting in the following two centuries. 

Panel painting


Saint Francis in the Desert, by Giovanni Bellini

Using wood as a support for religious painting was first employed for altarpieces and crucifixes. Wood was the usual artistic surface until the first half of the 16th century, when sails made in Venice ushered in the use of canvas as a less expensive and easier to prepare medium.  

Notable examples of religious paintings on panel include Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert (1476-8), which may have been intended as a laterale, a painting for the side wall of a small chapel, or for devotional use within a private household. Albrecht Aldorfer’s Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1507) is a later, Northern European example of panel painting, where the saint’s background has been transformed to a verdant German forest. 

Relief


The Ascension with Christ giving the keys to St Peter, by Donatello

Relief is the broad term given to sculptures carved into a panel, with low relief or bas relief, indicating a shallow depth between raised features and the surface, and high relief indicating more pronounced sculptural features.

"The realistic sense of space is enhanced through the introduction of linear perspective, novel for sculpture at the time"

Donatello’s (1386-1466) The Ascension with Christ giving the keys to St Peter showcases the artist’s most inventive marble technique rilievo schiacciato (“squashed relief”), an extremely shallow relief, conveying depth by barely grazing the surface with lines. The realistic sense of space is enhanced through the introduction of linear perspective, novel for sculpture at the time. 

Della Robbia


Madonna and Christ child, by Luca della Robbia. Photo credit: MenkinAlRire

A technique for glazing terracotta sculptures is named after Florentine sculptor Luca della Robbia (1400–1482), renowned for his application of colourful, reflective glazes to fired clay.   

His family workshop specialised in depictions of sacred history and devotional images of the Madonna and Christ child for a variety of settings, including altars and chapels, exterior walls and gates, and homes.  

Della Robbias were particularly popular in Tuscan mountain monasteries such as La Verna, on the site where St Francis received the stigmata, as the damp, high altitude air ruined frescoes. 

Woodcut


Dürer's woodcut, Last Supper

Applying ink to a carved block of wood then pressing the image on to paper, became a popular technique to mass produce images in Europe, including religious images, with the development of the printing press around 1436 in Mainz, Germany.  

Images from Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut series Great Passion (1498–1510), first sold images of the eleven scenes including Last Supper and Christ Carries his Cross individually, and then as a complete set.

"Applying ink to a carved block of wood then pressing the image on to paper, became a popular technique to mass produce images in Europe"

Andrea Büttner’s Sermon to the Birds (2010), a woodcut on paper, portraying monochromatic, robed monks and branches of brightly coloured birds, is a contemporary use of woodcut to illustrate one of the best-known episodes of St Francis’ life. 

Lithograph


St Francis and Rufino naked in Assisi, by Arthur Boyd. Photo credit: Bundanon Trust

Lithography means stone printing, and it was discovered in Germany at the end of the 18th century. Using greasy paint or crayon, an image is applied to a stone, later replaced by zinc and aluminium plates, and a chemical reaction is used to have some areas repel ink, and others attract it. Use of a metal roller on the paper and printer plate, ensures even pressure and evenly reproduced images.  

Australian artist Arthur Boyd’s Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis (1965) used black ink lithographs on paper to present nude figures, towering over their settings, to give an earthy quality to the stories associated with the saint’s life. 

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