For centuries religion and art have had a close and symbiotic relationship. Early forms of public art also depicted religious gods such as Aztec stone sculptures form the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from present day Mexico and wall paintings from Egypt c.1200 B.C. Until the 19th century much artistic endeavour was sponsored by on the church and nobility and, very few high profile artists allowed themselves to depict exactly what they wanted to pass on to the world. Paintings with biblical themes flourished particularly during the Renaissance and Baroque period, some the world’s most iconic artworks were commissioned for religious sites, such as Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam c.1511 from the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Vatican City and The Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp (Belgium) altarpiece painting Assumption of the Virgin Mary 1626 by Rubens.

Art in the twentieth century had a very different relationship with religion. Artists, instead of serving the church and their patrons questioned religion and offered a critique, often coming into conflict with church and state. It became less common for an artist to explore their own faith as western society increasingly moved towards secularism.

Anselm Kiefer Palmsonntag [Palm Sunday] 2006

The German artist Joseph Beuys, who studied with Kiefer in the 1970’s, shared some similar concerns with Kiefer and his work often had equally complex interlocking themes including science, myth, history, medicine and energy. The links to Christianity are especially strong in Beuys’s early sculptures, reflecting his Catholic upbringing images such as the cross reappear throughout his works. In his early works were initially used purely as Christian signifiers. Animal figures would also become reoccurring motifs in Beuys’s work. For example, the hare, which is a symbol of resurrection in Christianity and in Beuys’s work the hare often symbolises birth and resurrection, two themes, which would recur throughout his oeuvre? Much of the work Beuys made towards the end of his life would focus on death and resurrection such as Scala Napoletana 1985.

Like Beuys and Kiefer Greek born, Italian based artist Jannis Kounellis links his religious experience with nature. In works such as Untitled 2004 Kounellis explores ‘a clash of civilisations; a meeting of technology and spirituality’, his organisation of rigid steel crucifixes upon traditionally woven Turkish carpets emphasises the contrast between industrially-made products and unique craftwork, Eastern traditions and Western ritual. In Bells 1993 three large bells hang from wooden beams which sit at an acute angle. The bells, which are symbols of Christian iconography, are central to Kounellis’ Mediterranean identity and hold important cultural significance for the artist. Kounellis who is now an atheist was brought up in a strict Catholic family.

Joseph Beuys Scala Napoletana, 1985
Jannis Kounellis Bells, 1993

Andy Warhol grew up in a Byzantine Catholic household. His parents, Andrej and Julia Warhola, passionately adhered to their ancestral Slavonic language and religion – attending Catholic mass and keeping to the byzantine religious calendar, celebrating Christmas on 7 January. Despite being openly homosexual Warhol would remain a devout Catholic throughout his life and regularly attended mass. Many of his late works incorporated religious imagery and slogans such as his final series of paintings The Last Supper series 1986 (which was also his largest series of religious-themed works). Prior to The Last Supper series 1986 Warhol created a series of silkscreened black and white paintings of images taken from advertisements, diagrams, maps, and illustrations in newspapers and magazines. Works now in the ARTIST ROOMS collection such as Repent and Sin No More! 1985-6 powerfully represent religion as a theme in Warhol’s work and the conflicts Catholicism presents for Warhol as a homosexual man.

Jeff Koons New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker, 1981 - 1987

Jeff Koons is regularly referred to as Warhol’s successor for his appropriation of consumer culture and mass media into his artwork. Koons, like Warhol, also elevated everyday objects and images into the realm of the spiritual in works such as New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker 1981-7 The British artist Damien Hirst employs a Christian phrase for the title of his work Away from the Flock 1994, which is comprised of a dead lamb preserved in formaldehyde. To ‘leave the flock’ is to leave behind the protection of the church. In Christian belief, the Lamb of God was sacrificed to redeem humanity from the original sin of Adam and Eve. The work’s religious connotations are fused with scientific advancement through the use of the formaldehyde gas which fixes and preserves the sheep carcass. This synergy between religion and science is a reoccurring theme in Hirst’s work, often he refers to prescription drugs and pharmaceutical objects enhancing them to almost religious status in works such as Pain Killers 2004. In this work, four light boxes project the image of white pristine pills from the gallery wall, creating a façade reminiscent of a stained glass window.

The use of religious symbolism in contemporary art has often been a contentious issue. In the mid-1970s Gilbert & George began to make ordered rectangular grids of their imagery, a format they have continued to develop to the present day, frequently tinted in extremely bright colours, backlit, and overlaid with black grids so as to resemble stained glass windows. The duo has distinguished themselves from many contemporary artists for their confrontational questioning of religion. 

Gilbert & George CRUSADE, 1980

In the early 1980s the artist duo began to employ the crucifix in their works, and have continued to do so, while also making reference to Islam and multiple faiths in works as Faith Drop 1991. The use of religious iconography as a protest against religion, and in defence of a secular society, has provoked public outrage and accusations of blasphemy. While the artists’ openly acknowledge their blasphemous intentions they also say that their work is ‘intensely Christian’.

The photographer Robert Mapplethorpe used Christian imagery and Greek mythology throughout his career, once stating “I was a Catholic boy, I went to church every Sunday. A church has certain magic and mystery for a child. It still shows in how I arrange things. It’s always little altars”. Mapplethorpe was celebrated, and often criticised, for his images of the male nude were the influence of Catholicism is at its most pronounced. Mapplethorpe revelled in the beauty of the flesh and his work suggests that he found both a form of liberation and a connection to the spiritual is these erotic works.

Mapplethorpe was reticent to name other photographers as an influence on him but openly acknowledged the influence of renaissance artist Michelangelo and neo-classical references are commonplace in his work. The influences of the video artistBill Viola are also difficult to pin-point in relation to his peers but the theatricality of his works has led to comparisons with the Baroque, a movement much associated with the Catholic Church. However, Viola’s influences extend beyond this, incorporating Eastern art history and spiritual practices. In Catherine’s Room 2001, Viola brings these influences together; comprised of five screens which depict five times of day, the work depicts a female protagonist performing different tasks such as yoga and lighting candles. Based on a fourteenth-century predella the work explores human emotion, ritual and the spiritual.

Ed Ruscha created a series of miracle drawings in the 1970s. Including Miracle #641975. Beams of light are frequently associated with miracles and often symbolise miracles in artwork. Ruscha’s work frequently references Hollywood and here Ruscha refers to the ‘miracle’ of moving images.

Ed Ruscha Miracle, 1975
Ron Mueck Mask III, 2005

Ron Mueck’s sculptures are so life-like that we find it hard to believe that they are modelled and cast in the traditional way rather than cast from life, even though, as is the case with Mask III 2005, it is many times the size of a human head. The work is highly idealised and made to have even rounder and more benign-looking features than those of a person it was based on. Shortly before he made Mask III, Mueck had visited an exhibition containing a number of sculptures of the Buddha; he attempted to capture some of the inner peace and serenity of these Buddha’s. The symmetry of this work is enhanced by the lack of a body and the perfectly rounded face, is reminiscent of a full moon – reflecting tranquillity and peace.

Ron Mueck is an example of a contemporary artist finding inspiration in Eastern religion and iconography. Following the Second World War the Western world had greater exposure to Eastern religion and philosophy, which became significant in the work of artists such as Nam June Paik and Francesco Clemente. Eastern religion and philosophy played an equally important role in the work of Agnes Martin. In paintings such as Untitled #5 1994 she creates a simple system of interlocking horizontal and vertical lines. These fragile lines cross expanses of lightly applied, atmospheric colour revealing a spiritual quest. Her arrangements shift in scale and rhythm from work to work.

Agnes Martin Untitled # 5, 1994