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Who comes to mind when you think about the Renaissance? Is it Michaelangelo, Raphael? Da Vinci, Caravaggio? These individuals are indeed revolutionary talents, and they were true pioneers of art’s most enlightened era yet. But where were the women during such a period? Was art so inaccessible to them that they were wholly left to the margins?

As time would tell: not quite. There were great women artists who belonged in the rich tapestry of the Renaissance. One such artist was Sister Plautilla Nelli — Dominican nun, self-taught painter, and the founder of an all-women artist group that dominated 16th century Florence. Her name would just be tucked away in history for quite some time.

In 2005, the American philanthropist Jane Fortune had come across a book in Italy about Sister Plautilla, the nun-painter who created her version of The Last Supper — the first known rendition of The Last Supper made by a woman. 

To rediscover a Renaissance masterpiece by a woman seemed like an incredibly rare feat, but perhaps rarity wasn’t merely the case. There were many exemplary women in the field of art and beyond — there just hadn’t been enough spaces to discuss their names in history books and institutions. 

But thanks to cultural changes and the dedication of people like Fortune, the world is starting to recognize more women lost to the vestiges of art history. Sister Plautilla Nelli was one of them.

Forming an All-Women Art Group in 16th Century Florence

Before entering nunhood, Sister Plautilla was born Pulisena Margherita Nelli in 1524, hailing from a prominent family in San Felice, Florence. At fourteen, she was sent to the convent of Santa Caterina di Cafaggio, where she became known as Plautilla. She and her fellow sisters had been supervised by Dominican friars, who encouraged them to learn and create religious art. 

This would turn out to be a vital point in Sister Plautilla’s life — her visionary skill had been born out of natural talent and discipline. And while there were limitations in her education, Plautilla did not stop persevering. By studying and imitating the works of High Renaissance masters like Fra Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto, she would later create her own unique renditions of Christian art.

St. Catherine of Siena, Plautilla Nelli (Source)

Sister Plautilla would eventually form an exclusive art workshop with her sisters in the convent (of which she’ll become prioress later on). They produced a variety of artworks from illumination to glass and ceramic painting. However, oil-on-canvas was Plautilla’s preferred medium.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been far-fetched for her to try learning other techniques, such as frescoes, which had been one of the most definitive arts of the Renaissance. But fresco painting was considered physically taxing — and thus only reserved for men. Women’s education, while present, was incredibly limited.

Nevertheless, the religious work of Sister Plautilla and her fellow nuns would eventually catch the attention of the high Florentine society. This rising recognition brought about an influx of requests and commissions — and Sister Plautilla found herself creating art for the nobles of the area. With her as the lead, the sisters built a name, reputation, and a sense of financial security for themselves.

Sister Plautilla’s Magnum Opus: The Last Supper

Most of Sister Plautilla’s known artworks consisted of the small-scale paintings she created for the wealthy Florentine commissioners. But Plautilla’s creativity would not be curtailed: in 1568, she produced her most renowned masterpiece — an exceptionally intricate rendition of The Last Supper in a wide 7x2 meter canvas. 

The iconic painting would become her claim to fame not only because of its excellence, but also because Plautilla was the first known woman artist to have rendered the biblical event. It would be the only piece that would ever have her signature, an inscription that reads Orate pro pictora — “Pray for the paintress.”

The Last Supper, Plautilla Nelli (Source)

The painting would be hidden away for four centuries, and in some of those years, it remained hung in the private refectory of the Santa Maria Novella monastery — unknown and unnoticed. 

Only in 2017 — almost 450 years since the painting was created — would Plautilla’s The Last Supper undergo restoration, thanks to the campaigns that Jane Fortune and her organization, Advancing Women Artists (AWA), had relentlessly fought for. The restoration process would require donation-based funding and four painstaking years to complete. (The group would continue to dedicate their waking years to uncover the names of neglected women artists until its closure set this year.)

“Nelli probably worked with as many as eight artists in her studio,” said Linda Falcone, Director of the AWA. “But what’s interesting is, five centuries later, we worked with hundreds of people to make this restoration possible.”

Today, Sister Plautilla Nelli’s magnum opus is proudly displayed in the Santa Maria Novella Museum in Florence, her hometown. “This is a huge work whose life-sized figures populate the canvas, as if on a stage,” said Silvia Colucci, Curator of Santa Maria Novella. “She features some very striking details, like the saint’s feet under the food-laden table, and their hand gestures convey their moods and reflect their facial expressions.”

Honoring the Forgotten Names of Women in Art History

Annunciation by Plautilla Nelli (Source)

The rediscovery of Plautilla’s artistic legacy serves as a wake-up call in the world of art history. The Dominican nun was indeed an extraordinary talent — but how many other talents have been left behind? 

The lack of known women in art is the consequence of many things: unequal opportunities for art education, prejudiced cultural practices, and forgotten names of women. Plautilla is a part of this long list, alongside others like Artemisia Gentileschi and Hilma af Klint. 

But we continue to know the names of these women, and we are also becoming more aware of the multifaceted factors that make it an issue in the first place. And by standing in solidarity with them — fighting for their recognition and celebrating their legacy — we discourage it from happening even further.

“I have to say, in all the paintings we’ve restored, I wanted to give [Plautilla Nelli] a voice,” Jane Fortune had said. “And the irony in the whole situation… what happened was, I got my voice.”

Many cultures revere nature as a spirit in and of itself. And with the grandeur of the world, why shouldn’t we think of it as such? From the trees to the mountains to the rivers—there is an inherent spiritual depth within each of these domains.

Shinto—meaning “the way of the gods”—is a Japanese religious practice that believes in spirits of nature called kami, who take the form of any domain in nature: land and bodies of water, animals, plants, and even the bodies of the deceased. 

These spirits are believed to reside in the highly spiritual Shinto shrines all over Japan. Each of these shrines is dedicated to a kami, depending on the area it was built in. Today, believers of Shinto and tourists from around the world continue to visit these shrines to pay their respects to these ancient spirits. Or, if not that—to catch a glimpse of how marvelous this religious culture is.

Shinto and Japan’s National Identity

Shinto predates the existence of Buddhism in Japan, although it is not uncommon for a person to practice both religions. Neither Shinto nor Buddhism is monotheistic or heavily doctrine-driven, so they co-existed as dominant religions in the history of Japan. Shinto, in particular, is more of an aspect of life and culture rather than a religion in its conventional sense. Of course, it is still classified as a belief system.

Since it has existed in Japan far before the country was unified, Shinto was initially a very local one. It varied from region to region and depended on the spirits worshipped in the area or shrine. 

Around the Meiji period (1868-1912), however, Japan implemented State Shinto, which meant that the country integrated this religion with its political efforts and power. Shinto priests became government officials, and the royal family was closely affiliated with the religion’s myths and deities. Shrines were also funded by the state, and some were even erected in honor of the royal rulers.

Although the religion and the state were formally separated by the end of World War II, Shinto remains a major religion that still, to this day, defines the country’s culture and collective philosophy.

Some Incredible Shinto Shrines

There are thousands of Shinto shrines all over Japan, all with varying degrees of importance. They are often classified according to function (the Jingu and Gu, for instance, are affiliated with the Imperial Family, its gods and ancestors, and other influential nobles). Sometimes, they are also classified according to the gods or deities they worship.

Shrines also differ in size and magnitude; some have more rooms and spaces than others. However, they generally have some vital architectural structures: the torii or entrance gate, the temizuya purification trough, the offering hall, and the ema or wooden offering plates. 

These elements are not arbitrary placements—they all serve a ceremonial purpose. For instance, it is customary to bow before the torii gate and step through the entrance with the left foot first. The center of the gate is for the spirits, so visitors usually avoid passing there. 

And in the hall, the visitors throw a donation (of any currency) at the Saisenbako or coin box, bow and clap twice, and say a prayer. Acknowledging each part of the shrine and its purpose is part of the full experience of the visit.

Of course, while every shrine is worth seeing, some have greater cultural legacies and more notable historical backgrounds. Here are some of the most significant Shinto shrines you can visit in Japan.

Ise Grand Shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture


The Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingu) is considered the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan. Located within a forest in the Mie Prefecture, the shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, who is also the country’s supreme deity. It is believed that the Imperial Family are her descendants and that they rule because of the divine power given to them.

According to the legend from thousands of years ago, the 11th Emperor Suinin ordered the princess Yamatohime-no-mikoto to seek a place for the permanent enshrinement and worship of Amaterasu. After traversing many, many lands for almost twenty years, the princess faced a revelation—directly from the sun goddess herself—to build the shrine in the province of Ise.

Ise Jingu has around 125 shrines all over the city, but the most significant ones are the inner shrine (Naiku) and the outer shrine (Geku). The inner shrine is home to the Sacred Mirror or Yata no Kagami, which is said to be a gift from Amaterasu herself to the first emperor of Japan. As such, it is one of the three Imperial Regalia, along with the sword and the jewel. 

The mirror is only ever seen by royals and high priests, and it is considered far too sacred to be displayed. Still, visitors can pay homage to Amaterasu and the holy treasure before the gates.

Izumo Grand Shrine in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture


The Izumo Grand Shrine, or the Izumo-Taisha, is generally considered the oldest surviving Shinto shrine in Japan. It is believed that the shrine itself had already been around since the 700s, although not much is known beyond this fact. 

Over time, as the area began to be filled with prominent clans, more buildings and structures were added. Like other Shinto shrines—including the Ise Jingu—the Izumo Grand Shrine is rebuilt every few years, although there are only minor changes in the building process.

Its origin and history may be lost to time, but it is still rich with ancient folklore and tradition. The shrine was believed to be built for the kami Ōkuninushi, and legend says that spirits gather here once a year to meet. Today, visitors come to the Izumo-Taisha to pray for good fortune and sustenance.

Fushimi Inari Shrine in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto 


The Fushimi Inari Shrine, located at the base of a mountain in Kyoto, is an important Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari: the kami of rice and general prosperity. Aside from the monumental structures within, the Fushimi Inari Shrine boasts of its Shenbon Torii—thousands of red gates and stairs leading up to the sacred Mount Inari.

There is also a multitude of fox statues all around the area, since these animals are recognized as Inari’s messengers. Sometimes, they are depicted carrying rice grains with their mouths and red scarves. Red—in general, and especially in this shrine—is associated with sanctity and good fortune.

This shrine is also among the oldest and most ancient ones, dating back to the Heian period around the 700s. It has greatly influenced the country’s visual and cultural identity, which is why it continues to be one of the most popular tourist spots in Japan.

Itsukushima Shrine in Itsukushima, Hatsukaichi


Famous for its unique floating torii gate, the Itsukushima Shrine is situated on the island of Itsukushima in Hiroshima bay. The torii is submerged in the waters of the high tides, which is how it appears to be “floating.

The earliest structures of the shrine date back to the late 500 C.E. Saeki no Kuramoto, who governed the so-called “Island of Worship,” said that he received a message from the spirits to build the shrine in its waters. Some centuries later, however, it became more attributed to the daimyo (warlord) Taira no Kiyomori. At the time of his governance, he contributed greatly to the Itsukushima Shrine’s building efforts, patterning it after an architectural style called shinden-zukuri which is commonly designed for the nobility.

The shrine is meant to worship the “three female deities,” namely Ichikishimahime-no-mikoto, Tagorihime-no-mikoto, and Tagitsuhime-no-mikoto, who are all descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu. The goddesses gave their blessings to the Imperial Family and helped them brave the stormy seas during perilous journeys.

Because of its unique heritage and architecture, the Itsukushima Shrine is recognized and protected by UNESCO. Parts and buildings of this magnificent place are also designated as Japan’s National Treasures.

Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and an aerial view of the Meiji Jingu, 1926, (Source)

The Meiji Shrine or Meiji Jingu in Shibuya, Tokyo is one of the most popular Shinto shrines in the country. Built only in the 1920s during the latter years of the Meiji Restoration period, the shrine was erected in honor of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. These were more or less the years when State Shinto was implemented in Japan. Contrary to the misconception, however, the Meiji Jingu is not their burial ground; the royal couple is entombed in an imperial mausoleum in Kyoto.

Despite its recency, the shrine has already faced some devastating blows. The original structures had been a casualty of the Tokyo air raids during World War II. Fortunately, after community efforts in funding, the grand shrine was rebuilt around the 1950s. 

Today, the Meiji Jingu garners millions of visitors per year, especially during ceremonial occasions (such as the New Year). In such sublime events, visitors from all over the world gather collectively to celebrate and say their prayers.

‘The Way of the Gods’

Shinto was, without a doubt, a significant factor in the formation of Japan’s national identity. Even in the ancient years when Japan had not been unified as a country, it still defined the nation’s beliefs and way of life. And today, this culture is being practiced and spread joyfully around the world.

Thanks to tradition, folklore, art, and these captivating shrines, the rich faith of Shintoism continues to be illustrious. Although we as a society live within the luxuries and advances of the modern world, Shinto shrines serve as a beautiful reminder for us to come back to the roots of life: nature, and the wonders that we often take for granted.

Which Shinto shrine would you like to visit in the future?

A house in Nerima, Tokyo is said to have harbored years of cursed vengeance against all those who step foot in it. The victims included a social worker, a detective, and a group of schoolgirls, who all reportedly died through the work of supernatural forces.

Decades before the lives of these victims, a man had murdered his wife, his child, and the house cat. On that fateful day, the spirits of the family (and the cat) were eternally entrapped in the house, plaguing and killing all those who visited it. The house has never known peace since.

So goes the plot of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), a Japanese horror film about a family seeking vengeance for eternity. These ghosts are categorized as Onryō — spirits who have been so deeply wronged in their lives that they cannot move on from the world. They are malevolent, wrathful, and often downright murderous.

The concept of Onryō is hardly a modern one, however — Japan has a long, rich history of tall tales and folklore. All of these stories trace their roots back to indigenous beliefs, such as the spirit-induced Shintoism, which is still widely practiced today. 

Onryō by Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1808 (Source)

Not all spirits are evil, though. Some are noble, and some have had far more tragic fates, like the Ubume (dead mothers who longed for their children). For the Japanese, all these spirits — the good, the bad, and the nuances in between — are as integral in the world as much as living beings are. The whole umbrella of spirits is called yūrei, which translates to “faint soul.” 

While they are portrayed in varying spectrums — spooky, horrifying, just, benevolent, worthy of praise — the yūrei has inspired a myriad of spoken and written stories (Kaidan) and artworks (yūrei-zu). 

Yūrei-zu: A Genre of Ghosts and Spirits

History would come to recognize a whole genre of Japanese art called yūrei-zu, which deals with all kinds of supernatural themes. All artworks — mostly paintings and woodblock prints — that feature ghosts, spirits, and even demons fall under this unique category.

The beginnings of yūrei-zu date back to the Japanese medieval period, where works of art consisted of paintings in scrolls. Centuries later, during the Edo Period (1603-1867), more and more artworks with elements of the supernatural started to become commonplace. 

For some artists, such as Sawaki Suushi, these supernatural folktales became a rich vault of inspiration to pattern artworks on. Suushi would become famous for his picture scroll, the Hyakkai Zukan, or “The Illustrated Volume of a Hundred Demons.” Within the scroll would be illustrations of folk demons and monsters — including his very own rendition of a yūrei.

Yūrei by Sawaki Suushi, ca. 1737 (Source

Like Suushi’s, many paintings of the yūrei-zu were merely expressions of the supernatural, created out of the desire to depict ancient fear or pay reverence to them. 

But some had more compelling stories behind them, surprisingly of less archaic origins. Katsushika Hokusai — the great master behind the renowned The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831) — would create a portrait based on the life and demise of the famous theater ghost Kohada Koheiji. 

As the story goes, Koheiji was a kabuki actor who, after portraying a yūrei, became a ghost himself. While his life is generally recognized as a true story, the details behind it had become muddled with lore, turning it into an urban legend of its time. Koheiji had been murdered by his wife and his lover by drowning him in a swamp. But he would rise again as a ghost, seek revenge, and kill them.

The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji by Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1831 (Source)

The rise of macabre paintings during the Tokugawa period was said to have been a result of extreme socio-political turmoil, as well as numerous natural catastrophes. Shaken with fear and apprehension, more people would turn towards lore to express the reasons behind these turbulent conditions.

However, state efforts would be made to censor the arts — including the yūrei-zu — in an attempt to restore Japan into a feudal agricultural society. The Tempō Reforms, reinstated by the regime, warned against the production and regulation of “morally dubious” works. 

But artists would not be quelled — they would continue to create yūrei-zu (and other kinds of art) as a covert form of protest. Not only was the genre definitive of the country’s ancient beliefs; it was also a demonstration against a failing government. Eventually, the Tempō Reforms would prove futile, and the arts continued to flourish.

Shimobe Fudesuke and the Ghost of the Woman in the Waterfall, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, ca. 1865 (Source)

Other genres of art that would emerge around the end of the Edo period are chimidoro-e and muzan-e (“bloody” and “cruel paintings,” respectively). These would be of the same vein with the yūrei-zu, although they veered away from the supernatural and ventured towards more realistic themes, such as brutality and gore.

Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, the “last great master” of woodblock painting, produced artworks of all these horrific genres.

Murder of Ohagi by Saisaburô by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, ca. 1867 (Source)

Spirits in Modern Art and Culture

The illustrious history of ghosts and supernatural stories in Japan contributed to its incredible pantheon of modern horror tales. Today, Japan is a powerhouse of internationally acclaimed horror films, such as Ringu (1998), Ju-On (2002), and Dark Water (2002). Ghosts and superstitions would also become an interesting prospect for many modern artists outside Japan. Spirit photography would turn into a genre, too — one that is still growing today. 

These seemingly obsolete concepts continue to fascinate the world long after it has moved towards secularity. Our curiosity and inclination towards spiritual stories invite us to inquire what lies in the beyond — and the imaginative vault of yūrei-zu is a testament to this inquiry.

“A Jesuit must be creative,” Pope Francis once said. He’s passionate about such things — many of his past professions involved creativity and learning in some way or another. He’d been a chemical technician, a tango dancer, an opera fan, and an art connoisseur. 

From his favorite films (Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast, 1987) to his favorite musical piece (Great Mass in C. Minor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1783), Pope Francis has always championed the celebratory nature of art — especially combined with religion.

His favorite artwork is The Calling of St. Matthew, painted by Caravaggio as a commission for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. The Baroque masterpiece has been the chapel’s pièce de résistance since its creation in 1600.

A young Pope Francis — in the days he was still known as Cardinal Bergoglio — would often ruminate on the painting: “Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze,” he’d said, assimilating himself with St. Matthew, the subject of Caravaggio’s piece.

Caravaggio’s Works: “Without Hope, Without Fear”

The Calling of St. Matthew is one of Caravaggio’s many outstanding works — and perhaps the most notable piece to define his illustrious career. As one of the most renowned Baroque masters, he had his oeuvre among the most studied in all of art history.

Caravaggio was born in 1571, the same year as Michaelangelo Merisi — his namesake an ode to the Archangel Michael — in Milan, Italy. Little is known about his early life, but it’s believed that he has been orphaned at a very young age after almost everyone in his family died from the bubonic plague. 

His years as an orphan turned out to be formative for his art career. At the tender age of 11, he had been taken under the wing of Italian Mannerism master Simone Peterzano. It was also during these years that Caravaggio would learn the phrase nec spe, nec metu, meaning “without hope, without fear.”

Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, ca. 1621 (Source)

These words would become an allusion to Caravaggio’s rebellious and provocative nature as a man. Official records of his life were very scarce — him being born of a poor family and orphaned at a young age — but according to those records, Caravaggio formed a camaraderie with a ragtag group of street painters and swordsmen. 

At some point in his life, the then-penniless Caravaggio would be known as “the most famous painter in Rome.” He would eventually be commissioned for several great churches and cathedrals by some of the city’s cardinals, and at last, secured a career as an artist.

St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy by Caravaggio, ca. 1594 (Source)

Ironically, Caravaggio was far from a devout Catholic himself: He lived a life of notorious scandals that involved gambling, brawls, and love affairs with men and women. He was described as brash and hot-headed. It’s almost an amusing contrast to the artistic talent he’d nurtured, which seemed to be characteristic of Catholic religiosity. 

But while his works were not limited to religious commissions, a massive part of his oeuvre had consisted of art he’d done for churches. Among these was, of course, The Calling of St. Matthew, still exhibited proudly in the walls of Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi Del Francesi.

The piece’s source material is from Matthew 9:9

“And when Jesus passed on from thence, he saw a man sitting in the custom house, named Matthew; and he said to him: Follow me. And he arose and followed him.”

The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, ca. 1600 (Source)

The work was accompanied by other great pieces of the same theme, such as The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1600) and The Inspiration of St. Matthew (1602). But “The Calling” remained the magnum opus, praised far and wide for its innovative art technique.

Caravaggio was a master of chiaroscuro, the contrast and dimension of coloring with light and dark tones. It was a skill that required artistic intuition: The varying gradation of hues must add depth to an otherwise flat painting. 

The Calling of St. Matthew is a quintessential example of how the Renaissance art technique was perfected. It was described as a myriad of things: “extreme,” “dramatic,” and “shockingly innovative.”

Art as a Religious Enterprise

Although Caravaggio lived a life of controversy, his works have remained a staple in Catholic art. Artists and non-artists alike recognize his masterful style and astounding talent — which go beyond the realm of art. 

Pope Francis himself was prompted with contemplation upon viewing Caravaggio’s art. He saw Jesus’s outstretched arm pointing at Matthew in the painting and assimilated himself in the position of the saint. “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew,” he said.

The calling of St. Matthew is inspiring because it’s a story of Jesus seeing potential in a man — a tax collector, a sinner — seemingly so ordinary and dishonorable. When Caravaggio expressed the account through his art, he made it come to life and, subsequently, encourages the viewer to introspect.

The Contarelli Chapel’s interiors (Source)

Beauty is one thing; depth is another. When Pope Francis recognized both qualities in Caravaggio’s piece, he joyfully shared it with the Catholic community. And by doing so, he promotes and highlights art as an inherent religious — and human — endeavor.

The European Medieval Age has its vast share of religious and artistic feats. We can find some of these in illuminated manuscripts: quiet and tucked away between pages—but still as ornate and ostentatious as cathedral frescoes. Meticulously written and painted by hand, these books are gilded with gold, silver, or other precious metals, and are often made for high-ranking people in society. 

The production of these books required a great deal of dedication and skill. They were reserved for society’s elite few, such as religious officials, royals, and nobles. They contained prayers and liturgical ceremonies, Christian scriptures and stories, and sometimes even depictions of nobles’ lives.

And yet, lodged in the margins of these pensive-sounding pages, we discover vestiges of someone’s life now and then—the scribe, in flashes of offhand comments, complains about the toil of writing. “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” one had written. “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink!”

Illuminated manuscripts are so full of spirit—of God, of traditions, of their owners, and of their poor, fatigued authors—that they contain far beyond art for art’s sake. Instead, they offer something quite magical: a colorful, resonant glimpse of faith and Christian life during the Dark Ages, which—as it appears—weren’t characterized by such dreariness after all.

Books of Enlightenment

There’s a lot to be learned from every unique illuminated manuscript, from its function and purpose to its art and text—both during its time and as an artifact of history. Illuminate comes from the Latin word ‘lumen,’ meaning “light.” Manuscript comes from the words ‘manu’ meaning “hand,” and ‘scribere’ meaning “to write.”

So why were they called as such? On one hand, “illuminated” is meant to be taken in a literal sense—the books are lined with gleaming precious metals. They “lit” up already intricate illustrations and words, giving the book an even more ethereal quality. 

But we can also view it in a more metaphorical sense: to illuminate also means to educate. These books indeed shine a light on medieval faith and life, and preserve and carry traditions that have been practiced for centuries.

The Making of Illuminated Manuscripts: A Meticulous Process

Illuminated manuscripts were closely tied to codexes, which were found as early as the 300 C.E. But the centuries that followed brought about a rise to Christianity, which resulted in monastic communities being built all around medieval Europe. 

These monasteries often had little libraries, as reading was a vital skill and activity for monks. They kept collections of illuminated manuscripts, which tackled Christian stories, scriptures, and prayers. 

But the monks not only read these books—they made them, too. Some monasteries also had ‘scriptoriums,’ small rooms in which manuscripts were slowly and painstakingly manufactured. To assemble them, the scribes cut up pieces of vellum, parchments made out of calfskin. For the text and paintings, they used inks of all kinds and colors. 

They would spend waking hours writing and writing—no matter the weather, no matter their conditions. They made their weariness known, often in hilarious ways. “Oh, my hand,” a note in the margin reads. And another: “St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.”

Some notable illuminated manuscripts in medieval history

Lindisfarne Gospels (ca. 700s)

A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (Source)

Dating back to the Anglo-Saxons, this illuminated manuscript was produced in Lindisfarne, an island monastery in northeastern England. Also called “Holy Land,” this area has its rich share of Christian and English history. It was the place where St. Cuthbert, an influential bishop in the late 600s, established the pious life that would come to be associated with his sainthood.

Just decades following his passing, the Lindisfarne Gospels were written and produced in his honor. The book is generally associated with the efforts of Saint Eadfrith, a follower of Cuthbert and the bishop of the monastery after Cuthbert’s death.

As the known oldest surviving English translation of the Gospels, this manuscript contained incredible artistic efforts. It featured zoomorphism and other religious iconographies: birds and snakes adorn the edges of each page, and winged calves make an appearance in biblical scenes.

The manuscript has survived many historical events (such as the infamous Viking raids in 793), seemingly against all odds. In the 900s, it reached the possession of the priest Aldred, who credited Eadfrith for the book’s production by dedicating an inscription on the last page. Aldred also wrote that the book was “bedecked with gold and with gems and also with gilded silver-pure wealth.”

The Book of Kells (ca. 800s)

Christ Enthroned’ from The Book of Kells (Source)

Another Gospel book (this time in Latin), The Book of Kells is considered a “cultural treasure” and has been described as “the work of an angel.” Its construction and designs were grand, complex, and ostentatious. This illuminated manuscript is considered a quintessential work of Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art—a distinctive style of abstract, ornamental patterns with underlying symbolism.

While there are some contentions on the book’s origins, it is generally believed that it was produced in Iona, or at least its neighboring countries like Ireland, Scotland, and England. Like the Lindisfarne Gospels, The Book of Kells had miraculously survived the Viking raids—and was brought to different hands and guardianships since. 

People were fascinated by the paintings and the range of pigments they featured, from yellow ochre to deep indigo. Some of these hues were sourced from rare materials imported from other parts of the world.

In the 12th century, archdeacon and historian Gerard of Wales expressed his admiration for this illuminated manuscript: “You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.”

The original Book of Kells is housed in Trinity College Dublin, but it was recently digitized and published online for free. While it may not make up for the firsthand experience of seeing the material, it’s still certainly a spectacle worth viewing.

The Morgan Crusader Bible (ca. 1200s)

‘Dreams of a King’ (Genesis 41:1–7) from the Morgan Crusaders Bible (Source)

Containing around 300 paintings by six artists, the Morgan Crusader Bible is not only known for being a remnant of Christian illumination—it is also a vivid reflection of 13th century France and its political conditions. King Louis IX of France—monarch, leader of the Seventh Crusade, and a venerated Christian saint—reportedly commissioned it to Parisian manuscript illuminators before his expedition to Egypt. 

It did not feature all the books of the Bible but it told stories about the kings, judges, and Promised Land from the Old Testament. Of course, with the context of the Crusades in mind, the manuscript highlighted depictions of war and violence. It was initially an exclusively visual manuscript, only filled with pictures and artworks. Over time, it began to be owned and passed around other royals, who added text and inscriptions accordingly.

The manuscript itself is considered a French “Gothic jewel,” not just for its content but also for its construction. Adorned with expensive burnished gold, the Morgan Crusader Bible is reflective of the royal hands that have owned and modified it throughout the course of history. 

Today, the manuscript is housed in the Morgan Library & Museum, but you can view some of its pages online here.

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (ca. 1400s)

The household of John, Duke of Berry, from Très Riches Heures (Source)

Often called “the most important illuminated manuscript in the 15th century,” Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry) is the result of the painstaking work of many skilled artists throughout different centuries. The credit, however, goes mostly to the Limbourg brothers, who created it for Jean de France, the Duke of Berry. The duke was a notable patron of arts and literature during his time.

The Très Riches Heures is a “book of hours,” a custom-made prayer book that lists and observes liturgical ceremonies for nobles who were not members of the clergy. During the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, these books were made in abundance. They are the most common surviving forms of illuminated manuscripts today.

The 206-paged manuscript contains over a hundred miniature paintings, depicting not only prayers and biblical scenes but also the household’s daily life. Some of the images featured peasants toiling in the field and aristocrats in revelry, including the Duke of Berry himself. 

Prayer Book of Claude de France (ca. 1500s)

A page from the miniature book (Source)

Described as “tiny and jewel-like,” the Prayer Book of Claude de France is a marvel in many ways. This manuscript was custom-made for Claude of France herself, queen consort of Louis XII. And perhaps most fascinating of all: the book is only 4.9 x 6.9 cm—smaller than the palm of a hand.

Rather than a show of large sizes, smaller books had been in fashion at the time because it was more comparable to a jewel. The book consisted of 132 paintings within only 104 pages, meaning that each miniature drawing required an incredible amount of detail and thoroughness.

Roger Wieck, the curator at The Morgan Library and Museum, called it “the pinnacle of subtlety.” The work is credited to the Master of Claude de France, one of the greatest illuminators during the art’s heyday. He used pale and soft colors, which Wieck said helped create “atmospheric depth in the landscapes and cityscapes of the background.” 

The jewel-like book is now under the care of The Morgan Library and Museum, where the Morgan Crusader Bible is also housed. But you can check out each miniature page here.

Glimpses of Religion, Art, and Life in Luminous Pages

The illuminated manuscript is admired not only as an illustrious art form, but also as a primary part of European medieval life. Each book was customized for a particular person in the past, and for a particular purpose. It belonged in households, was used in daily liturgical ceremonies, was given as gifts from nobles to other nobles.

And the art involved in these luminous books is such an ambitious feat in itself. Not only did it require technical skill; it also required an incredible amount of effort and perseverance. In one of the commentaries on the margins of a manuscript, an unnamed scribe had written: “This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, ‘The hand that wrote it is no more.’” 

Perhaps it is true that the hand is no more. Even his name has been lost to the remnants of history. But the book retains something far more valuable: his words, his art, and—through them—his spirit.

In times past, artists had to follow conventions on what they could and couldn’t do. The Middle and Renaissance Ages adhered to strict laws based on religious doctrines, and as such, anything potentially blasphemous can result in shame at best — and execution at worst.

But with new centuries emerged new ideals: They’re now more liberal than austere, and have offered artists more creative liberty than ever before. With communal values no longer at the forefront of activities, artists can illustrate their religious opinions without being curtailed by convention. However, this doesn’t mean that their work would be free from criticism and public scrutiny. Which works of art shook — and shaped — Christian thinking?

1) The Alexamenos Graffito (ca. 200 C.E.)


One of the earliest surviving depictions of Jesus was not even in a positive light: It was a graffiti of a man praising a figure on the cross, a donkey for a head. Inscribed below the figures were the words: Alexamenos worships his god.

The graffiti dates back to the 2nd century, a time characterized by two contrary social states: the rising popularity of Christian faith versus religious persecution and martyrdom. The Alexamenos Graffito was found at the Palatine Antiquarium in Rome, which was believed to be a school of sorts. It was likely a mockery of the Christian faith and its believers (in this case, a man named Alexamenos).

2) The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci (1492)


The enigma behind Leonardo da Vinci’s notorious The Last Supper has persisted and even changed over time. From the moment it was created, the piece created an uproar among the community. Historian and novelist Ross King called it “the ‘work of fame’ about which [Leonardo] dreamed [of].” He said: “It was the most copied painting of the next century — not only in paint, but also in marble, wax, and terracotta. Everyone wanted a version of it.”

The painting is thought to have featured Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus whom He cleansed of seven demons (She was also often labeled as a prostitute, although there’s no canonical account for that).

Mary Magdalene as a character was already the subject of scrutiny for many Christians. She was mentioned more times than other disciples in the Bible, which led some to think that she was Jesus’s lover — and even inspired fictional adaptations like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. However, this claim was disputed several times by historians and theologians, saying that the figure in question is, in fact, St. John the Beloved. 

But this is not the only mystery in the painting: Others believe that it was a mathematical code prophesying the end of the world, while others thought it encoded a 40-second requiem that paid tribute to the Passion of Christ.

3) The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (1512)


The most celebrated fresco in Christian history, according to art scholars, contains secular themes and is therefore contrary to religious doctrine. Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, displayed in the marvelous interiors of the Sistine Chapel, depicts God within an anatomical figure: a human brain.

Michelangelo himself was religious, but he also valued secular thinking. The interpretation of the fresco as a brain led people to speculate that the artist may be positing two things: One: that God is central to our lives (a fairly religious postulation), or two: that God is an idea merely created in the imaginations of people. With multiple theories that connote different things, The Creation of Adam continues to baffle minds 500 years after its completion.

4) The Last Judgment, Michelangelo (1541)

Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” (1541) (Source)

Yet another painting by the famed Renaissance artist remained central to controversy. In fact, this fresco is considered to be the most overtly secular of all his work and was met with criticism and disapproval at the time it was painted. Here, Michelangelo painted humans (including saints) in the nude — a feat that was considered highly inappropriate, especially within a chapel. 

People at the time, including dramatist Pietro Aretino, accused Michelangelo’s work of sacrilege. In a letter he supposedly addressed to the painter, he wrote: “[You have] chosen to display to the whole world an impiety of irreligion only equalled by the perfection of [this] painting!”

Michelangelo also incorporated elements from Greco-Roman mythology — another potential record of blasphemy. But beyond its religious implications, The Last Judgment remains especially iconic for its endeavors to illustrate reformative religious views.

5) The Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin (1889)


By the end of the 19th century, society has adopted a more rational stance in most aspects of life. Avant-garde artists like Paul Gauguin, friend to Vincent Van Gogh, explored more radical themes in religious art. His work The Yellow Christ made use of elements that were largely “unnatural,” a complete turnaround from the Neoclassical art of the previous century. 

In The Yellow Christ, the background was more geometrical than detailed, the peasants were painted with vague faces of disinterest, and — most notably — Jesus’s skin color is a stark yellow. Some art historians theorized that Gauguin was portraying a growing sense of disconnect between Jesus and the ordinary human (in this case, the peasants). Still, Gauguin continued to be fascinated with religion, incorporating it as a central theme in many of his works.

6) The Sacrament of the Last Supper, Salvador Dalí (1955)

Salvador Dalí’s ‘The Sacrament of the Last Supper’ (1955) (Source)

Many considered Salvador Dalí’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper to be a bizarre interpretation of the biblical event. He depicted Jesus and the 12 apostles, all bowed towards Him, in a geometrical cupola with a scenic view of the mountains. Above them was the looming image of a man’s bosom and shoulders, wide and outstretched.

Dalí had once said: “Heaven is to be found exactly in the center of the bosom of the man who has faith,” and perhaps this was his (rather literal) way of depicting such a statement. Despite the criticisms it’s facing, Dalí’s work is defended by other critics as a piece of genuine spirituality — and not one of irreverence. Dalí himself had an ambivalent relationship with religion, calling himself a “Catholic without faith.”

7) The Black Christ, Ronald Harrison (1962)


By the 1960s, people were edging toward religious beliefs that were oriented towards freeing people from oppression. Philosophies like liberation theology began to be more apparent in poor and marginalized communities. 

In 1962, South African artist Ronald Harrison painted The Black Christ, in which he depicted Albert Luthuli, activist and chief leader of the African National Congress, as Jesus on the cross. Beside him were Hendrick Verwoerd and John Vorster, two principal proponents of apartheid (racial segregation policies in South Africa). The painting led to the arrest and state-regulated torture of Harrison, and The Black Christ was smuggled into the United Kingdom. It was returned in 1997, a few years after South Africa began to be a democracy.

The wonder of The Black Christ lies in its revolutionary potential: Harrison challenged the view of Jesus as a God from merely above. He contextualized Jesus with and among a suffering community. Radical as it seemed, such depictions seem all too fitting — the majority of Jesus’s work, after all, involved immersing with the marginalized.

8) Piss Christ, Andres Serrano (1987)


Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ wasn’t a painting but a 60x40-inch photograph — and perhaps the most profane and controversial one to date. The image is simple: a small Crucifix submerged in urine. It caused an uproar in the Christian community and even sparked some dispute on whether such kinds of art should be censored.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue responded to the piece decades after it was made. “I think it has something to do with the fact that they know they can get away with impunity by insulting Christians,” he remarked in a YouTube video. He also said further in an interview with The Guardian: “I would argue that ethics should dictate that you don't go around gratuitously and intentionally insulting people of faith.”

On the other hand, Serrano himself claimed that he didn’t “mean anything” by the image. “The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you're not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man,” he said, and added: “In hindsight, I’d say Piss Christ is a reflection of my work, not only as an artist, but as a Christian.”

9) The Holy Virgin Mary, Chris Ofili (1996)


Typically, the view of the Madonna is one of purity and divinity, but painter Chris Ofili challenged this with a far more unorthodox take: a “sexually charged” Mary featuring clipped images of women’s buttocks from pornographic magazines. And it doesn’t end there: Against the golden resin was a ball of elephant dung plastered against the Virgin’s breast. 

Ofili’s work outraged the Christian community; a visitor smeared paint on it after calling it “blasphemous.” The controversy ran so deep that former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to close the Brooklyn Museum of Art (where it was then displayed). 

But to Ofili, the work was not meant to be profane; it was merely contextual to the black community, which he was a part of. “As an altar boy, I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy,” said Ofili. “Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip hop version.”

Even the elephant dung had a purpose: “It had a connection with Africa,” he told The Telegraph. “People seemed to react to me using it, as a person of African origin. They assumed it was a front for selling drugs or had healing, mystical powers. But over time it became very beautiful and desirable — a spectacular substance in its own right.”

10) Monkey Christ, Restored by Cecilia Giménez (Originally Ecce Homo by Elias Garcia Martinez) (1930/2012)

Before and After, “Ecce Homo” (Source)

When 81-year-old parishioner Cecilia Giménez noticed that the Ecce Homo, a fresco in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Zaragoza, was chipping and fading away, she wanted to do something about it. After securing permission from the priest, Giménez began to paint over it in the hope of restoring it to its former glory. Unfortunately, the effort turned futile when someone snapped a photo of it and shared it on social media. 

Giménez claims that the work, at the time it was shared, was unfinished — but it was too late. The feat had gone viral. What was once known as Ecce Homo, or “Behold the Man,” is now known as “Behold the Monkey.” This name even had variants: “Monkey Christ” and sometimes “Potato Man.”

The constant ridicule took a toll on Giménez’s health, but it later brought about valuable things: an economic boost through local tourism, a £43,000 charity raise, and a culture of finding joy in things that used to be purely ceremonial. 

“It was done with good intentions,” Giménez said. “People from all over the world are visiting the sanctuary now. That’s the best medicine. I used to cry a lot over all this but I don’t cry anymore because I can see how much I’m loved.”

“Blasphemy” and Creative Freedom

“Art is reflective of its time,” said Pop artist and former nun Corita Kent. Art is also reflective of the mind and identity. Many times, “controversies” are merely words to describe periods of societal reform (Michelangelo’s “secular” art, for instance, represented the ever-changing ideals of the period).

Still, it might help to realize that whatever art produced comes with some level of responsibility — not to the community, but the self. If a piece is questioned and doubted, the artist must be ready to defend it. How they defend their work is reflective of how committed they are to their creative and spiritual process.

Brueghel the Elder & Peter Paul Ruben’s “The Garden of Eden and Fall of Man” (Source)

The complexity of the universe has long been a topic of contention throughout history. For years, scientists have theorized various cosmological models — the most popular one being the Big Bang — to explain the origins of the world. In more recent centuries, these explanations are more of a scientific pursuit than a spiritual one.

Knowledge of how the world came to be is quite limited. While studies answer several questions, they also produce newer ones. The design of the universe continues to evade even the smartest of minds, and many of us seek to answer the question of creation with religious and spiritual beliefs.

Here are some popular depictions of creation from different religions in the world.

Christianity: God, Humankind, and Divine Nature

The Book of Genesis is one of the most referenced texts regarding the origins of the world. In the Christian tradition, it’s one of the founding principles of divinity. It’s where people have come to recognize the sacredness and divinity of human life.

In Christianity, people believe that God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Here’s the order in which the world was created, according to the book of Genesis:

Following the account of these seven days is the story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman on earth. As it goes, Adam and Eve lived in the paradise called Eden. But they disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit after being prodded by a serpent. Filled with shame, they were driven out of paradise.

Reimaginings of the Genesis 

Many artists take inspiration from the book of Genesis. One of the most celebrated works of art — within and outside the Christian world — is Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (ca. 1510), found in the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo’sThe Creation of Adam” (Source)

This painting encapsulates what was narrated in the Genesis account: Adam, the first man, lonesomely sits on earth. He reaches out to the touch of God, who’s surrounded by His angels. 

Scholars believe that Michaelangelo incorporated elements that were considered secular in his time — such as the juxtaposition of the human brain with God. Many consider this as an allusion to human consciousness. Others interpret this ambiguous shape as a womb or a uterus — implying that God is a life-giving being.

Aside from Michaelangelo’s iconic art technique, The Creation of Adam is especially legendary because of its allusions, which portrayed the beliefs behind the story of creation. This depiction validates the Christian belief that God is the omnipotent source of all things. It also poses that acknowledging God at the center of human life keeps us dignified with divine nature.

The concept of paradise also seems to be a recurring theme for Christian artists. Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens rendered an iconic interpretation of The Garden of Eden with The Fall of Man (ca. 1610-1615). It illustrated man’s initial harmony with God and all of nature — until the serpent's temptation desecrated this relationship. 

Astonishingly, Brueghel and Rubens, both masters of art, were known to be close friends. This painting is known as one of many collaborations between the two. Brueghel’s work on flora and fauna — the elements he contributed to this particular piece — is described as one with “encyclopedic precision.”

Many artists explored the Fall of Man because of the theme it recounted: the divide between man and God, driven by temptation and sin. From Michaelangelo to Raphael, Christian artists reinterpreted the concept of human shame.

Italian painter Giovanni di Paolo’s The Creation of the World and Expulsion from Paradise (ca. 1445) embodied it holistically. It’s said that this painting takes great influence from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Instead of focusing on man alone, Giovanni di Paolo depicts the universe — including the earth — within a celestial sphere. Beside it is an angel driving Adam and Eve away from this sphere and God. 

Islam: The Permanence of Allah and His Work

The Islamic faith doesn’t dwell much on mythological stories, and as such, there’s no actual narrative that recounted the story of creation. These principles were inferred from many references throughout the Qur’an.

Both Islamic and Christian beliefs are categorized as creations ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), which philosophizes that the universe is wholly dependent on the hands of a divine creator. In Islam, Allah as the source of all life is a principle acknowledged as truth.

Some elements in the Islamic story of creation are similar to those in the book of Genesis. They both believed that Adam and Eve existed as the first humans: “We created man from sounding clay, from mud molded into shape…” (Al Qur’an, 15:26). They also believed that the universe was created in six days (7:54). 

However, the context of days is distinctive from Christianity because, to Muslims, the process of creation — like Allah Himself — is not constrained by the laws of nature. A “day” (“youm” in the Qur’an) can refer to a period as long as eons. 

But there’s little interpretation artists can take liberty from. The nature of Allah is a divine one, and as such, it’s far beyond the realm and imagination of men. Although there are hardly any visual interpretations of this creation story, we can find a multitude of their rich traditions through centuries of art and culture.

Hinduism: A Cycle of Birth and Rebirth

To Hindus, creation is just as multifaceted as the concept of existence and the universe itself. Hindus believe in reincarnation — a divine cycle that involves birth, death, and rebirth — and this is reflected in the way they view the universe (which is neither the first nor the last).

For this particular universe, the story begins with three elements: a limitless ocean, a serpent named Ananta-Shesh, and Lord Vishnu. The serpent lies on the surface of the ocean with Vishnu resting in its coils. From Vishnu’s navel sprouted a lotus flower, and on it sat the god Brahma. He’s unaware of his purpose or his existence.

Then Vishnu instructs him to create a universe using the materials around him. He achieved this after eons and eons of meditation, and he hears a sound from the depths of the ocean: the sacred om.

Brahma, evermore known as the creator god, split the lotus into three: the heavens (or the cosmos), the sky, and finally, the earth. Finally, he split himself into a male and a female, and they birthed all forms of beings. Since then, Brahma has maintained this universe by working closely with Vishnu and Shiva: Vishnu as the preserver, Shiva as the destroyer.

The Hymn of Creation acknowledges the divine, mysterious nature of the creation. It even wonders if Brahma himself knows it.

Influences of the Creation Myth in Folk Art

Diverse kinds of art define Hindu culture — most of them found in design and architecture. But because the origins of the universe vary among cultures, the creation story is not as often depicted. 

Nonetheless, the influences of its themes still remain ever symbolic in Hindu folk art. The lotus flower — which grew from the navel of Vishnu — is found everywhere: in sculptures, in mandalas, in temples. 

Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Source)

The roles of these deities in the universe are also often highlighted in art. For instance: The preserver and protector of life, Vishnu, is often portrayed at the center of all. In many cultural pieces, Shiva the destroyer is the Lord of the Dance: He controls the movement of the universe. When he stops dancing, so does life.

Modern Insights on Creation Myths

Although it has been millennia since these stories have been told, they continue to hold fundamental beliefs and principles of the world. They fascinate and provide a framework on a matter with which no framework seems to be provided.

People still seem to follow the line of philosophy these creation myths have set — even as it evades awareness: that human life is sacred, that we must rest amid days of toil, and that the divide between humanity and the spiritual can be remedied by deep faith.

Even some modern thinkers agree that the need to explain the unique phenomena of the cosmos is rooted in the connection towards something transcendental. In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, cosmologist Carl Sagan wrote: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”

While many people continue to scrutinize beliefs that are not supported by scientific thinking, many others choose to believe in such  — trusting that the thirst to understand the world is rooted in spirituality as much as it is rooted in science.

Raphael’s “Putti,” detail from the Sistine Madonna (1513) (Source)

Angels have long been ingrained in culture as ethereal winged beings — ready to aid and guide the downtrodden. The Christian tradition recognizes them as “heavenly and above humanity” (Heb. 2:7), and throughout the Bible, they’ve always served an intermediary role between God and mankind.

But angels didn’t have the same portrayal in the past. The modern view of angels is a product of religious culture, shifted and altered over time. The angel we know today is inspired by elements borrowed from other civilizations and ideologies. So how did our view of them change throughout history?

The First Known Angel in Christian Iconography

The earliest known depiction of a Christian angel is found in the Catacombs of Priscilla, a quarry dug around 100 to 400 C.E. It’s located in Parco di Villa Ada, Via Salaria, an ancient route passing from Rome to the Adriatic Sea

This depiction is named after the noblewoman Priscilla, wife of Roman consul Manius Acilius Glabrio. She was a prime benefactor in many Christian efforts and donated the land (in which the catacombs were found) to the religious community. It served as a burial site for many recognized martyrs in Christian history — including Priscilla herself, her husband, and her son, the venerated Saint Prudens.

As such, the Catacombs of Priscilla were a rich source of early Christian history and iconography. They include a variety of religious-themed frescoes — mostly centering on Jesus, Mary, and the prophets.

The catacombs house the oldest known depiction of the Annunciation, the biblical event in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she was to conceive Jesus, the Son of God. In this painting, however, was the then-simplistic view of angels: Gabriel didn’t have wings.


Despite this, it still validated the Christian view of angels as God’s intercessors for humanity. The word “angel” itself comes from the Greek word Angelos (meaning “messenger”).

In these early days, Jesus Himself was considered an angel until The Council of Nicaea (325) reformed this view. The council, which decreed that Jesus is fully divine, shaped some of the most fundamental principles of Christian faith: that Jesus is of the same nature as God. Therefore, angels were below Him but still above humanity.

The Byzantine & Middle Ages: Angels as a Marker of Divinity

The beauty — and challenge — in depicting angels lies in the fact that there’s very little physical detail of them in the Bible. This gave believers and artists more creative liberty to consider how they could be perceived. However, early Catholic figures such as St. John Chrysostom helped inform how society interpreted angels. The archbishop once said

“[Angels] manifest a nature's sublimity. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature.”

By the time Christianity grew popular in the Byzantine and medieval societies, grand places of worship — cathedrals, basilicas, and royal chapels — were everywhere. 

One such remarkable place is the Hagia Sophia, completed in 537 C.E. in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). It’s home to legendary panels of gilded mosaics, which eventually became the defining characteristic of Byzantine art.


Surrounding arches of the domes within the Hagia Sophia featured mosaics of hexapterygons, six-winged seraphs. In the book of Isaiah, these six-winged angels surrounded God in His holy throne: “With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying” (Is. 6:1-2).

Angels began to be active staples in religious art — this time, with their signature wings. Aside from interpretations from Christian scholars and authorities, it’s also believed that these wings were appropriated from other pagan and mythological traditions. 

The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris) also made use of angels to separate God from the worldly reality to the divine. Just as they surround God in heaven, angels surround the priest and the altar during holy celebrations. St. John Chrysostom further says: “The whole sanctuary and the space before the altar is filled with the heavenly Powers [that] come to honor Him who is present upon the altar.”


Angels in Illuminated Manuscripts

Books may have been inaccessible for the most part, but illuminated manuscripts still provided a glimpse into the world of medieval literature. These were handmade books gilded with gold and silver — requiring painstaking work and expensive material — and thus only available to nobles and religious authorities. 

Stories featuring biblical characters, Christian martyrs, and creatures of the divine were common volumes in illuminated manuscripts. These were carefully handwritten by monks and lay scribes in writing rooms called scriptoria.

Many of these books delved into the nature of angels — including Catalan friar Francesc Eiximenis, who published his musings in Llibre dels Àngels (The Book of Angels) in 1392. 

From “Llibre dels Àngels” (Source)

By the late 1400s, Renaissance elements — less somber, more vibrant — began to be in style. Italian illuminator Taddeo Crivelli, who worked on religious manuscripts, is credited as a pioneer of this technique.

Angels were beginning to be seen more proactively, interacting with humans instead of merely being elements that signified the presence of divinity. Crivelli’s interpretation of The Annunciation, for instance, shows Gabriel kneeling before the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Annunciation; Taddeo Crivelli (Italian, died about 1479, active about 1451 - 1479); about 1469; Tempera colors, gold paint, gold leaf, and ink on parchment; Leaf: 10.8 × 7.9 cm (4 1/4 × 3 1/8 in.); Ms. Ludwig IX 13 (83.ML.109), fol. 3v; No Copyright - United States (

Renaissance & Neoclassical Art: Angels Among Humanity

While angels are indeed of divine nature, artists began to explore how such heavenly creatures intermingled with worldly affairs. This time, they were depicted with more depth. Aside from being God’s messengers, they served as personal guidance for the humble human. This is typically portrayed through the stories of saints and martyrs who were shown with angels as constant companions.

Caravaggio’s “St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” (1595) (Source)

The acclaimed painter Caravaggio produced his interpretation of angelic guidance in Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (1595). This piece became a quintessential model of what the Renaissance angel was like. It employed the freshly developed technique of chiaroscuro — the contrast between light and shadow — to give form to a state of ethereality.

Artistic renditions of angels leading saints to divine “ecstasy” became more recurrent —  extending to the architectural feats of the period. In 1647, “outstanding” architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned for the construction of the Cornaro Chapel — now recognized as one of the greatest Baroque edifices.

Here, Bernini sculpted The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which showed Teresa of Ávila being called by an angel. The angel was a cherub, a winged infant; similar to that of popular portrayals of Cupid. Bernini’s endeavors were aptly telling of the Renaissance period — a time characterized by the resurgence of Greco-Roman influences.

Bernini’s “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” (1647) (Source)

Aside from showing angels with people, other artworks illustrated angels in a more human light than ever. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) showed that angels are capable of “falling from grace” as much as humans are. This implies that angels, in fact, have free will — and were not merely created to be messengers. 

“[Fallen] angels were intended to participate in the betterment of the universe, and that you have to take them very seriously, because they still did participate—but in a negative way,” John Cavadini, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, told National Geographic.

Bruegel the Elder’s “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” (1562) (Source)

Once just beings of exaltation and protection, angels are now seen side-by-side with humanity; still divine, but with a more active and empathic role. 

This stretched until the 18th century when society had begun to adopt rationalist ideologies. The gap between religious doctrine and societal foundation continued to widen, but religion remained an integral part of life. Incorporating Christian elements in art in a more “worldly” sense was a skillful way of mediation and compromise.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s “Song of the Angels” (1881) (Source)

Angels in Modern Times

We’ve seen angels in different areas of pop culture. They’re no longer limited to a specific religious tradition, and even the Christian interpretation of an angel has been appropriated to suit modern culture.

Yet the religious function of angels persists: A survey from Baylor University conducted in 2008 found that some 55% of Americans believed that they “have been protected from harm by a guardian angel”.

Dr. Cristopher Bader, one of the authors of the study, found himself in disbelief over the results. “To find out that more than half of the American public believes this was shocking to me,” he said. “I did not expect that.”

“I've been looking at over 1,100 stories we collected from people about their experiences with their guardian angels," Dr. Carson Mencken, another member of the panel, told National Geographic. “People talk about close calls like auto accidents, especially accidents in which someone else was killed. Others were victims of assault or survived near-drownings or had combat-related near-death experiences.”

We continue to celebrate angels for what they are in the Christian faith and what they continue to do for humanity. They go beyond being heavenly intermediaries and are believed to offer hope and guidance in the most human of experiences.

Morysetta's "My Suit Burned Off On the Way Down", a Consecrea Original

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