From late antiquity forward, Christianity was integral to European culture, and the life of Christ was understood (as it is still) as an essential embodiment of Christian teachings. This explains the prevalence of scenes from Christ’s life in European art, and yet there is more to the story. In a society that laid great emphasis on religion and required religious images, artists performed an indispensable service and had to work within the structure of tradition. It is often assumed that such conditions would stifle creativity, but thoughtful observation shows that this is not so. The most ambitious illustrations of Christ’s life show full-blown inventiveness, and even lesser examples demonstrate the fruitful interaction of the artist’s imagination and society’s requirements. This essay concentrates on Italian painting, but much of what follows is true of other European traditions as well.
The need for representations of Christ’s life in Italy was based on official practice within the Western Church. From the time of Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590–604), images were valued both as lessons for the unlettered and as aids to worship. Scenes from Christ’s life were thus desirable in churches, on frescoed walls and painted altarpieces, and also in portable form, in illustrated books and small altarpieces suitable for private consumption. Images were meant to enhance the experience of the faithful both in communal and in individual worship, and devotional treatises gave instructions for how to use pictures to enter more fully into sacred history. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such pictures often occurred in series that allowed viewers to trace the progression of events (32.130.1), but the stories of Christ’s life were also represented in independent easel paintings (32.130.2), especially in the sixteenth century and after.
In late medieval and Renaissance Italy, theologians continually emphasized the humanity of Christ and the need for the faithful to lead lives modeled on Christ’s own. This perspective welcomed visual images that stressed his human existence and particularly favored themes related to his earthly birth and death. Both of these episodes convey fundamental aspects of Christian doctrine, for the former reflects the concept of the Incarnation, the idea that Christ became a human being though he remained divine, and the latter is inseparable from Christ’s resurrection and the promise of everlasting life. The relative neglect of other parts of Christ’s life nevertheless distinguishes Italian painting of the Renaissance and after from many other European traditions. Early Christian art, for instance, favored the miracles of Christ, while his Baptism and Transfiguration became important in Byzantine art, and his preaching and parables were preferred in Northern Europe at the time of the Reformation.
In Italian painting, there are countless examples of canonical scenes like the Nativity and the Crucifixion, but no two are exactly alike. The variations display the creativity of artists as well as the concerns of patrons and changing attitudes within the Church. Painters usually produced work to order and thus operated within a system of patronage that involved restrictions but also considerable freedom. A wealthy layman or an ecclesiastical body might offer a commission, and the patron would typically specify the subject to be depicted. Since scenes from Christ’s life were commonly requested, artists were trained not only in the skills needed to produce them and but also in the traditions that conditioned patrons’ expectations. It was standard in pictures of the Crucifixion, for instance, for the cross to stand in the center, with the Virgin Mary, Saint John, and Mary Magdalene in attendance (43.98.5). Other conventions might determine the choice of colors, such as the blue of the Virgin’s cloak in many images (1975.1.74). These traditions supplied flexible guidelines, however, and left artists enormous scope for creative invention. The settings for the scenes vary from the humble to the sumptuous; figures are variously arranged and endowed with different details, and due to changes in style, the same scenes are treated with different degrees of naturalism. Artists and patrons alike were keenly attentive to innovations within the tradition, and creative experiments continually refreshed the iconography of Christ’s life.
The life of Christ also offered artists the opportunity to experiment with less conventional subjects without losing the institutional prestige and moral weight of Christian themes. Artists attracted to scenes less common in Italian painting forfeited claim to the strongest traditions but gained freedom to pursue independent artistic objectives. The unusual theme of Christ in the Wilderness, for example, gave Moretto da Brescia license to create a landscape animate with birds and animals as well as an arresting image of Christ in thought (11.53). El Greco’s bold portrayal of Christ making a blind man see (1978.416) indulged his special attraction to visionary scenes while also demonstrating his mastery of perspective and conveying a message suited to the spirit of the Counter-Reformation.
Finally, the continual need to produce scenes from Christ’s life pressed Italian painters to master the human form. The figure also is central in iconic images without narrative content (2004.442), but scenes from Christ’s life encouraged painters to capture every variation of the human appearance, including figures in different emotional states, figures in vigorous action, figures of saintly bearing, and figures in groups of pleasing arrangement and telling dramatic effect. The challenge and reward of creating such scenes was so great that the most ambitious artists continually returned to them, even when they were free to choose their own subjects. Michelangelo, for example, repeatedly portrayed the crucified Christ in drawings (e.g., Louvre, British Museum, and Royal Library, Windsor) that chart his deep investment in traditional iconography as well as his extraordinary devotion to the study of the human body.