Art Term Tuesday: Sacred Art

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

Alongside the pews in church, behind grandma’s comfy chair, or displayed in an art gallery, religious art is found in many places and many artworks are considered religious art. There are multiple ways to define and refine what religious art is, and though I’m not comfortable claiming I know all, I am comfortable explaining what I have learned in researching this term.

The meaning of a word can change with time, so there are many definitions for what religious art is. Common definitions claim sacred artwork, also known as religious art, is inspired by religious themes and motifs which, when viewed, inspire the observer. In the past, the church declared what was and was not religious art. Sacred art was created by holy figures and claimed as such. Religious people create, and their artwork can be called religious. Non-religious people, however, also create using religious themes or are inspired by spiritual events; and their work can be called religious art too. Some artwork whose themes are religious might not be called religious art based on the intent of the artist. The process of creation can be spiritual, the act itself holy. There are many ways to interpret what is and is not religious art, and the interpreter bases their judgement on their own knowledge and background.

Elly Tullis is creating artwork featuring a religious figure, and her journey of painting Mary, Mother of God, led to her own religious experience. Her first painting in this process was inspired by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato’s painting Vergine Annunciata from the mid-1600s. Sassoferrato worked to replicate the painting techniques and style of his predecessors, particularly Raphael, though his work is well regarded for its own merits. Raphael’s painting from 100 years earlier, The Conestabile Madonna, inspired Sassoferrato and his inspired Elly 400 years later.

Compare the three paintings briefly and see what similarities you can find. I see the same steepled fingers and prayerful hands in Sassoferrato and Elly’s paintings, along with the lowered gaze, an azure blue veil, and red dress in all three. One element that Elly used in this painting that Sassoferrato did not is the golden halo behind Mary’s head, a motif that is repeated or referenced to tell viewers which figures were holy. Raphael also used the halo, though his is much more subdued, a single gold line around Mary’s head. Tullis continues her journey in painting Mary and is inspired by many different artists. She brings her own style and ideas to each of her works, shown best in the grand triptych of A Rose Without Thorns, Queen of Heaven and Earth, and With a Foot that Crushes the Head of the Serpent.

An installation shot of Elly Tullis' exhibition shows her three largest portraits.
Elly Tullis, American, b. 1983. R-L: A Rose Without Thorns; Queen of Heaven and Earth; With a Foot that Crushes the Head of the Serpent. Acrylic aluminum composite panel, 2019. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Other artists are inspired by religion in less figurative ways, like Tullis’ gallery neighbor David Shapiro. Much of Shapiro’s work was drawn from Buddhism: the symbols, bodily motions, or themes; in fact, many of his work titles are related to the religion. His work is not representative like Tullis’ as it does not depict Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha; but, it is still religious art in that there is symbolism in each piece that can be read by those who understand. The act of painting these large-scale pieces was also a meditative process for Shapiro, an important aspect of Buddhism. While painting, his brushstrokes often coincided with his breath: outer connecting with inner, spiritual with physical.

David Shapiro, American, 1944-2014. Origin and Return I. Acrylic on canvas, 1998. Gift of Yara Trokel, INV1087. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Both of these artists have religious inspirations, had religious experiences during creation, and, subsequently, created some fantastic pieces. Can we call this work religious? Many people may more easily call Elly Tullis’ work religious, it is more representative and of a recognizable religious figure, but who is the authority to say definitively? Not me! In my research, I think at this time artwork can be called religious by anyone and it just has to be accepted by many as such. Do you accept my idea that these artists have created religious art? Why or why not? Let us know!

Elly Tullis’ Thotokos: Contemproary Visions of Mary is on display through March 8th, 2020. David Shapiro: Transcendent Abstractions is on view through February 16th, 2020.

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