Catholic art refers to works created by or for Catholics. Iconography, sculpture, ornamental art, applied art, and architecture are all considered visual arts.
Artistic creations might or might not make an effort to exemplify, complement, or otherwise concretely portray Catholic teaching. The influence of the Catholic Church on Western art can be traced back to at least the fourth century.
Art created by Catholics has traditionally focused on depictions of Jesus Christ and his followers (the apostles and saints) as well as scenes and symbols from the Bible.
As the Western Church embraced a more realistic aesthetic, a renaissance of Romanesque and Gothic art unfolded.
In response to the new waves of image destruction sparked by the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the Catholic Church adopted the dramatic, emotive Baroque and Rococo styles, which placed an emphasis on beauty as something transcendental.
Famous Catholic Paintings
1. The Conversion of Saint Paul – Caravaggio
The Odescalchi Balbi Collection in Rome is home to the painting “The Conversion of Saint Paul” (also known as “The Conversion of Saul”), which was completed by the Italian painter Caravaggio.
Caravaggio did at least two paintings on the same subject, the Conversion of Paul. Another one is at the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo and it’s called “The Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus.”
The scene depicted in the painting depicts the time when Saul of Tarsus, who was traveling to Damascus with the intention of destroying the Christian community there, was blinded by a brilliant light and heard the voice of Christ saying, “I will see you in Damascus.” “Saul, Saul, for what reason do you persecute me”
And others who were with me did, in fact, see the light, and they were terrified by it; however, they did not hear the voice…” (Acts 22:6-11).
Elsewhere Paul asserts that he had a vision in which he encountered Christ, and it is on the basis of this experience that he grounds his claim to be acknowledged as an Apostle: “Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” (First Chapter Nine Verse)
2. The Calling of St Matthew – Caravaggio
It is impossible to find another artist who can match Caravaggio’s ability to portray the contrast between light and dark.
By the year 1600, he had finished his masterpiece, titled The Calling of St. Matthew, which portrays the stirring biblical scenario in which Jesus summons Matthew to follow him and become a disciple.
Also Read: Famous Biblical Paintings
The artwork is admired not only for its extraordinary realism but also for the subjects’ ability to convey their feelings so openly.
Matthew, who is eating at a table full of Roman tax collectors, an activity that was looked down upon by Jews at the time, is the target of Jesus’ pointing finger.
Matthew’s look in this painting is one of surprise at Jesus’ request because of the negative connotation that was attached to tax collectors in Jewish culture.
3. Our Lady of Confidence – Carlo Maratta
The Lateran Basilica is home to a revered figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary called variously as Our Lady of Confidence, La Madonna della Fiducia, and Our Lady of Trust. Every year, on the sabbath before the start of Lent, Christians celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Confidence.
On 14 October 1838, at the request of the Roman seminarians, Pope Gregory XVI authorized Cardinal Carlo Odescalchi to bestow a canonical coronation upon the figure. Also, Pope Pius X had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary in this role.
Carlo Maratta painted the original and presented it to Chiara Isabella Fornari, a young noblewoman who would go on to become the abbess of the Convent of the Poor Clares in Todi, Italy.
In Todi, the statue was revered as the “Refugium peccatorum,” which translates to “Refuge of Sinners.”
4. The Elevation of the Cross – Peter Paul Rubens
Both a massive oil on panel triptych and a more modest oil on paper work bear the title The Elevation of the Cross (also known as The Raising of the Cross).
Each was painted by Peter Paul Rubens, a Flemish artist based in Antwerp, Belgium, however the earlier one dates back to 1610 while the later one comes from 1638.
Since the church it was painted for no longer exists, the original is housed in the Cathedral of Our Lady. Its miniature counterpart can be seen at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada.
Another triptych, this one smaller and of a different design, and an oil study are both on display at the Louvre in Paris.
5. The Entombment of Christ – Caravaggio
In 1603 and 1604, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint “The Entombment of Christ” for the second chapel on the right side of Santa Maria in Vallicella. This structure was built to house the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri.
Many people think it’s one of the greatest altarpieces ever created, and that’s a pretty solid statement of fact.
The original of the picture is kept in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca, but a copy of it can be seen in the chapel right now. Many other artists, including Rubens, Fragonard, Géricault, and Cézanne, were influenced by it.
In 1797, the artwork was shipped to France to be displayed in Paris at the Musée Napoléon. The artwork wasn’t displayed in the Vatican until 1816 after it had first arrived in Rome.
6. The Allegory of Faith – Johannes Vermeer
Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer created the 1670–1672 piece The Allegory of Faith, also known as Allegory of the Catholic Faith. Since 1931, it has been on display in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Although the composition still has only one or two characters in a household room, this and Art of Painting are his only works that are classified as history paintings in the modern classification of art.
There are a number of similarities between the two paintings, including the nearly identical point of view and the presence of a multicolored tapestry to the left of each painting, which has been moved to the left in order to reveal the scene.
Cesare Ripa’s symbolism of Clio, muse of history, appears in The Art of Painting as well. A similar gilt panel can be seen in Vermeer’s “Love Letter.” In both form and function, The Allegory and The Art of Painting stand out from Vermeer’s other canonical works.
7. The Last Judgment – Michelangelo
Michelangelo’s monumental painting The Last Judgment fills the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
Because of its scale, complexity, and sheer number of figures, Michelangelo spent nearly four years (1536–1541) completing it.
At age 67, he began working on it 25 years after the Sistine Chapel Ceiling was finished.
Before the painted draperies were added, all the men were depicted in their nudeness.
At first, reactions ranged from praise to criticism; the nakedness and muscularity of several of the figures were particularly divisive.
Christ’s return and God’s ultimate and eternal punishment of all people are foretold there.
The dead rise and go down to their last destination, as determined by Christ, who is accompanied by famous saints. Totaling about 300, the number of illustrations is impressive.
Although Pope Clement VII gave the project the the light, Pope Paul III saw it through to completion, and his reformist views are likely reflected in the final product.
From the beginning, reactions to the artwork were mixed, ranging from widespread praise to harsh criticism based on moral and aesthetic concerns.
Disagreement arose over the extent to which the body was exposed and the muscularity of the physique, as well as over the character of the two.
8. Disputation of the Holy Sacrament – Raphael
On the wall opposite the School of Athens, which stands in for Theology, is a fresco of the so-called Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament.
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, also known as Disputation over the Blessed Sacrament or the Triumph of Religion, was painted by Raphael between 1508 and 1511.
Raphael’s painting depicts an event that happens on Earth and in Heaven.
Symbolically, the vertical parallels between the fresco’s figures could suggest that what exists in heaven also exists on earth.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is depicted standing to Christ’s left, with her arms crossed over her chest. Just a few feet away from the table on the ground below her is another individual with the same expression.
On Christ’s right side is the prophet John the Baptist, who is extending his hand to the viewer. And below him, with his own arm outstretched in a similar fashion, is Julius II. When you look to the left and right of both planes, you’ll see figures that have mirror images on the bottom plane.
9. Extreme Unction – Nicolas Poussin
One of seven paintings depicting the sacraments of the Catholic Church, Extreme Unction (or “Final Anointing”) was painted by French artist Nicolas Poussin between 1638 and 1640. (1594–1665).
The image represents a dying man being anointed with oil in accordance with the customs of the early Roman church, and was commissioned in Rome by the noted connoisseur Cassiano dal Pozzo.
By basing the clothes, setting, and composition of the painting itself on his research into classical antiquity, with the figures arranged frieze-like across the composition, Poussin heightened the scene’s realism.
Many of the greatest painters in Western art’s history, from Jacques-Louis David and Ingres to Cézanne and Picasso, were influenced by Poussin’s move toward a more classical style, and his legacy lives on to this day.
10. The Seven Works of Mercy – Caravaggio
Oil painting by Italian artist Caravaggio, titled The Seven Works of Mercy (Sette opere di Misericordia) or The Seven Acts of Mercy, and completed around 1607.
The seven corporal works of mercy are a collection of charitable deeds performed in response to the material necessities of others, and they are represented in the picture.
The picture was created for the Pio Monte della Misericordia church in Naples, where it is currently on display.
Caravaggio originally envisioned seven panels arranged around the church, but ultimately decided to merge them into a single altarpiece depicting the seven works of mercy.