Thursday 12 January 2006

Essential paintings for theologians

“All art is nostalgia for God.” —Alexei Jawlensky

“The past is not dead. It is not even past.” —William Faulkner

I invited Kim Fabricius to create a list of essential paintings for theologians. Kim has studied art and has spent time in many of the world’s great art museums, and he laboured long and hard to produce this list of 20 paintings. To make the list manageable, Kim imposed the following limits: Western art only (so no icons, no African or Asian art); paintings only (with one necessary exception); paintings “with a signature” (so no anonymous works such as manuscript illuminations); only one work per painter; and finally, Christ himself must be depicted in the painting.

Here is the list, ordered chronologically:

1. Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319): “The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain”
2. Ambrogio Giotto (1267-1337): “Noli me Tangere”
3. Tomaso Masaccio (1401-1428): “The Tribute Money”
4. Piero della Francesca (c.1420-92): “The Resurrection”
5. Hieronymous Bosch (c.1450-1516): “The Crowning with Thorns”
6. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): “Madonna on the Rocks”
7. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528): “Christ among the Doctors”
8. Mathias Grünewald (c.1475-1528): “Christ on the Cross” (from the Eisenheim Altarpiece)
9. Sanzio Raphael (1483-1520): “Sistine Madonna”
10. Hans Holbein (1496/8-1543): “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”
11. Pieter Brueghel (c.1525-69): “The Adoration of the Magi”
12. Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610): “The Calling of St. Matthew”
13. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640): “The Descent from the Cross”
14. Diego Velasquez (1599-1660): “Christ Crucified”
15. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69): “The Adoration of the Shepherds”
16. Francisco José de Goya (1746-1828): “Christ on the Mount of Olives”
17. William Blake (1757-1827): “The Trinity” [sketch]
18. Paul Gauguin (1848-1903): “The Yellow Christ”
19. Stanley Spencer (1891-1959): “The Resurrection, Cookham”
20. Salvador Dali (1904-1989): “Christ of St. John of the Cross”

Update: See now the supplement list, More Essential Paintings for Theologians.


Jim said...

Brilliant list. Since it has Durer and Grunewald I can't quibble with it at all. And I don't know enough to anyway.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Wonderful, thank you. Now, any chance we can get web links to these paintings ?

Ben Myers said...

Good idea -- I've now added links to the pictures, mainly from the lovely Web Gallery of Art (

Anonymous said...

Nice list, buy boy, what a Western slant! Some of the most spiritual paintings can be found in the East. The great icon masters -- Andrei Rublev & Theophane the Greek come quickly to mind, but there are others. This is a glaring omission.

Dave Walker said...

A good list - thank you.

Anonymous said...

I was happy to see Caravaggio listed, but I think The Crucifixion of St. Peter or, my favorite, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus are much more dramatic.

I'm also becoming a fan of the work of contemporary Dr. He Qi, a Christian artist formerly from China. has a nice online gallery of some of his pieces.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the "Western slant". By working to that parameter I certainly do not mean to suggest a European artistic-theological hegemony! Indeed A Rublev hangs in my study (as does a West Indian Madonna). Why don't you do a Top Ten Icons?

Again, simply to make my list manageable I decided (arbitrarily) to exclude paintings without the character of Christ. I can't offhand remember in my mind's eye your two suggestions: Is Christ in them? In any case, with Caravaggio, it was tough enough deciding between "The Calling of St. Matthew" and "The Supper at Emmaus"! And with Piero "The Baptism of Christ" was a close-run second. And how do you select a single Rembrandt! Etc., etc. It was an invidious exercise, I can tell you!

A big public thanks for your links. I've downloaded them all into my Pictures.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and to get my retaliation in first, a list without an El Greco? How could I have forgotten?! Try his "Christ's Agony in the Garden".

James Crossley said...

Ok, just to be a little naughty: what about Max Ernst, Virgin Spanking Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses (1926). At least it raises a few interesting theological questions. Who has done wrong?

James Crossley said...

One is Max Ernst the other two are apparently André Breton (writer) and Paul Éluard (poet).

James Crossley said...

Sorry I've just left that comment on the wrong page: it should have been on my blog!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Hey James, notwithstanding Luke 2:51a (which is quite in contrast to Luke 2:41-50), I reckon Jesus was a very naughty boy indeed! Certainly, as a Barthian, I do not believe that our Lord's sinlessness is demonstrable; it too can only be know sola fide.

Thanks for the Ernst reference. I don't know it, but I shall surely look it up. That's what so great about these Lists: the commentaries can be better than the texts.

Fred said...

Mantegna - Dead Christ
Perhaps a Crucifixion by Congdon

It's no painting, but spectacular nonetheless:
The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly by James Hampton (Smithsonian)

Anonymous said...

Yes, fred, Mantegna's "Dead Christ" is another masterpiece that would grace any Top Twenty. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Kim, I have a friend who actually paints these. Let me ask him what the top ten would be (He might even be able to point to a website). He's been educating me to these over the last ten years. On a side note, check out the movie Andrei Rublev.

Swan said...

What makes these paintings essential? That they are by famous artists? Their content? Their message?

Anonymous said...

A few years ago I watched Tarkovsky's beautiful "The Sacrifice." At the opening of the movie there was this mysterious picture that just blew me away. Well, it was Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi. So that would be my Leonardo suggestion.

Anonymous said...


The paintings made the artists famous, not vice-versa.

"Their content? Their message?" you ask The whole shebang! But if I had to pick one word, their beauty, a theological category that has finally come into its own in recent years (especially thanks to Hans Urs von Balthasar). Their content might speak to various theological loci - for example, the Grünewald to the atonement, or the Blake to the divine perfections - but they might all find a place, be useful, in exploring a doctrine of (the glory) of creation.

Swan said...

Ok, thanks Kim.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Swan - and not to curry favour! - do you know the little gem by Nicholas Lash, former Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, Holiness, Speech and Silence (2004)?

Lash begins by reflecting on the question "What does God look like?" He recalls a conversation with a friend about her little grand-daughter who, on being asked by her school teacher to draw a picture of God, "had drawn a swan, sailing serenely along among the rushes. The teacher, on seeing it, berated her, complaining: 'That's
not what God looks like!'"

Lash then comments: "All one's sympathies, of course, are with the child - who had, presumably, provided what, in today's jargon, we might call an 'icon' of majesty and beauty. But what, one wonders, was the teacher looking for? What did she think God looks like?

". . . whatever one is talking about, then - however general, vague, confused, that idea may be - there is some sort of story one could tell about it; some picture one could paint, however broad the brushstrokes that one used."

Lash's reflections, I think, bear on our conversation - and on a wider conversation that would include a theology of the arts - and on a whole lot more as well.


robert terrell said...

CHRIST of the breadline" by Fritz Eichenberg does it for me.

Swan said...

"kim fabricius said...

" - do you know the little gem by Nicholas Lash, former Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, Holiness, Speech and Silence (2004)?"

No, I don't. I had a look at a couple of pages of it on amazon and it starts interesting. I'm going to put it on my wishlist.

Anonymous said...

Exodus 20:
4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them;

Nuff Said!

Anonymous said...

Nuffing Said at all, really, Anonymous.

Christian artists aren't in the business of making idols but icons. Idols are used to manipulate the deity, icons attempt to mediate the divine: they are objects of witness, not worship; prayers, not magic words.

If you want idolatry, try bowing down to the Bible as an inerrant collection of oracles, the citing of which forecloses theological discussion.

Anonymous said...

hey, i'm looking for some renaissance era paintings of john chrysostom and anselm of canterbury. i was wondering if anyone could tell me where i could find these images or if there were any ideas of where i could go to look for them. i would appreciate any help i can get so very greatly.

Sean Cannon

Anonymous said...

Where is Rublev's icon of the Trinity? I have used this as an illustration more often than any other painting.

Jonathan said...

Love this list. Added "Sistine Madonna" to my favorites.

Here's my list of favorite paintings, with pictures (some overlap with your list):

They match the rosary for the most part.

Also, consider me subscribed to your blog!

Paul said...

The great works of the Flemish Renaissance are missing. eg The Mystic Lamb by van Eyck; The Descent from the Cross by van der Weyden; The Dormition of the Virgin by van der Goes (although his Portinari alterpiece is better known); the Mystic Nativity by Geerten tot sind Jans; the Last Supper or the Ecce Agnus Dei by Dieric Bouts; Virgin and Child with Milk Soup by Gerard David (Brussels version).

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