Sunday, December 12, 2010

Religious Art & Antiques

18th century nativity figures of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus.

Kansas City Star, 12.12.10
Words by Steve Rogers
Photo by Roy Inman

So it began more than two millennia ago with the arrival of a man known to many as Jesus of Nazareth. Endeared as the Messiah and God’s chosen one to more than 2 billion Christians worldwide, his legacy is celebrated in pageantry, annual holidays and art.

Various forms of art ranging from sculpture to paintings to architecture and metalwork capture moments during his 33 years of life on Earth. From his birth in a stable to gatherings with disciples and even his violent death on a wooden cross, artists have captured the essence of Jesus in daily life.

Although religious art and antiques are not limited to Christianity, they are highly sought after for personal collections as well as displays in museums. Having toured many beautiful churches and cathedrals, I am always struck by the wonderful carvings and artwork that are on display and placed into service. Though the art itself is not the object of worship for Christians, is does create a mood of reverence for gathering worshippers, helping them to focus on the narrative of the message.

Although Protestant, I grew up with a strong heritage of Catholic observers on my mom’s side of the family. I attended many Masses and was intrigued with the beautiful icons and religious reliquaries in my grandparents’ church. At home they had wonderful statues of the Madonna, the Christ child and various saints. I still cherish a carved rosary they purchased for me on a trip to Ireland.

And though I’m no religious scholar or critic of art, I do have a great appreciation for the emotions artwork can deliver.

Santos, Spanish for “saints,” are figural carvings that depicted angels, saints and religious figures like Jesus. Often found in wooden form, these religious images were a product of the Catholic Church and were used to convert indigenous peoples to Catholicism. They were popular items used in both home altars and churches. Such high demand for them was placed on the Vatican by church parishes that unauthorized versions came into play. But they in no way diminish their value or collectability.

Rosaries, Latin for “garlands of roses,” are prayer beads used to count the succession of prayers that make up the rosary. A traditional Catholic practice, the prayers are sequenced and followed by a meditation recalling the life of Jesus Christ. Rosary beads are specific in number but come in various materials ranging from wood to glass. A favorite in my personal collection is an oversized rosary made of hand-formed copper beads.

The Crucifix is arguably the most universal symbol in all of Christianity. It is a four-point cross and represents the sacrificial hanging and death of Jesus Christ for which his body of believers are redeemed for eternal life. The Crucifix may appear with or without the representation of Jesus’ body — without symbolizes his resurrection over death, an important doctrine in Christianity. Crucifixes are often a central visual reference point in church buildings.

Paintings are the most common form of religious art today. From the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicted the hand of God bringing life to Adam, to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” which portrays Jesus Christ in a final meal with his disciples before his death, canvases of art hang in galleries and museums in addition to personal collections all over the world.

Here is a trivial tidbit you can even take with you to your next holiday mixer. One of the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold on the market was Peter Paul Rubens’ religious work “Massacre of the Innocents.” It sold for $76 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2002.

This brings us to the end of our history lesson and the year 2010. Here is to wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


  1. beautiful Santos, Steve. vintage/antique religious pieces are among my favorite old things. lovely post...


  2. Thank you so much. What a clear, succinct lesson. I love so many different forms of religious art, and am in awe of those beautiful pieces created many, many years ago.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, too!