From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Sacred art is imagery intended to uplift the mind to the spiritual. It can be an object to be venerated not for what it is but for what it represents; Roman Catholics are taught that such venerated objects are more properly called sacramentals. Some Christians are still taught to regard all non-Christian cult images as "idols" (see idolatry) that are worshipped in and of themselves, and do not consider them as "sacred art".
Christian sacred art is produced in an attempt to illustrate, supplement and portray in tangible form the principles of Christianity, though other definitions are possible. Most Christian groups use or have used art to some extent, although some have had strong objections to some forms of religious image, and there have been major periods of iconoclasm within Christianity. Most Christian art is allusive, or built around themes familiar to the intended observer. One of the most common Christian themes is that of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Another is that of Christ on the Cross. For the benefit of the illiterate, an elaborate iconographic system developed to conclusively identify scenes. For example, Saint Agnes depicted with a lamb, Saint Peter with keys, Saint Patrick with a shamrock. Each saint holds or is associated with attributes and symbols in sacred art.
Early Christian art survives from dates near the origins of Christianity. The oldest surviving Christian paintings are from the site at Megiddo, dated to around the year 70, and the oldest Christian sculptures are from sarcophagi, dating to the beginning of the 2nd century. Until the adoption of Christianity by Constantine Christian art derived its style and much of its iconography from popular Roman art, but from this point grand Christian buildings built under imperial patronage brought a need for Christian versions of Roman elite and official art, of which mosaics in churches in Rome are the most prominent surviving examples.
During the development of Christian art in the Byzantine empire (see Byzantine art), a more abstract aesthetic replaced the naturalism previously established in Hellenistic art. This new style was hieratic, meaning its primary purpose was to convey religious meaning rather than accurately render objects and people. Realistic perspective, proportions, light and color were ignored in favor of geometric simplification of forms, reverse perspective and standardized conventions to portray individuals and events. The controversy over the use of graven images, the interpretation of the Second Commandment, and the crisis of Byzantine Iconoclasm led to a standardization of religious imagery within the Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Renaissance saw an increase in monumental secular works, but until the Protestant Reformation Christian art continued to be produced in great quantities, both for churches and clergy and for the laity. During this time, Michelangelo Buonarroti painted the Sistine Chapel and carved the famous Pietà, Gianlorenzo Bernini created the massive columns in St. Peter's Basilica, and Leonardo da Vinci painted the Last Supper. The Reformation had a huge effect on Christian art, rapidly bringing the production of public Christian art to a virtual halt in Protestant countries, and causing the destruction of most of the art that already existed.
As a secular, non-sectarian, universal notion of art arose in 19th century Western Europe, secular artists occasionally treated Christian themes (Bouguereau, Manet) — but only rarely was a Christian artist included in the historical canon (such as Rouault or Stanley Spencer). However many modern artists such as Eric Gill, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Jacob Epstein have produced well-known works of art for churches.
Since the advent of printing, the sale of reproductions of pious works has been a major element of popular Christian culture. In the nineteenth century, this included genre painters such as Mihály Munkácsy. The invention of color lithography led to broad circulation of holy cards. In the modern era, companies specializing in modern commercial Christian artists such as Thomas Kinkade, although widely regarded in the fine art world as kitsch, have been very successful.