Art,  Christianity,  Faith,  Paul Backholer

Christianity and Art: The Pre-Raphaelites

‘He has filled them with skill to do all manner of work…in blue, purple, and scarlet… and those who design artistic works’ (Exodus 35:35).

You’ve been told The Mona Lisa is the greatest artwork in the world. That’s clever marketing after its theft and return. For most of its life, those with access to The Mona Lisa walked past, ‘just another portrait.’ If you visit The Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Paris, expect a two-hour queue, followed by a brief glimpse of a painting at a distance, shrouded behind thick bullet-proof glass. No time to linger, examine and ponder.

If you want art to take your breath away, discover the Pre-Raphaelites. You’ve all seen a Pre-Raphaelite painting. In its genesis the Pre-Raphaelite movement was overwhelmingly Christian. You’ve probably seen Christ in The Light of the World, 1853, by William Holman Hunt. Hunt painted a larger version in 1904, which resides in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. I was blessed to see it on my visit.

The original, however, is not a stand-alone. It was conceived in 1854 as a two-piece item. Christ on one side, knocking on the door and the second beside, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, a man with his mistress hearing the Lord knock. Christ sees all and still loves you, will you welcome Him in?

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).

The Pre-Raphaelites provide an ongoing rich source of inspiration for film and legend. They joyed in complex compositions, intense colour and abundant detail. If you’ve ever seen JRR Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings in film, you will note the contrast between the satanic agents of evil and the beauty of Rivendell, with the romantic idealism of Aragorn and Arwen. It’s Pre-Raphaelite in nature. The dreamlike beauty and exquisite escapism of the early Pre-Raphaelites reflect heaven. It’s a deep longing in the soul for more than earth.

The Pre-Raphaelites were renegades. Their art transcended the norms of their age, rejecting the mechanistic approach to art, seeking a lost beauty before the style of Raphael. From the same era sprang the French Impressionists and the Pre-Raphaelites. The latter deserves more attention.

After exploring Christian themes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, embraced wider themes; some are not holy. If you visit The Mona Lisa and have time to linger, you may be amazed because you’ve been told to be. Stand before The Lady of Shallot, 1888, by John William Waterhouse, or Ophelia, 1851-1852, by Sir John Everett Millais, or The Light of the World, and you will learn how art can transcend the inanition of the soul, in a culture obsessed with the vacuum of celebrity. 

Whilst researching my book How Christianity Made the Modern World, I investigated Christianity and art for a chapter and toured many galleries. I watched non-believers stand before the paintings of Christ and hoped they pondered their eternal soul. It is a witness I thank God for.

By Paul Backholer. Find out about Paul’s books here.