The Intersection of Art, Design and Faith: Three Famous Works of Art Influenced by Religion

Ideate Innovation

The interpretation of art is often as important as the art itself. Artists seek to enrich their work with meaning. The message behind the art may give us insight into the artist, or it may convey a shared sentiment among those who experience it. Arguably, through the history of art, religion has influenced artists and often led them to create their ‘magna opera’.

Artists use religious influence by adopting well-known themes in religions into their art. They use religious symbolism and references, and follow the cultural rules and ethics of religion while creating art. This blend of design and faith has brought diversity to artwork over centuries. In this article, we look at three works of art to see how they are impacted by faith and identify the religious themes present in them.

The School of Athens

At first sight "The School of Athens," painted by Italian artist Raphael around 1510-1511 AD, might seem entirely non-religious. The painting depicts a group of ancient Greek philosophers, scientists and mathematicians gathered together in a grand architectural setting. However, the painting is considered to be one of the most significant works of Renaissance art, and it is known for its intricate details and symbolism. Its presence in Vatican City also points to the importance it has in the Catholic Church.

In the painting, Raphael uses religious and classical imagery to convey the influence of religion on design. The painting is set in a grand, classical building that is reminiscent of a Greek temple to symbolize the idea that knowledge and wisdom are sacred. The central figures of the painting are Plato and Aristotle, who are depicted in the act of teaching acting as mediums to transmit knowledge. They are also dressed in robes similar to Christian priests and monks, giving the two great philosophers a “Christian” and scholarly appearance for the Catholics to accept them. Two Greek deities are also featured in the painting; Apollo, the god of light, archery and music and Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Raphael also includes other figures such as Heraclitus, Diogenes, and Pythagoras, all of them representing different aspects of philosophy, mathematics and science. 

"The School of Athens" combines many elements of Greek philosophy and the Catholic Church during the Renaissance. It conveys the influence of religion on design through its use of architectural setting, symbolism and imagery. The painting is a reflection of the Renaissance ideas of the importance of knowledge and wisdom as well as the connection between classical learning and religious beliefs.

Mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus

The Mosque of Damascus, also known as the Umayyad Mosque, is one of the oldest and most historically significant mosques in the world. Located in the old city of Damascus, Syria, the Islamic architecture of the mosque is a landmark in itself. An interesting overlap is that the mosque was built over a cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

Within the Umayyad Mosque, one of the most notable features is its intricate mosaics. The mosaics decorate the walls and arches of the main prayer hall and the courtyard. They depict a variety of themes including geometric patterns, landscapes, and scenes from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The mosaics do not include human faces as recognisable depictions of religious figures have been considered taboo throughout most of Islamic history. Some of the mosaics are believed to date back to the 8th Century AD, making them some of the oldest surviving Islamic mosaics in the world.

The mosaics in the Mosque of Damascus are highly regarded for their artistry and craftsmanship. They are used to beautify the place of worship, an important part of Islamic tradition. Artists frequently use natural materials to celebrate the beauty of God’s creation in their art. In these mosaics, small pieces of coloured glass and stone, known as tesserae, are arranged to create intricate designs and patterns. The use of vibrant colours, such as blues and greens, gives the mosaics a striking visual impact. 

Ellora Caves, India

The Ellora Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India. They consist of 34 rock-cut temples and monasteries that were built between the 6th and 10th Centuries AD. The caves were built by the Rashtrakuta dynasty and are considered to be one of the most impressive examples of ancient Indian rock-cut architecture. The temples are dedicated to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and are notable for their intricate carvings and sculptures. The caves are also an important pilgrimage site for followers of these religions.

The architecture of the Ellora Caves is influenced by the three religions that it represents. Each of the caves was built by different dynasties and rulers, and they reflect the religious beliefs and artistic styles of those who built them.

The Hindu caves, such as the Kailasa Temple, are known for their grand scale and ornate carvings of gods and goddesses. The Kailasa Temple is particularly notable for its massive size and intricate carvings. The Buddhist caves, such as the Dasavatara and the Jagannath Temple, are known for their simplicity and focus on the teachings of Buddhism. The Buddhist caves also feature elaborate depictions of the life of the Buddha and scenes from his teachings. The Jain caves, such as the Rameshwara Temple, are known for their austere design and focus on Jain principles of non-violence and self-control.

The Ellora Caves are a great example of how religion has influenced art and architecture throughout history. Their existence illustrates the role architecture and design have played in representing religious beliefs in humans.

Faith in Design

Faith has played an integral role in the creation and promulgation of the most well known art, design and architecture through history. People can form a connection with faith inspired art and architecture even centuries later due to the consistent ideologies of religions. Art and design, in turn, acts as a means to propagate faith in multiple forms.

Hear more about the connection between faith and design from the head of design at Ideate at the fourth talk in the “Design & the World” series. The “Design & Faith” event takes place on January 19, 2023, at Daftarkhwan North. You can sign up for the talk here: