Sacred Visions: The Bible as Artistic Inspiration

October 19, 2013 Updated: October 20, 2013

NEW YORK—Nineteenth Century art usually calls to mind wealthy industrialists’ portraits, powerfully emotive Romantic scenes, and dappled Impressionistic landscapes. Industrialization, urbanization, and the cultural reactions against them certainly defined the era, but as the Museum of Biblical Art’s newest exhibition would remind us, they did not eclipse the Bible as a lasting source of inspiration.

“In our shows, we have many artists, both Jewish and Christian, who still look to the Bible as the foundational source of subject matter,” said MOBIA’s associate curator Adrianne Rubin. 

The exhibit of approximately 30 works is on loan from the Dahesh Museum of Art, the country’s only institution dedicated to 19th and 20th century academic art from Europe. Since 2008 it has been a “museum without walls,” putting together exhibits for display at other venues while it holds lectures and events in its Soho gift shop. 

MOBIA’s new director, Richard P. Townsend, said that the museum has benefitted greatly from this arrangement, particularly when it comes to the Dahesh’s rich collection of religious art.

After the Image of God

If one believes that man was created after the image of God, it naturally follows that to pay proper homage to the divine, an academically trained artist must achieve accuracy in depicting the human form. 

“Drawing was at the core of this training, especially the human form,” said the Dahesh’s associate curator Alia Nour. “The Bible furnished these artists with dramatic episodes through which they could explore the human form.”

Academic artists considered depicting historical subjects—which included Biblical themes—a higher calling than any other subject categories, according to Nour. Accurate representation was paramount. 

“Students started by copying Renaissance paintings and then by copying plaster casts of antique sculpture,” said Nour. “When they master that, then they would go to life-drawing classes where they would copy the male nude.”

The Sacred and Changing Styles

Bookending the two ends of a stylistic evolution are two towering paintings: “Death of Moses,” 1851, by Alexandre Cabanel, and “Christ And The Children,” 1894, by Franck Kirchbach. 

Stand in the middle of the gallery and turn your head one way and you’ll see Cabanel’s expiring Moses being hoisted up by angels with candy-colored wings as God presides over the whole scene. It looks like it was lifted from an Italian fresco. 

Turn your head the other way and you’ll see Jesus sitting by a well, blessing children who cling adoringly to his white robe as an eager mother nudges a youngster toward him. A small crowd is watching this event fixedly as more arrive by donkey. This painting, measuring almost ten feet high, was rolled up in storage for 20 years, and only recently conserved for public view.

When Cabanel painted his Moses, he was 28 years old and a contender in the French Academy’s rigorous competition, the Prix de Rome. For the final round of this contest, students went into lockdown for 72 days to complete their works on the assigned subject. Cabanel wrote of how daunting it was to complete this painting, but ultimately came through with an honorable mention for the Renaissance-inspired piece.

In the forty-some-odd years between Cabanel’s Moses and Franck Kirchbach’s Christ, artists’ and patrons’ preferences in the depiction of holy subjects had changed.

When Realism took off in the latter part of the century, artists became concerned with developing a naturalistic and unidealized aesthetic, and the halos disappeared. The emotional effect of this humanizing is mixed—on the one hand, the divine impact is lessened; on the other, this type of depiction really brings home the idea that these were real life people who walked and suffered on this earth.

For this reason, it’s easy to become one of the children in Kirchbach’s painting, moved by the feeling that the savior could be in our midst.

In Other Events

Changes in artistic tastes were not the only developments this exhibit tracks. The French Revolution toppled the Catholic Church in 1798, but that didn’t stop the citizenry from demanding religious art. A section of the exhibit explores art commissioned for private homes.

For example, in Paul Delaroche’s 1820 painting “Lamentation,” the Virgin holds the lifeless Jesus draped over her lap, her eyes to the heavens, weeping. Directly opposite, Henri Lehmann’s 1854 “Adoration of the Magi” shows a charismatic baby Jesus grasping the Virgin’s breast with one tiny hand and a wise man’s forefinger with the other. You can almost hear the Magi cooing.

Meanwhile, throughout the 19th century, artists were traveling to the Middle East, and some Orientalist works inspired by journeys to the Holy Land illuminate this aspect of Biblical art. This section echoes the Dahesh’s spring exhibit “Encountering the Orient,” which exhibited at Christie’s auction house. 

Here we have Gustave Doré’s “Moses Before the Pharaoh,” which combines architectural precision and what must be partially invented costumes, reflecting the Egyptomania produced by Napoleon’s Egypt campaign. There are also James Tissot’s illustrated Bibles which depict the people he met in his 1880s travels to the Holy Land. 

In only 30 works, viewers can find several angles at which to learn about and appreciate art inspired by Biblical themes.


Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection
Oct. 18–Feb. 16, 2014
1865 Broadway at 61st Street 
212-408-1500; free