Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Fall of Man (1530)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Lucas Cranach, the father of Lucas Cranach the Younger (naturally!), was a celebrated painter in his time. He worked in the Catholic tradition until he came under the influence of Martin Luther’s teaching and embraced it with enthusiasm. In time Cranach and Luther became great friends, with Cranach becoming the godfather of Luther’s first son. He also painted perhaps the most famous portrait of Luther known today.
This painting, The Fall of Man, was clearly created as a teaching device. It tells the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their instructions from God regarding their life in the beautiful garden, and their eventual Fall. Toward the upper left side of the painting we see them hiding from God behind some bushes, and further left, being cast out of the garden by the angel.
William Blake, Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve (1808)
(Illustration to Paradise Lost)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
William Blake was one of the most noted illustrators of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the book from which this watercolor is taken. Both a visual artist and poet, he had radical ideas about religion and strongly rejected orthodox Christianity. In this illustration, Blake conveys that it is Adam and Eve’s physical intimacy and love that draw Satan’s attention. Then, as now, the Tempter knows that marital love and intimacy uniquely and powerfully reflect something divine and holy, and he will do all he can to disrupt it.
Tommaso Masaccio, Adam and Eve Banished from Paradise (1427)
Brancacci Chapel, Florence Italy
An early Italian Renaissance artist, Masaccio lived a very short twenty-seven years. But he impacted the art world significantly in that time, serving as a major influence on Michelangelo. This heart-wrenching scene is a fresco on a column in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, powerfully emphasizing the agony Adam and Eve experienced in their banishment from the paradise God had created for them. Adam hides his face in devastating shame, while Eve’s face, with its dark, sunken eyes and wailing mouth, is a picture of anguish. Her arms endeavor to cover her nakedness. It is doubtful there is another artist who conveys the impact of the Fall and our banishment from God’s presence with more vivid and moving pathos than Masaccio does here.
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1427
Museo del Prado, Madrid
Fra Angelico was a talented painter of the early Italian Renaissance, creating biblical scenes for cathedrals almost exclusively. This wonderful piece brings two very important and consequential events together, with the second being a response to the first. The left side of the painting depicts Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden after their disobedience. But the main action of the work is the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she will give birth to God’s Son. The baby in her womb, which the Bible describes as the second Adam, would be the Savior of the world. The painting encapsulates what we read in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (I Cor. 15:22). There is also a contrast between Eve’s disobedience and Mary’s obedience.
Angelico created this painting as a sermon about the natural state of mankind and the supernatural means by which God provided for our salvation.
*NOTE: Before clicking either one of the links below, please be aware that some of the classic and Christian art discussed here contains depictions of nudity, violence, and other subjects that some readers may find troubling. In addition, a variety of Christian traditions are represented, including Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.
Andrea Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ or The Dead Christ (1480)
Joos van Cleve, Holy Family (1520)
Gnosticism and the Importance of the Flesh
As discussed in the companion book The Family Project: How God’s Design Reveals His Best for You, the fact that God “became flesh” is a very big deal. This profound truth spurred much theological debate over the first millennium of the Church, rooting out the heresies of Gnosticism (the idea that the spirit is more important than the physical world) and Docetism (the belief that Christ only appeared to be flesh during His time on earth because God could never actually lower Himself to become human). Of course, both of these heresies denied who Christ actually was. Gnosticism and Docetism were challenged not only through the teaching of the church fathers, but in works of art emphasizing the physical reality of the incarnate Christ. This artistic instruction continued into the Middle Ages. One of the most dramatic of these presentations is Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ or The Dead Christ (1480).
Note Mantegna’s prominent presentation of the Savior’s nail-pierced hands and feet. He frames Christ at a curious and unique angle emphasizing His physicality and humanity. This happens not only with regard to His hands and feet, but—as uncomfortable as this might make us—with regard to the presentation of His genitalia at the center of the painting. From this point our eyes are drawn up to the Savior’s precious and human face. This is a very deliberate move on the artist’s part. But Mantegna is not being disrespectful or provocative. He is boldly telling us that Jesus was a human male in every respect, right down to the physical details.
A similar emphasis on the physical can be seen in Joos van Cleve’s Holy Family. Here we see Christ at the beginning of His life, suckling at his mother’s breast. Perhaps startling at first, this beautiful image shows the Christ child satisfying his basic human need for sustenance, intimacy and tenderness—just like any human child. Like Mantegna’s painting, there is also a suggestion of Christ’s male physicality. The cross on the prayer chain is strategically positioned to emphasize His human and divine natures.
John Rogers Herbert, Our Savior Subject to His Parents at Nazareth (1847)
Guildhall Art Gallery
Herbert was an English mid-Victorian painter who believed his purpose as an artist was to communicate God’s truths. This is a rare work in that it doesn’t portray Christ in a known biblical story. Rather, the artist envisions what it must have been like for Jesus as He simply lived His life as a dutiful son to His earthly parents, performing the same household chores that were expected of everyone. Consider that Jesus—God Himself—did such things for decades before beginning His public ministry. This is a statement of the divine nature of such seemingly humdrum work. If God is happy and content to do it, it is holy.