When we think of Christian art, the first scenes that come to mind are usually crucifixions, or nativities, or last suppers, or maybe last judgements. If we're particularly astute, maybe we might include in our recall an ascension, or a good shepherd, or a specific painting such as Christ in Gethsemane or the symbolic depiction of Him knocking at a door. Every one of these mindful examples centres upon the figure of Jesus Christ. Aside from the Genesis blockbuster on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we very rarely bring to mind anything else. Yet artists over the years have probed just about every major and minor episode in both biblical testaments for their subject matter. It's just that Christ invariable dominates the genre, which perhaps is the way it should be. Yet beyond Christ, even beyond biblical art, there is a vast body of religious art having to do with the lives and legends of those pious men and women whose examples of spiritual enlightenment and sanctification have inspired artists going as far back as the development of the technical skills needed in rendering them would allow.
One of the best examples of this type of work is Giovanni Bellini's 1480 St. Francis in the Desert. The Venetian painter depicts St. Francis emerging from his surprisingly domesticated "cave" after having received the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ) to a heavenly light source, while behind him are the carefully crafted rudiments of an arbored study complete with medieval study desk, a Bible, and seat. Despite the title, there is not much in the way of desert here. A donkey grazes in the middle ground pasture while beyond that are the walls of a city where St. Francis preached to the urban poor. Even before this work, dating from about 1445, we find Domenico Veneziano's St. John in the Desert. While technically a biblical depiction, the nude figure of the saint, as he strips himself of his worldly possessions in exchange for a single camel hair shirt, is one of spiritual solitude, more severe than St. Francis' relatively luxurious habitat, but no less compelling. The physique of St. John is athletically beautiful and quite natural for its time. Only the inclusion of the halo and the stylised desert landscape tends to relate this work more to Medieval than Renaissance art.
In the same vein as Bellini's St. Francis, Gian Girolamo Salvoldo depicts an aged St. Jerome in the Desert, kneeling before a natural altar, his eyes fixed on a crucifix, while before him is an open Bible. In his right hand he holds a stone used to inflict pain upon himself as penance in hopes of achieving a closer identification with Christ. St. Jerome is best known for having translated the Bible from Hebrew to Latin. It is a work of more profound spiritual expression than any of the others. But it wasn't just men who sought spiritual solitude as seen through the eyes of artists. According to the Golden Legend, St. Mary Magdalene, supposedly a former prostitute, retreated to the desert following the crucifixion and, in a manner spiritually not unlike John the Baptist, surrendered her physical beauty in penitence for a haggard old age. The French painter, Georges de la Tour depicts her as she contemplates her retreat in The Penitent Magdalene (1684) sitting at her dressing table, long hair over her back, a skull in her lap, peering at a candle reflected in a mirror. It's a painting as much a vanitas still life as it is a religious work as she contemplates her own life and death.
And even today, this theme of spiritual retreat and isolation continues to intrigue artists. The American artist Bill Viola in 1983 created a multimedia work entitled Room for St. John of the Cross in which he constructed a brightly lit, uninhabited cabin in a darkened room. Inside, as seen through a single window, he furnishes his symbolic monk's cell with a desk, a small television, a pitcher of water, and a glass. Behind his solitary structure is the backlit image of rugged remote mountains. An audio track plays the sound of the rushing wind. The work depicts the spiritual isolation of St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century mystic and author of The Dark Night of the Soul. This work employs all the latest technologic media and materials yet seeks to explore conceptually a spiritual/religious realm outside of biblical lore in much the same manner as those of Savoldo, Bellini, la Tour, and Veneziano. Viola's work depicts a movement beyond mere biblical illustration, or even saintly examples, toward a spiritual enlightenment that, despite its ancient roots, seeks to form a new core of modern religious art.