Biblical Studies Bible and Visual Art
Ian Boxall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0292


Visualization of biblical narratives and characters has a long and valued history, attested to both in Jewish synagogue art (e.g., Dura Europos from the 3rd century CE) and in early Christian catacomb and funerary art (See the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Biblical Studies article “Early Christian Art” by Robin Jensen and Lee Jefferson). Indeed, in many centuries, the visual has been the primary mode by which ordinary Christians engaged the Bible. The legitimacy of visual art has not been uncontested, whether in Judaism, given Mosaic strictures against images (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8), or in Christianity (e.g., the iconoclastic controversy in the East; Reformation debates over images in the West). Nonetheless, the dynamic relationship between biblical text and image is reflected in the work of artists across the centuries and into the modern period. Visual media include fresco, icon, altarpiece, sculpture, tapestry, and illumination. Much scholarly treatment of biblical art in the 19th and 20th centuries has come from art historians, whether through iconographic surveys or treatment of specific artists and artistic movements. More recently, an appreciation of visual art as scriptural exegesis (various described as “visual exegesis” and “graphic exegesis”) has been taken up by biblical scholars. This is part of a wider movement interested in biblical reception and Wirkungsgeschichte (“the history of effects” or “effective history”), which has encouraged interdisciplinary scholarship and dialogue between biblical exegetes, theologians, historians, and art historians. Global perspectives are gradually balancing the overemphasis on western European medieval and Renaissance art, while interfaith perspectives have renewed interest in Jewish art (ancient, medieval, and contemporary) and in biblical influence on Islamic art.

General Overviews

There are a growing number of introductions to the visualization of the Bible in art, primarily Christian art. Their specific content and focus reflects the interests of the authors or editors. Some introduce wider issues of aesthetics and theology in biblical art and religious art more broadly (e.g., Howes 2007). O’Kane 2008 provides a popular level survey of biblical art from early Christianity through to the modern period. Miles 1985 is also chronologically broad, but more demanding. This section also lists excellent and accessible introductions to biblical exegesis in specific time periods: Jensen 2000 covers early Christian art, Kidd 2014 discusses medieval Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and Usherwood 1987 offers a brief overview of 20th-century biblical art. Ouspensky and Lossky 1989 examines Orthodox iconography. Drury 1999, though prioritizing the collection of one specific art gallery, is surprisingly broad in its reach.

  • Drury, John. Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press/National Gallery Publications, 1999.

    A scholarly yet accessible treatment of the symbolism and theological significance of western Christian art by a biblical scholar and priest, in collaboration with the National Gallery of London. Despite its focus on the National Gallery’s collection, it is wide-ranging (covering paintings from Duccio to Cézanne, many with color illustrations) and offers detailed analysis of depictions of biblical scenes, mainly from the Gospels.

  • Howes, Graham. The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Art and Belief. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

    DOI: 10.5040/9780755604388

    Though broader than biblical art, this is an excellent introduction to both popular and “high” religious art, explored through four dimensions: the iconographic, didactic, institutional, and aesthetic. Howes examines a wide range of artworks within their changing cultural contexts, with particular strengths in Victorian and 20th-century art. Modestly illustrated (with 16 black-and-white plates).

  • Jensen, Robin Margaret. Understanding Early Christian Art. London: Routledge, 2000.

    An introduction to early Christian art and architecture, with black-and-white illustrations, by one of the leading scholars of early Christian art history. It lays out contested issues of interpreting early Christian iconography. Subsequent chapters examine early Christian art thematically, in dialogue with patristic authors: nonnarrative images, Old Testament typology, portraits of Christ, visualization of Christ’s Passion, and the Resurrection.

  • Kidd, Judith A. Behind the Image: Understanding the Old Testament in Medieval Art. Oxford and New York: Peter Lang, 2014.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-3-0353-0559-3

    A broad treatment of medieval Christian visualization of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, including in sculpture, wall painting, stained glass, liturgical objects, and illustrated Bibles such as the Biblia pauperum. Kidd provides a nuanced interpretation which examines the multiple meanings typical of medieval exegesis, and the problematic aspects of Christian portrayal of Jewish characters.

  • Miles, Margaret R. Image as Insight; Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1985.

    A stimulating study of the centrality of the image in the development of Christianity, including chapters on early Roman churches, images of women in 14th-century Italy (with explicit discussion of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene), the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, and images in contemporary culture. Includes twenty-two black-and-white plates.

  • O’Kane, Martin, ed. Imaging the Bible: An Introduction to Biblical Art. London: SPCK, 2008.

    An accessible introduction to biblical art and related hermeneutical questions, with both color and black-and-white illustrations. It includes brief introductions to specific periods of (predominantly Western) art history, from the early period through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to modern art, and a separate chapter on icons in the Byzantine tradition. The volume’s provenance in the University of Wales, Lampeter, explains the inclusion of Welsh-related case studies.

  • Ouspensky, Léonide, and Vladimir Lossky. The Meaning of Icons. 3d ed. Translated by G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989.

    A classic work on icons in the Russian Orthodox tradition. Introductory essays address the Orthodox understanding of tradition, the meaning and language of icons, and techniques of iconography. The main section comprises short commentaries on over fifty icons and icon types, many depicting biblical characters and Gospel scenes tied to the principal feasts of the Church. Well illustrated with line drawings, black-and-white images, and color plates.

  • Usherwood, Nicholas. The Bible in 20th Century Art. London: Pagoda, 1987.

    A brief introduction to the work of select modern artists who have engaged the Bible in their oeuvres, including Bacon, Chagall, Dali, Kokoschka, and Picasso.

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