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image - menorah from Kennicott Bible
image - Initial with Christ in Glory,
image - head of Vishnu
image - Buddha from Bodhgaya

Art & The Religious Context

Every religion has its own approach to art. A comparison between different traditions can offer an illuminating insight into the varying religious outlooks and theologies.


Jewish attitude to figurative art is influenced by the Third Commandment, which prohibits the making of graven images. During the Biblical period this meant that no free-standing sculpture or figurative image was found in a religious context, but figural art was employed for secular purposes. Only at this time did Jewish art flourish as the expression of a religious and political unit. After the Diaspora Jewish communities largely adopted and adapted the art of the pagan, Muslim or Christian societies of which they became part, and their achievements are to be searched out in those civilizations.


In Islamic religious art there is also an aversion to figural representation, except in contemporary Shi'ism. Figural art does exist in the general cultural environment of the lands where Islam is the dominant faith. However, it is virtually never used in an orthodox religious building, and certainly not in the context of the Qur'an. Instead, Arabic calligraphy developed as an art form both to communicate and symbolise faith, together with patterns and designs based on geometry and the arabesque.


The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation led to a very different approach to religious art. Despite the Jewish origin of the Christian faith, the human form of the Son of God was essential to Christian belief and its representation became established in early Christian art. Different iconoclast movements never managed to destroy this focus, and it remains central to most religious art in both eastern and western Christianity.

Indian Religions

Hindu art in general focuses even more on the figural. Hindu temples are alive with sculptures depicting deities in their different incarnations and illustrate the myths in which they act out their cosmic and earthly roles. A more striking contrast to the aniconic emphasis of Judaism and Islam is difficult to imagine. A further significant distinction from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the importance given to a female aspect of divinity, an essential component of a cosmic dualism based on complementary opposition.

Buddhism also generally relies on figural representation, although Mahayana Buddhism often uses aniconic symbols to evoke the Buddha. The life of the Buddha was depicted in sculptural reliefs from earliest times, while images of the Buddha provide the focus of worship for millions of his followers today. Like Buddhism, Jainism denies the existence of a creator god, and in its purest form its worship concentrates on images of naked jinas, or liberators. The Sikh religion focuses again on a holy book written in Gurmukhi script, the Guru Granth, which is the centre of worship.

image - Golden temple Amritsar


image - Islamic mosque lamp












image - Jain saviour