Depictions of God have a special place in the Western fine art canon of the past millennium. Many of the artists considered masters from the 14th to the 19th centuries specialized almost exclusively in painting the liturgy and scenes from the Bible. Today, modern paintings that portray God may still gain notoriety but only in a marginal way. The majority of the famous paintings of God are found in the great works of the European medieval, renaissance and enlightenment eras.
Prior to the 10th century, painted images of God were frowned upon, as representational images were considered blasphemous. In 700 A.D. or so, John of Damascus wrote, "If we attempt to make an image of the invisible God, this would be sinful indeed. It is impossible to portray one who is without body: invisible, un-circumscribed and without form." Some rulers even expressly forbade the veneration of religious icons in the Byzantine era from 330 to 1453 A.D. This was known as iconoclasm, which literally means image breaking.
Early artistic representations of the Creator were therefore tentative. Rarely was the entire figure of God portrayed; often just an eye, hand or face hovering near the top of the frame or intruding at the edges of the composition represented the Supreme Being. A good example of this is “A Christian Allegory” by Flemish artist Jan Provoost painted early in the 16th century. Provoost represented God as a large eye floating in a cloud high above Christ and his bride.
"The Ghent Altarpiece"
Belgian artist Jan van Eyck completed the massive "Ghent Altarpiece" in 1432. It was made expressly for the purposes of Christian worship for the Cathedral of Saint Bavo in Ghent, Belgium. In the painting, God is portrayed as a king in one of the largest of the twenty individual panels that make up the altarpiece. He sits enthroned between Jesus and Mary wearing red robes and a crown. At his feet sits another bejeweled crown that some scholars say represents the kingdom of God on earth.
"The Creation of Adam"
By the middle of the 16th century, many Italian, Spanish, Dutch and French artists freely included images of God in their paintings, although resistance to depictions of God continued in England and Russia. Without a doubt, the most famous image of God has to be Michelangelo’s, painted on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in 1511. "The Creation of Adam" forms a central part of the famous fresco with God’s outstretched finger delivering a spark of life to the first man. Michelangelo depicts God as older and white-bearded, reclining in the sky but supported by a band of angels. It is one of the most replicated images in the history of art.
William Blake’s "Ancient of Days"
"Ancient of Days" is a name for God taken from the words of the prophet Daniel in the Bible. It is also the name of a painting made by poet William Blake to illustrate the 1794 book "Europe a Prophecy." In Blake's complex mythology, this figure is also known as Urizen -- the embodiment of reason. But Blake's painting has come to signify the familiar God of the Old Testament. With his white hair and beard, crouched within a disk of light and with bolts of energy shooting from his hand, this representation is God as the wise Creator of all things, the Architect of the Universe.
Margot Callahan has Bachelor of Arts degrees in philosophy and film studies. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as the "Toronto Star" and "Toronto Life Fashion" since 1991, in addition to producing and directing documentary films.